Greater Greater Washington

Favoring local residents would undermine charter schools

Kwame Brown and Tommy Wells recently suggested that charter schools give special admission preference to families in the immediate neighborhood. While this may sound like a good idea at first, it would undermine the ability of many charters to be as successful as they are.


Photo by Elizabeth/Table4Five on Flickr.

The logic is this: if someone lives near a school, why shouldn't they be able to attend it? Isn't it good for kids to be able to walk to school? This makes sense for neighborhood schools, which are great for many reasons. But if applied to all charter schools, this would hurt their ability to serve all DC students.

Many charter schools were started to offer a unique curriculum or method of instruction, which is not otherwise available through DCPS. That very uniqueness means a charter school's appeal is not universal to all kids, nor is it neighborhood-specific.

Currently, charter schools by law must admit anyone who applies. If the grade in question has more applicants than seats, charters use a random lottery to determine which students get an offer of a seat. The only exceptions to the lottery are siblings and founders' children.

Neighborhood schools, by contrast, must accept all students living in their boundary first. Remaining spaces are filled through an out-of-boundary lottery, with preferences for siblings, and for families living nearby but outside the boundary.

Unlike neighborhood schools, charters have to struggle to find facilities as opposed to having the District buy and maintain them. This often forces charters to move or split into multiple campuses, where an elementary school feeds into a distant middle or high school.

Charters need families who are committed to the program, rather than just attending for the short commute. Otherwise, if the school moves or when a student graduates to another campus, many of those families will simply leave the school. Too much turnover interferes with building a successful school.

In addition, charters (or any school of choice) without attendance zones can help break the ugly patterns of race and class segregation that divide our city.

With only neighborhood schools, school segregation usually mirrors residential segregation. Open enrollment and a vigorous parent education campaign can help ensure that charters serve all families, including the District's most disadvantaged, regardless of home address.

Public school choice became popular in the late 1970s in places like Philadelphia and St. Louis, where people sought a voluntary alternative to forced busing as a way to reduce segregation. For example, the Minneapolis Public Schools created a vast array of school types to appeal to people in ways that would draw voluntary movement so that formerly segregated groups would mix.

DC now has that possibility too. When affluent families in Ward 3 and low-income families in Ward 7 both want to attend the same school in Ward 5 because its innovative curriculum, we should not stymie the families' efforts.

The only rationale for this policy is a non-educational one: minimizing commuting distance. Sure, we could save a lot of energy and kids' time if nobody had to commute more than a mile or two. It would help children's fitness and neighborhood cohesion if all students walked to school.

Educational excellence should trump these convenience factors. Even a long school commute within DC is around 5 or 6 miles, which is no farther than many typical suburban school commutes. And frankly, most families will voluntarily choose the shorter commutes and safe routes for their kids even without special preferences or government restrictions.

For those families willing to make that tradeoff because they feel so strongly about the quality of the school, they should have the opportunity, or at least the same opportunity as anyone else. (Chairman Brown, for example, drives his child from his home in Ward 7 to school in Ward 3).

One exception where neighborhood preference would make sense is if the charter school's mission involved serving a particular neighborhood, and that mission were made explicit in the charter. It would make sense to try to find a legal way to allow these schools to offer neighborhood preference.

Maybe DC wants a lot of charter schools with such missions. In that case, the District needs to work harder to help such schools locate permanently in the neighborhoods they seek to serve. If charter schools grow in number, this might very well become a priority of the Public Charter School Board, which authorizes new charter schools. Meanwhile, we can have both types of schools, neighborhood and specialty schools, under DCPS and the Charter School Board.

Steven Glazerman is an economist who studies education policy and specializes in teacher labor markets. He has lived in the DC area off and on since 1987 and settled in the U Street neighborhood in 2001. He is a co-founder of Washington Yu Ying public charter school and is a Senior Fellow at Mathematica Policy Research, but any of his views expressed here are his own and do not represent Yu Ying or Mathematica. 

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There are a lot of assumptions in this paragraph, and I'm not sure I agree with any of them.

"Charters need families who are committed to the program, rather than just attending for the short commute. Otherwise, if the school moves or when a student graduates to another campus, many of those families will simply leave the school. Too much turnover interferes with building a successful school."

For one, why is it assumed that families that live nearby (who may have applied to 8 charter schools all over the city) would be any less committed because they got into the charter nearest to their house? Shouldn't we be finding ways for families who want their children into a school near them to get into those nearby schools? Like, giving them preference?

by Steve D on Feb 21, 2012 3:17 pm • linkreport

While I see good reasons for neighborhood vs geographically unrestricted charters, the arguments presented here are contradictory or just wrong.

It's important to use charters as a way to integrate people from different wealth regions in D.C., but we should put them in places where parents need the spare time & car ownership to drive their kids to school?!?

Claiming the uniqueness of charter schools & parents' decisions to apply for them defies the reality of families applying to many schools & sending their kids to the best ones they get into.

"Charters need families who are committed to the program, rather than just attending for the short commute." You're seriously saying parents would be less committed to support a school just because it's near by?

"Too much turnover interferes with building a successful school." Charter schools kicking out a higher fraction of their students as has been recently reported, but aslo interferes with building a successful school. Right? Right?

You're also saying there's a problem with elementary schools & high schools not in the same location? How many K-12 schools exist in a single location or even within a square mile of each other anywhere in our region?

