We both served on the Neighborhood Preference Task Force, which has just issued its final report. A parting gift of former D.C. Council chairman Kwame Brown, the task force was charged with recommending whether public charter schools should be required to grant an admissions preference to residents who live near them. Right now, charters are schools of choice and accept students from all over the District, while it is the responsibility of the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) to provide neighborhood schools. But as higher-performing charter schools in their wards become the preferred choice for parents, some on the D.C. Council want “their” charter schools to fill up with neighborhood kids.
The task force recommended against turning charters, which educate 43 percent of the District’s public school children, into neighborhood schools. This was the right decision; indeed, neighborhood preference is a distraction from the real challenge, which is how to expand the supply of high-quality opportunities for students to learn. A recent study commissioned by Mayor Vincent Gray’s administration estimated that, in spite of the success of charter schools, the District needs 39,000 more seats in quality public schools. How to get them is the question that should occupy us, not how, through neighborhood preferences or other means, to ration the inadequate number we have.
Early in its deliberations, the task force discovered that neighborhood preferences would deny educational opportunities to Ward 7 and 8 students, more than 5,000 of whom, faced with bleak opportunities in their home wards, travel across the river to enroll in charter schools.
Just how bad are the schools in those wards?
Consider that only one of the 39 DCPS schools in Wards 7 and 8 was above the average on the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System (DC CAS) test in 2012, compared with a third of the 25 public charter schools in those wards. Consider further that six of the 10 neighborhoods most in need of seats in quality schools are in Wards 7 and 8.
If these numbers don’t tell the story clearly enough, head over to the high-performing KIPP public charter school on Douglass Place in Ward 8. KIPP enrolls more than 1,000 students, 70 percent of whom score proficient or better on the DC CAS. Not surprisingly, the school’s waiting list is the same size as its enrollment. Now walk five minutes to Moten Elementary, a failing DCPS school with 150 empty seats and academic performance that is a shadow of Kipp’s, with only about 20 percent of its students proficient or better. Imposing a neighborhood-preference requirement on charters would drive Ward 7 and 8 kids back across the river, condemning them to schools like Moten.
It was not in the task force’s mandate to look at how the District could create more space in high-quality schools in Wards 7 and 8 and the rest of the District. That’s a shame, because there are two concrete steps we can take to accomplish this vital task.
First, we need to encourage and support the expansion of high-performing charter schools such as KIPP, Ward 6’s Two Rivers Public Charter School (with 1,300 students on its waiting list) and the equally high-flying Thurgood Marshall Academy in Ward 8.
Second, we need to make it easier for nationally recognized chains of charter schools to enter the District or to expand their enrollment here.
But there’s a problem. Successive city administrations have been reluctant to provide our charter schools with buildings that DCPS can no longer fill. And even when a building is made available, it can take two years or more for it to get through the disposition process. This makes no sense in a city so desperate for better public schools.
The District is about to miss another opportunity to create high-quality schools. Recently, it announced a plan to close 20 schools, almost half of them in Wards 7 and 8. But under the plan, hardly any of these buildings will go to charter schools. And the Gray administration appears to believe that charters that don’t offer a neighborhood preference should never get a public building.
Perhaps the task force report will cause the administration to change its mind. Our high-performing charter schools provide a quality education to District students without regard to where they live. Neighborhood preferences have nothing to do with creating more seats in quality schools and everything to do with reallocating them at the expense of our most underserved students. So let’s start talking about what really matters: how to provide a good public education for all D.C. kids.
The writers are, respectively, vice president of the American Institutes for Research and executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools.