The D.C. mayor’s office has recently released proposals for reworking the decades-old neighborhood school enrollment boundary system. The proposal labeled most “radical” would move the school system away from neighborhood zones toward a geographically broader school assignment process.
Though only 25 percent of D.C. public schoolchildren attend their neighborhood school, the potential move away from neighborhood schools has been met with much resistance. Connected to the concerns about District enrollment boundaries is the issue of charter schools — which now serve nearly half of public school students — and whose doors are open to all students and whose seats are allocated by lottery rather than geographic assignment. The District’s broadening of enrollment boundaries and expansion of charter schools could both reduce the number of neighborhood schools.
The desire for neighborhood schools is understandable. The phrase itself conjures up images of tight-knit communities with shared values — communities where teachers bond with students, kids play with their friends from down the street, and there is shared responsibility for the neighborhood’s children.
Advocates, therefore, worry that communities would be weakened if students from across the city enrolled in neighborhood schools. They worry about long early-morning commutes. And they worry about predictability: In severing the connection between property and school enrollment, buying a house would no longer guarantee access to a nearby school.
As one parent said recently in The Post, “Predictability is much greater than choice in terms of importance. That way you can plan.”
These are all reasonable desires. But neighborhood schools also have costs. For much of our nation’s history, neighborhood schools have been bastions of exclusion, not inclusion. And this exclusion persists to this day.
For every child who gets preferred access to a neighborhood school, there are many other children denied access to this same school. What is inclusive for one set of students is exclusive for a much larger set.
Historically, having neighborhood schools kept black students from learning alongside white students; poor students from attending school with wealthy students; immigrant students from studying with native-born students — and the list goes on.
A city of neighborhood schools is a city that says where you live determines which schools you can attend. The implications are clear: Poor families will not have access to the schools of the wealthy. In this sense, predictability is code for “I want school choice based on my ability to buy a house rather than school choice based on an equitable process.”
So how to balance the competing tensions of community and equity? In New Orleans, where I previously worked, we built a citywide enrollment system in which schools serving students in kindergarten through eighth grade can reserve 50 percent of their available seats for students living in an attendance zone. The other 50 percent of seats are open to students across the city. For high schools, all seats are open to all students. Is this a perfect solution? Probably not. But it honors the fact that families value both choice and geographic proximity.
Over the coming years, D.C. residents will have to decide how public they want their public schools to be. Will the public system really be multiple systems — one for Southeast and another for Northwest? Will it be a system where children have equal rights to attend all schools? Or will it be something in between?
How these questions are answered will be related to whether political leaders are vocal about the connection between neighborhood schools and inequity — and whether they are willing to do anything about it.
The writer is the former chief executive of New Schools for New Orleans.