"Even a long school commute within DC is around 5 or 6 miles, which is no farther than many typical suburban school commutes." Really? Of the dozens of Montgomery county elementary schools, how many are more than even 3 miles... even with county sponsored bussing unlike for D.C. charters.

by Dan H on Feb 21, 2012 3:27 pm • linkreport

"Charters need families who are committed to the program, rather than just attending for the short commute."

As others have said, this is just a false assumption. To the extent that charter parents are likely to commit to any program, they are more likely to commit to one that is an integral part of their neighborhood.

"Even a long school commute within DC is around 5 or 6 miles, which is no farther than many typical suburban school commutes."
A 5-6 mile commute in a suburban area might take 15 minutes. In DC, it might take an hour.

I don't think we need a DCPS-wide policy that gives preference to walking-distance kids. I do think that the organizations who provide space to the schools should be able to require that the program serve the community before serving the entire city.

by Novanglus on Feb 21, 2012 3:37 pm • linkreport

I attended a community meeting on middle schools last night with Mr Wells. He eloquently described the resurgence of schools within Ward 6, and said that this was partly due to DC's "entrepreneurial school system".

In seeking to preserve good school seats for his constituents, Mr Wells proposed that preference be given to residents within the ward in the out-of-boundary lottery for DCPS schools.

This is a mistake because it partly converts the schools back to the old neighborhood school model. Also it undermines the strength of the system: parent freedom to move their kids where they think best.

Given his thinking on the matter, it is not surprising that Mr Wells proposed a similar idea for charters. For the reasons I gave above, this is a mistake.

by goldfish on Feb 21, 2012 3:40 pm • linkreport

I thought the whole point of charter schools was that they were supposed to be better schools, regardless of who went there.

Not only do I think charter schools should have to weight their admissions toward neighborhood kids—I think they should be cut out of the admissions process entirely, given their students entirely at random and told they must educate each and every last child they're given, just like the real schools do.

Then we could see if they'd sink or swim.

by James on Feb 21, 2012 4:09 pm • linkreport

It's also a pretty questionable assumption that charter schools are "successful," as you claim in the first paragraph. Every study I've seen found that charter schools are overwhelmingly either as successful or less successful than public schools, very rarely more successful, despite their ability to cherry-pick incoming students and to kick out the ones they don't want. So on balance it seems like they're taking money from public schools kids just to do a worse job.

by Joe on Feb 21, 2012 4:13 pm • linkreport

Some of DC's worst schools are actually charter schools (to be fair, so are some of its best). In fact, right now DC is in the process of revoking the charter of one school (IDEA Academy) because it is so bad, and this is not the first time. Not to mention, while the DCPS schools are often not the prettiest to look at, the facilities of some charter schools are downright atrocious, which should be one area they can improve without having to go through a big bureaucracy like DCPS.

by dcdriver on Feb 21, 2012 5:25 pm • linkreport

Basically, no blacks allowed in the Charter Schools. More of the same...

by local resident on Feb 21, 2012 6:20 pm • linkreport

James - Amen.

Charter schools already segregate. They take youth with parents who care and give them better opportunities. They turn public schools into a wasteland where the most motivated families have been removed. Ask any teacher if they see a difference between the performance of students with active parents or a student whose parents are not in contact. They do.

Steven knows this. As the founder of a charter school he needs the ability to select students who will make his school look good. Students whose parents will drive them across the city.

I'm not even going to get into the expulsion rate and disciplinary rates at charters vs. traditional public schools...

by Employment on Feb 21, 2012 8:17 pm • linkreport

They take youth with parents who care and give them better opportunities. They turn public schools into a wasteland where the most motivated families have been removed.

THat's completely wrong. THe parents and students would be perfectly happy to attend the non-charter public school if it provided them with the opportunities they needed. But it didn't, so they left. Those schools were already a wasteland when the parents chose the charter school.

I'm not even going to get into the expulsion rate and disciplinary rates at charters vs. traditional public schools...

Big shock that parents prefer a school that is interested in discipline vs. the one that's not.

by Tyro on Feb 22, 2012 8:10 am • linkreport

"THat's completely wrong. THe parents and students would be perfectly happy to attend the non-charter public school if it provided them with the opportunities they needed. But it didn't, so they left."

That's EXACTLY what I'm saying. The parents who had the wherewithal to take their kids and leave did. The ones left behind, the parents don't care/ aren't educated/ don't have the resources to leave. If we poured the same resources - both intellectual and financial - into public schools...

You totally miss my point about expulsion rates... charters have better scores because they simply kick out students who don't meet their standards. I agree, discipline matters. So, as long as you're fine segregating youth into "high performing" schools which contain all the supportive parents and "failing" schools, which contain kids expelled from charters and those with little/no home support, you should keep your current viewpoint!

by Employment on Feb 22, 2012 8:16 am • linkreport

Public school education SHOULD be high quality and accessible to all. But the reality is that is not the case in DC at the moment - because DCPS has been failing for so long. Perhaps there is a long term strategy that folks who are smarter than I can come up with to improve DCPS, but clearly it is not going to happen during my childrens' elementary years. So I do the best I can for my children by working hard to get them to a good charter school every day, volunteering at the school as time allows.
But, Employment, doing that for my own children is just about all that I can muster, as one who parents AND works full time. Are you seriously suggesting that because other parents are not motivated, that I should not have the opportunity to get the best education for my children that I can? What you are really saying is that motivated parents should settle for crappy schools because other parents can't be bothered? Wow, that's a downward social spiral in the making. . .
There is a difference in thought processes when one considers medium to long term education policy versus "how do i get the best education for my kids right now?"

by elizqueenmama on Feb 22, 2012 8:45 am • linkreport

Lots to respond to here, but I'll address the most ugly accusations first.

