Should charter schools give admissions preference to families who live nearby?

A D.C. task force convened Tuesday to begin studying that question, which has been made more urgent by the looming closure of an unknown number of traditional public schools.

The 12-member task force will issue recommendations to the D.C. Council in December for policies that could go into effect as soon as next school year.

But most of the group seemed resistant to establishing blanket admission preferences for neighborhood kids, expressing concern that such a change would end up shutting students from the poorest parts of the city out of high-performing schools across town.

The hardest-hit would most likely be Ward 8, which exports thousands of students to attend charter schools elsewhere in the District.

“I think there’s a higher obligation to make sure that options are available in the neediest areas,” said Shantelle Wright, founder of Achievement Prep Public Charter School in Ward 8. “There are children in my ward that we don’t necessarily offer a high-quality education, and I don’t think they should be blocked out because of where they live.”

Charter schools currently enroll kids from across the city, conducting lotteries if there is more demand than space available. That gives all students equal access to admission – but also means, given huge competition for the best charters, that families can be shut out of the school down the street.

That upsets some parents, and earlier this year, then-D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown wrote legislation requiring the task force to examine the issue. Brown is no longer around, but Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) — whose ward is home to several sought-after charters — remains a big booster for giving kids dibs on schools close to home.

Task force members seemed to lean instead Tuesday toward giving an admissions advantage to students whose schools have been shuttered. DCPS is expected to announce a round of school closures sometime this fall.

“I’m hearing something of a consensus, one thing we can all agree on,” said Brian Jones, chairman of the D.C. Public Charter School Board. “Preference makes some sense when we’re dealing with students in a facility that is closing.”

Others proposed giving admissions preference to students living in neighborhoods with the fewest “quality seats,” as identified by a controversial study released this year by Deputy Mayor for Education De’Shawn Wright. “Quality seats” were defined as those in schools where test scores were high or improving.

“If you’re a student and there’s a service gap, maybe you get a preference because you have that service gap, and you can go anywhere in the city,” said Scheherazade Salimi, a senior adviser to the deputy mayor.

Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, said he doubted that idea would fly with the council because it would end up making it harder, in well-served parts of the city, for kids to get into the charter school down the street.

“I don’t really think that’s politically sensible,” Cane said.

“I don’t know if it’s ‘not sensible’ as much as it’s a fight you’ve got to pick and have if it’s the right thing to do,” Salimi replied.

Some task force members expressed frustration Tuesday with what they said was a politically driven mandate that failed to address the root problem – a lack of enough good schools to meet demand.

“With neighborhood preference, we’re trying to figure out how to ration the good schools,”said Mark Schneider, vice president of the American Institutes for Research. “But the fact of the matter is there’s just not enough good seats to go around.”

Nathan Saunders, president of the Washington Teachers Union, challenged the working definition of “quality seats,” arguing that parents value schools according to more than test scores and enrollment numbers. Saunders urged the task force to “dig a little deeper” to learn more about why families send their kids to schools in other wards, and how neighborhood preference would affect those decisions.

New Orleans, Denver, Chicago and New York all have some sort of neighborhood preference for charter schools. The D.C. task force will consider those cities’ policies as it moves forward.

The task force will meet again in October and November and will take public testimony at future meetings.

Besides Wright, Cane, Jones, Salimi, Schneider and Saunders, identified above, the task force members are: Beverly Wheeler, designee of D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson; Jose Alvarez, Office of the State Superintendent of Education; Claudia Lujan, DCPS; Ramona Edelin, D.C. Association of Public Chartered Schools; Renita Thukral, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools; and Karen Dresden, Capital City Public Charter School.

This post has been updated to clarify that charter schools only conduct enrollment lotteries when there’s more demand than space available. It also originally reported that the next task force meeting is Oct. 18 at THEARC, but the date and time are being finalized.