Charter schools do not cherry pick their students. In fact, charters are not allowed to pick their students at all. Admission is open with a lottery for over-enrolled grades.

Are there ways that unscrupulous charter schools can game this system? Yes. Activities like outreach, lottery and post-lottery procedures, where school leaders might try to influence the composition of the pool of applicants, are monitored by the PCSB. I would advocate for much stronger oversight to ensure the integrity of the process and guard against the usual concerns of individual schools failing to serve all families, because as a taxpayer and strong supporter of public education I share them too.

I can't speak for all charter schools. I can only talk about one school, Yu Ying, with any firsthand experience -- and even then I am *not* a spokesman for the school -- and say with confidence that the school is committed to serving anyone in the District. Yu Ying draws students from all 8 wards and 50% of its students are African American. I don't have the numbers, but a large proportion of the students are from the neighborhood in Ward 5.

But don't confuse the expectation of parental commitment to the school's particular offerings -- which is legitimate -- with discrimination on the basis of race, class, language, special need, or the ability to learn -- which are not legitimate bases for excluding children. Anyone can commit themselves to a school's curriculum.

Someone mentioned expulsions. This has been in the news lately because the rate of expulsions for charter schools is unusually high. I was horrified to learn about this myself. Officials are still gathering data, but it turns out this probably driven by one school, Friendship Academy, which has some serious explaining to do. Let's hope that any abuses are dealt with swiftly.

As to more subtle forms of selective attrition, I just don't see the evidence for it.

But those who claim that charter schools in DC segregate students or do not serve black students are just wrong. In fact, charter schools are disproportionately located in low-income communities. There are no charters in Ward 3. The only majority-white schools are DCPS schools. If we have a segregation problem, it's due to housing segregation. Charter schools, if anything, have the ability to undo some of that by providing other reasons (like common interests in the arts or in language immersion or International Baccalaureate) for people of different social and economic backgrounds to mix.

Next, I'll try to respond to questions raised about the actual topic of my post: whether residents have an inherent right to attend a charter school that is located near them (or that they move to).

by Steven Glazerman on Feb 22, 2012 8:48 am • linkreport

@elizqueenmama You have EVERY right to do exactly what you're doing. I don't blame or condemn you. In fact, I applaud you for doing what is right for your kids. At the same time, you exemplify what I'm trying to get across. You are the type of parent who advocates for your children. As more and more parents like you remove their kids from traditional public schools, who is left? We are creating a whole new form of segregation! Do I begrudge you that right? No, I don't. I simply wish everyone admitted what we're doing. You are doing what is best for your kids, but as you admit, it's probably what's not best for long term education reform.

As to the overall point of this article: if a charter school can succeed on it's own merits, why not give admission preference to local youth? I'm still confused and would love to have that explained. "Because I want my kids to go there" is, in my opinion, not a valid argument.

by Employment on Feb 22, 2012 9:00 am • linkreport

if a charter school can succeed on it's own merits, why not give admission preference to local youth?

Because that undermines the whole point of charter schools, that they serve students outside of the neighborhood. This is the counterbalance to housing segregation. You ever notice that ward 3 is far richer than the other wards? Why is it that the best DCPS schools are in ward 3?

by goldfish on Feb 22, 2012 9:18 am • linkreport

"Because that undermines the whole point of charter schools, that they serve students outside of the neighborhood."

I thought the whole point of charter schools was to offer a better education to youth? If you take charter advocates at their word, it does NOT matter where youth come from. They will all be equally successful. You could put every charter school in Ward 8, fill them with a 50/50 mix of Ward 8 residents and residents from every other ward, and they should be successful - right?

by Employment on Feb 22, 2012 9:22 am • linkreport

If it does not matter where they come from, then why give preference to neighbors? That turns charters back into neighborhood schools, the same as DCPS.

by goldfish on Feb 22, 2012 9:27 am • linkreport

You give preference to neighbors because it better serves the neighbors (by reducing commutes, strengthening community) and because it doesn't matter if the charter now has a large number of neighborhood students, because the charter will still provide its distinctive education services that are not dependent on getting students from other neighborhoods.

by DCster on Feb 22, 2012 9:33 am • linkreport

@DCster: you did not address my point, that it turns the charters back into DCPS-type schools. DCPS already has neighborhood schools; charters fills in were DCPS has failed.

by goldfish on Feb 22, 2012 9:35 am • linkreport

Back to our topic of whether neighborhood preferences would undermine charter schools...

I should have said this in my post, but if parents who live near charters are frustrated about the difficulty of getting in, then the solution is not to demand entry for their own child to the exclusion of others, but to demand that we expand and replicate the most popular programs so everyone has these opportunities.

Long wait lists and over-subscription are signs of excess demand. Since the schools are free (no tuition), there is no price mechanism to ration scarce resources, the natural response is for supply to expand.

Reading the first few comments in this thread I wondered if people have in their minds a scenario where a charter school moves to a poor neighborhood, decides it doesn't like the local population, and finds a way to market itself to the high-achievers, all of whom get in their limousines every morning for the 6-mile commute to school from Spring Valley, Georgetown, or Kalorama.

Now the reality. Charter schools are not granted a charter until they convince the PCSB that they are in this field to serve all students. If granted a charter, they then struggle to find a location. They get shut out of location after location after location, priced out by private developers, thwarted by city agencies or politicians who "claim" public property for their own interests, or DCPS which tenaciously holds on to unused space through creative means.

Finally, with time running out, they settle on a facility that will hold its students for a few years, with very little say over where in the city it is located. Knowing it will have to move, they want families that will move with them so they explain: This is not our permanent location. We cannot hold our full capacity (or "our lease is up in three years" or "the church needs its basement back"). If the school moves and families don't re-enroll, the school finds itself having to fill a non-entry grade, like grade 4, and the financial model, which depends on per pupil reimbursements, collapses and the rest of the school collapses. Unlike DCPS, which gets annual bailouts from the Council, Charters are not "too big to fail." (14 charters have been closed already).

Despite the challenges, families recognize that a charter offers something they cannot get anywhere else in the system. They are relieved that they don't have to move to take advantage of the school. Their kids carpool or ride a bus or bike to get to their school every day. For the more affluent families who can pick up and move, they stay in DC and continue supporting the District with income and property taxes and forge a strong bond with their communities, defined more broadly than a single neighborhood.

Suddenly people notice the school and are impressed by what the school is accomplishing, the energy of the parent community, the quality and commitment of the staff, or whatever. Now it is oversubscribed. The building only holds so many people. People want to buy their way into the school by buying property in its catchment area, so they lobby for neighborhood preferences.

If neighborhood preferences are passed, charters find themselves locked into an even tighter real estate market or must risk the downward spiral of a move and starting over with a new student population. Or they will be more constrained about where they initially locate. Or they will simply bid up the surrounding property values and become elite schools, attended by those who can afford to buy into the neighborhood.

So, once again, neighborhood schools are wonderful. We need lots of them and we need to invest in them and find ways to ensure their excellence. They strengthen communities. But specialty schools, like Hospitality High or arts-based curricula or Cesar Chavez public policy school or language immersion schools, are critical elements in the District's education portfolio and we simply don't have enough of them nor would it be efficient to put one of each in every neighborhood. We should expand and replicate the successful ones, help the struggling ones improve, and close those that ultimately can't serve their kids adequately.

We must see the disastrous consequences of what seem like logical policies on their face, but don't make sense for DC.

by Steven Glazerman on Feb 22, 2012 9:36 am • linkreport

Sorry for the long replies to commenters. I'm not good at brevity.

I think all of Employment's arguments can be summarized as "I don't trust parents to decide what's best for their kids." There, we'll just have to disagree.

I have to take issue with @elizqueenmama's blanket statements about DCPS "failing." There are many excellent DCPS schools and the system has been improving. It will take a lot of work and school-by-school vigilance, but I'm optimistic about the future of DCPS.

by Steven Glazerman on Feb 22, 2012 9:44 am • linkreport

Seriously? "I think all of Employment's arguments can be summarized as "I don't trust parents to decide what's best for their kids." There, we'll just have to disagree."

Seriously? That's the kind of statement of someone who cannot argue valid points. I expect better of contributors to this site.

As I said to elizqueenmama: she and many other parents DO indeed, make the right choice for their children. I worry about the children whose parents cannot or do not advocate for them.

You want to talk statistics? It's "great" that your population is 50% Af-Am. Congrats. How does that compare to DCPS? It's significantly lower. Does that happen randomly? Of course it does! Except, you're not accounting for selection bias. Who are the lottery participants? Parents who advocate for their youth. Is their a disproportionally higher number of higher-income, non-minority youth who are entered in the lottery by their parents? YES!

I'm sorry that I'm not as simplistic as "I'm right and you're wrong." I don't think you're trying to make a simplistic argument either, but I think there is bias in your argument that you refuse or cannot refute with facts.

by Employment on Feb 22, 2012 9:52 am • linkreport

Charter schools do not cherry pick their students. In fact, charters are not allowed to pick their students at all. Admission is open with a lottery for over-enrolled grades.

A lot of arguments here, but I just want to respond to this, since technically it's correct, but misses the more subtle forces at work.

First, there's a self-selection bias that occurs when it comes to parents entering the lottery for a given school. This isn't just a matter parents who are the most motivated, informed, and educated tending to select charters--although that's a big part of it. There's a process of social self-selection that goes on as well. Charters like KIPP and Ceasar Chavez are charter schools that market specifically to serving low-income and at-risk kids. If there were more than a couple of middle-class kids at either I'd be surprised. Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, there are charters whose model will tend to attract middle- and upper middle-class kids, and not be as attractive to the parents of poor and working class kids, just as a matter of cultural biases. Maybe I'm being cynical, but I can imagine a situation where your average working poor mother (with very little time to research public school options) might not even consider a Chinese immersion school for her kid. Imagine the scenario of a nascent Hebrew charter school. Give parents of at-risk kids in DC the option of sending their kids there, or to KIPP, (or worse yet, some explicitly Afrocentric PCS, which tend to do uniformly poorly) and you're going to tell me there's no socioeconomic self-sorting going on there?

Or take the case of a kid who has a history of behavioral problems, and is completely disruptive to his classmates. The likelihood is that he'll stay at his local DCPS school unless his parents are very involved. And in that case, he's likely to go someplace like Options PCS, not Two Rivers, or Yu Ying. Either way, the "top" charters benefit from self-selection on the way in--and relaxed discipline guidelines on the way out.

So charters cherry-pick both "coming and going" in the sense that they first leverage self-selection bias that precedes the lottery, then are able to take advantage of more lax requirements when it comes to expulsions. And the numbers on expulsions are eye-popping.

Frankly, given these non-pedagogical advantages that DC charters have, it's stunning that they don't have significantly better outcomes than DCPS.

(Full Disclosure: I'm a happy DPCS elementary school parent, but could very well see jumping ship to a charter before the mess that is middle school. I've got friends with kids in charters, and am happy for them. But think it's important to be clear-eyed about this issue.)

by oboe on Feb 22, 2012 10:04 am • linkreport

But don't confuse the expectation of parental commitment to the school's particular offerings -- which is legitimate -- with discrimination on the basis of race, class, language, special need, or the ability to learn -- which are not legitimate bases for excluding children. Anyone can commit themselves to a school's curriculum.

Just want to suggest that, for the majority of parents at a place like Yu Ying, the commitment to Chinese immersion is subordinate to the desire to get into a school with a more desirable cohort than in their local DCPS school. Almost every parent I know who applied to charters did so based on demographics, followed by location. In other words, they applied to Yu Ying, Two Rivers, EL Haynes. "Chinese immersion" is largely a signaling mechanism designed to generate this self-selection noted above.

There are other charter schools that do the same thing: http://rootspcs.org.

by oboe on Feb 22, 2012 10:34 am • linkreport

Almost every parent I know who applied to charters did so based on demographics, followed by location.

Problem with this is (1) it is unsubstantiated; and (2) it is a sneaky accusation of bias or prejudice against all charter parents. Charter parent: "I sent my kids to X charter because I did not like the dumb and disruptive kids in my neighborhood school." Or worse: "I sent my kids to Y charter because I did not want my kids to sit next to poor blacks."

No. Presently I am shopping for middle schools and the demographics are not on my list for consideration. What I am looking at, intensively, is the educational program and its success, and how that fits in with my kids needs. (The commute is, of course, a primary consideration -- a good school is of no use if we cannot get there in a reasonable time.)

If a neighborhood school has a problem with classroom disruption and discipline, that is a reflection of the school, not on demographics.

by goldfish on Feb 22, 2012 11:20 am • linkreport

Neighborhood preference would undermine charter schools politically. If they were seen as a means of creating neighborhood schools for upper middle class whites in the city, political support for them would dry up, and the city council would crack down on them.

What people like "Employment" have to grapple with is that fact that you simply need to create an outlet in the school system to service the middle class and upper middle class, because they have a choice whether to participate in the school system and whether or not to remain in DC itself. If their only option is to attend a poor quality DC public school, if they don't have an alternative and can't afford private school tuition, they will pick up and move to Fairfax or Montgomery County.

by JustMe on Feb 22, 2012 11:57 am • linkreport

This entire article is based on the shaky, if not ever-more bankrupt, premise that charter schools, pretty much in and of themselves, will constitute something close to a silver bullet that will slay the vampire of marginal and low-quality urban public education.

My wife has worked in DC Public Schools for a quarter century now (and no: she is NOT a teacher). She has, in effect, had to do double duty in her profession—once providing services in the regular DCPS system and again making up for structural shortcomings in some DC public charter schools. So I have had a frontline trench eye's view of just how ineffective charter schools have been, in general but particularly right here in DC.

Before anyone reading this column and these comments gets too wrapped around the axle I would recommend Dr Diane Ravitch's book "The Death and Life of the Great American School System."

Ravitch was, so to speak, the high priestess of, among other things, the public charter school movement when it first appeared in the late 1980s. I am old enough to remember that, back then, it was touted as almost a miracle cure to all of the structural, historical and long-running problems that have plagued US urban public education since suburban flight became the demographic norm and an urban public policy fact of life in this country in the mid- to late-1950s.

While allowing that Wednesday's worst saint is always Tuesday's reformed sinner, I would nevertheless submit her core argument about charter schools, at least insofar as they are still being put about as a low(er) cost alternative to digging into the complex of long-standing socio-economic contributors to what really makes urban public education such a daunting problem to truly solve today.

I confess to not having seen the absolute latest results but, as far as I have ascertained to date and to the extent that test results tell us anything consequential about measuring progress in our schools, very few, if any, DC public charter schools even attain the same performance levels as comparable regular DC public schools.

Which, to me, begs the core question: even if every child whose parents placed her in a DC public charter school was 'bettered,' however you define that word, by being out of the regular DC public school system, what then?

By definition NO public charter school system can accommodate, and, therefore, solve the most intractable educational challenges confronting, every public school child who otherwise should be in such a system. Never mind that, charter school officials and proponents' protestations to the contrary (and we now have audio tapes of some charter school officials openly stating what was always suspected if not known), public charter schools cherry pick their student bodies just as their private charter and private conventional school peers always did.

With the inevitable result that, as with charter schools' policy kissing cousin private school vouchers, all that happens is that the regular public school system, here or anywhere else in early 21st century urban (and first-tier suburban) America, end up having to do more with less to educate a student body that has been culled, almost literally, to those who cannot (or cannot afford to) get out.

What this amounts to is a situation where public education, isn't. Or, rather, will not be unless and until each and every one of us understands that the most important "public commons" that this society has collective responsibility for is the care, attention and education of those who will still be here when you and I are gone. Not the 25% or the 35% or the 50% or even the 75% of those: all of them.

One public institution or the other will have to be up to the task of accommodating All Those Left Behind, so to speak. It can be the public schools. Or it can be the joint.
That is the only choice we have on this one, like it or not.

Harold E. Foster
Petworth
Ward 4
DC

by Harold Foster on Feb 22, 2012 12:03 pm • linkreport

No. Presently I am shopping for middle schools and the demographics are not on my list for consideration. What I am looking at, intensively, is the educational program and its success, and how that fits in with my kids needs. (The commute is, of course, a primary consideration -- a good school is of no use if we cannot get there in a reasonable time.)

Look, I agree with you. On the one hand, what's important is the quality of education. But the reality of DC is that these demographic forces are at play. And it makes no sense to ignore them. It smacks of "I don't see color". With very few exceptions in DC, "educational program and its success" maps directly to having a very large cohort of middle-class families.

Constrain this with what "fits your kids needs" and you eliminate the one or two successful non-poor outliers: if you're middle-class (black or white) your kid won't be going to KIPP.

If a neighborhood school has a problem with classroom disruption and discipline, that is a reflection of the school, not on demographics.

It's both. A school in a very wealthy neighborhood that is popular enough with in-boundary families to not have open OOB slots is not going to have a problem with classroom disruption and discipline. Period.

A school whose charter allows it to kick out students for minor infractions won't either.

A school that is forced to take any neighborhood kid, in an extremely poor neighborhood, and which has a restrictive expulsion rules almost certainly will.

by oboe on Feb 22, 2012 12:16 pm • linkreport

A school in a very wealthy neighborhood that is popular enough with in-boundary families to not have open OOB slots is not going to have a problem with classroom disruption and discipline.

Upthread there was an accusation that charters steer their applicants to fit their demographics. I have no doubt that this occurs, even though I have never seen it. Point here is that I do have personal knowledge of a high quality DCPS neighborhood school that steers its applicants, to eliminate less desirable students.

It works on both sides.

by goldfish on Feb 22, 2012 12:25 pm • linkreport

If a main concern was geographic segregation leading to economic segregation of schools, the simple solution isn't a parallel charter system, it's bussing. I know bussing to increase integration is a wild and crazy idea that you have to travel as far as Montgomery County to see in action. Charter schools are a grossly inefficient integration tool.

Steven Glazerman's argument is still based on the idea that most people attending a specific charter school have completely bought in to the educational model of that specific school. It's true for some families, but I'm sure the vast majority would send their kids to the most convenient good school they can find. Even with the current system, what percent of families will follow a school that moves more than a mile? I'd be shocked if it's more than 50%.

Also, perhaps for some middle/upper class families the charter system keeps them in the district, but the insanity of charter lotteries & moving schools with little track record will still make the system a whole lot less pleasant than MD or VA. If someone has a choice of living in DC vs VA or MD and non-private schools are a major factor, there's nothing in the remotely near future that puts DC even close to par and there's little evidence the charter explosion is helping. I can't speak for everyone, but I had to made this choice and I chose Maryland.

by Dan on Feb 22, 2012 12:33 pm • linkreport

@goldfish:

One more thing: I was also at the Ward 6 middle-school meeting last night. One of the things that came through loud and clear was that parents were not going to be sending their kid to Eliot-Hine unless the "school culture" was up to par. What does that mean? The few participants who had met her seemed to think that the EH principal was impressive. The facility showed promise. No reason to question the quality of the teachers.

So what's left? It's not about "the school" per se. It's almost entirely about the socioeconomic cohort. We can dress that up however we like, but it is what it is. The success of best charters is that they've largely managed to resolve this dilemma without talking about it.

I'm sure Yu Ying has a great curriculum, dedicated teachers and leadership, etc... But at the end of the day, it's an open-enrollment free DC public school that has a student body that's under 20% low income, and 14% asian, 28% white, and 47% black.

To put those numbers in perspective, they're very close to what you see in a successful neighborhood DCPS school. For example, Brent's boundaries are uniformly wealthy, and they've got 17% low income, 50% white, and 40% black.

If Yu Ying is successful, it's because it's managed to make itself a school choice that very, very few of DC's poor avail themselves of.

by oboe on Feb 22, 2012 12:35 pm • linkreport

@goldfish:

Upthread there was an accusation that charters steer their applicants to fit their demographics.

I don't think it's anything as blatant as that. To use my previous example, does Roots PCS "steer their applicants to fit their demographics"? I guess it revolves around what "steer" means. But at the end of the day, the school has 100% African American enrollment (and 83% low income).

Does Yu Ying? They've got 47% African American enrollment, and 20% low income.

Obviously, the answer to that is, "Oh, well, you know, different fit for different kids." Which cuts to the heart of what public education is supposed to be.

by oboe on Feb 22, 2012 12:41 pm • linkreport

There's another reason why it makes sense to allow a charter school to give some admission preference to neighborhood students -- how they are treated by zoning regulations. DCPS schools, unlike independent schools, can locate in residential zones as a matter of right and do not need a "special exception" from the BZA. The thinking is that, at least traditionally, DCPS schools draw their students from the immediate neighborhood and more kids walk, so no special exception is needed. Independent schools may draw from a wider area, with more students arriving by car, so there is more impact on the surrouding residential zone, which is considered in the special exception process. Charters are treated lilke DCPS schools, not like independent schools, for zoning purposes, even though like independent shcools they draw their students city-wide and a number arrive by car. By providing an admission preference for families in the immediate area, charters can still take advantage of a simplified location process, yet mitigate some of the impact of locating in a residential zone. It also builds stronger school-community bonds.

by Bob on Feb 22, 2012 12:51 pm • linkreport

The zoning code has what I consider to be a tremendous loophole, which wasn't an issue when it was written in the 1950's: schools are permitted, by matter-of-right, in residential zones. This makes sense for the location of public schools to which students can walk, and also for Catholic schools, which also drew from geographically defined areas. But bring in the charters, and all of a sudden you're drawing 4-year olds from all across the city to a location whose availability probably had something to do with its distance from Metro. (Read Yu Ying's charter: it was supposed to find a location near Metro and close to the downtown core; now they're about a mile away up a steep hill.) So by and large, you're either driving, or privileged enough so you can drop off a child and not worry about getting anywhere in a hurry in the morning.

This influx of student drop-off traffic, and the associated parking, is definitely a negative to the neighborhood. And as it stands, the school itself provides only this negative and no benefit to the neighborhood: local kids likely can't go there and any facilities (e.g. playgrounds) are likely gated and locked on the weekends.

(Stokes, another charter that has caused traffic headaches, is so oversubscribed that there is a wait-list for siblings; there is virtually no chance that families whose street is filled up with Stokes traffic could send their children there.)

Before being permitted to open, charters ought to be required to first have a transportation demand management analysis performed, including a "parking and traffic impact zone" and then give preference to the homes in that zone.

by thm on Feb 22, 2012 12:52 pm • linkreport

One public institution or the other will have to be up to the task of accommodating All Those Left Behind, so to speak. It can be the public schools.

A choice was made a long time ago to choose low-performing public schools that only the poorest of the poor would attend, because the rest would try to avoid it. There's little use complaining now about the fact that those who aren't the poorest of the poor want an alternative that's available NOW rather than something that will be ready a couple decades down the road. You can either choose a set of policies that are going to foster a vibrant middle class in the city, or not.

by JustMe on Feb 22, 2012 1:03 pm • linkreport

I guess it revolves around what "steer" means. But at the end of the day, the school has 100% African American enrollment (and 83% low income).
Go to a school open house, and you will catch plenty of "dog whistles" in the presentation. School X: "we keep the kids here until 6PM so they can do their homework." Single mother thinks that this is perfect, because it eliminates the aftercare expense and the demands on her to play homework cop. Well-to-do parent couple thinks this is bad because it kills any involvement with after school sports and activities. So yes, demographic self-selection is in play, but less because of nefarious influences and more because of the needs of the family.

What matters for me is the success of the program. If RootsPCS is working, producing well-educated kids that get into good high schools, then there is no reason to question it.

by goldfish on Feb 22, 2012 1:13 pm • linkreport

@Dan,

If a main concern was geographic segregation leading to economic segregation of schools, the simple solution isn't a parallel charter system, it's bussing. I know bussing to increase integration is a wild and crazy idea that you have to travel as far as Montgomery County to see in action.

You make a good point. The problem with education in DC in general is that we simply have too great a concentration of the region's poor children. (The legacy of centuries of racism, only starting to be addressed in the last 50 years.)

Busing works within a municipality, but only if by doing so you can achieve a healthy economic mix. But DC lacks enough middle class kids. With that in mind, I would like to make a modest proposal that we implement busing, but we extend it to take DC students out to Montgomery County and Fairfax County, and vice versa.

Since regional poverty is a regional issue, and we should all want to contribute to the solution, I'm sure we'll have no problem getting MD and VA on board with this proposal.

by oboe on Feb 22, 2012 1:18 pm • linkreport

@oboe,

I absolutely agree that the segregation in D.C. to MD/VA is a racist legacy in our area and the demographics of purely DCPS schools won't be the same as MCPS anytime in the near future. That said, Glazerman and others here are putting forward this strange argument that charter schools without neighborhood priorities are some magical desegregation device. They aren't both because the segregation crosses district borders and because the charter self-selection system is, at best, an flawed tool for integration. If charters can convince more middle/upper class families to move into the district, they have the potential to decrease the historical segregation, but I suspect the draw to DC based primarily on charters is already plateauing (Other things will keep drawing people to DC)

I would love real discussion on merged DC/MD/VA schooling and bussing. I think there are serious issues that might make it unworkable, but it should be considered. The core issues of who would be in charge & how money would be distributed go beyond NIMBYism to making sure there's a reliable & stable system with a clear chain of authority.

by Dan on Feb 22, 2012 1:40 pm • linkreport

So yes, demographic self-selection is in play, but less because of nefarious influences and more because of the needs of the family.

Or perceived needs. But the larger point is that a school administration can use those perceptions to leverage demographic profile they want. And in doing so exacerbate that self-selection bias.

Which raises other questions. At what point does this self-segregation become corrosive?

Just as an example, I heard a story about a DCPS elementary school that has been rapidly "gentrifying" over the last half decade or so. Several years ago, a new principal was brought in, and one of the first hiring decisions made was to retire some older african american teachers, and hire several (openly) gay teachers. This caused enough of a stir that several families pulled out of the school, presumably for religious reasons. If you're an administrator, and you're interested in improving test-scores, and generally attracting middle-class parents and alienating poor parents, you could do worse than to cement your reputation as a "gay-friendly" school. I agree with what you said previously, and am sure both charters and traditional schools do this to an extent.

What matters for me is the success of the program. If RootsPCS is working, producing well-educated kids that get into good high schools, then there is no reason to question it.

Say that if, at the end of the decade, all DC schoolkids are in charters. But all the poor kids happen to go to one set of schools, and all the middle-class kids go to another. Any problem with that? What if all the white kids go to one set of charters, and all the black kids to another? As long as the schools are producing well-educated kids that get into good high schools, is there any reason for qualms?

by oboe on Feb 22, 2012 1:41 pm • linkreport

More on Yu Ying (disclosure: I am also a Yu Ying parent): the school is relatively new, and @Dan I definitely think that that the "early adopters"--the ones whose children are now in 2nd-4th grade--by and large did "completely buy into the educational model" that if offers, in large part because until this past spring, there was tremendous uncertainty about where the school would be permanently located. And it does continue to draw heavily from families in which at least one parent is a Sinologist. But there are also families like mine, that wouldn't have considered it if it was, say, in Ward 3, because no matter what the educational program is like, I couldn't imagine making a commute like that work. And we also would have chosen one of the other "well-regarded" charters within 'reasonable' commuting distance, if they had offered us a spot.

@Oboe brings up the question of what public education is supposed to be, and while I have some sympathies for a "universal" model, I think that certainly once the regular public schools get into the magnet or specialized school business (e.g. Oyster-Adams), then there's nothing inherently more counterproductive about charters to an "everyone has good schools" model.

I do think that the present gulf between middle- and lower-class students is large enough that different strategies are appropriate. I believe that lower-class students can thrive in a middle-class dominated school, although this is mathematically impossible to achieve universally with a large lower-class population. There needs to be a critical mass of middle-class students in a school; I do not believe that middle-class students, in small numbers, will thrive in lower-class schools.

More personally: there is no way I would start my kid on an educational course that would leave him without Algebra by middle school and Calculus in high school.

Even if all the middle-class parents in my neighborhood did send their kids to their in-boundary DCPS school, there are too few in my son's grade, and those that are are scattered across several archaic attendance boundaries, to make a critical mass at this point.

In a sense, the charters as a sort of bridge, keeping the middle-class families in DC, which makes the neighborhood friendly to other middle-class families, such that there will be, one day, be enough middle-class kids of the right age and in the right boundaries to make a critical mass at a given school.

by thm on Feb 22, 2012 1:43 pm • linkreport

Say that if, at the end of the decade, all DC schoolkids are in charters. But all the poor kids happen to go to one set of schools, and all the middle-class kids go to another.

On the other hand, say all DC schoolkids went to DCPS schools that had essentially the same educational program, with identical demographic profiles, none of whom are testing proficient. I know which scenario I would go for.

Given the range of family backgrounds and differing demands placed on parents by their jobs, I think a range of educational options are needed.

What did you think of Mr. Wells's thoughts on DC's "entrepreneurial school system"? If that is were things are going -- which obviously, they are -- how can one expect the one-size-fits-all education to work for everybody?

by goldfish on Feb 22, 2012 2:48 pm • linkreport

"Imagine the scenario of a nascent Hebrew charter school. "

in NYC the Hebrew charter school gets lots of non-Jewish students, including non whites - apparently some combination of african american interest in the language of the old testament, and a belief on the part of many non Jewish parents that a "Jewish" school will have high academic standards.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/25/nyregion/25hebrew.html

"But as the school’s first year draws to a close, its classrooms are filled with a broad range of students, all seeming confident enough to jabber away as if they were elbowing their way down Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem. Perhaps surprisingly, the school has become one of the most racially mixed charter schools in the city. About a third of the 150 students are black, and several are Hispanic. "

"Aalim and Aalima are not Jewish. They worship at a mosque affiliated with the Nation of Islam. But at the Hebrew Language Academy, they fit right in. "

by AJewToday on Feb 22, 2012 3:03 pm • linkreport

@AJewToday,

Was going to write long-winded bloviating response, but I'll just say, the dynamics of the NYC Hebrew school you referenced sound very similar to Yu Ying: probably a core group of folks quite committed to the language/cultural immersion, but a larger group of parents who want to get into a decent school. Of course, there's a subset of parents who think "My kids aren't going to a Hebrew school!" and opt out, which acts as a kind of cultural filter.

by oboe on Feb 23, 2012 2:38 pm • linkreport

First off, I want to say this is a very good discussion.

Mr Glazerman's original post has a lot of holes which have been mentioned. However, his second comment (re)introduces the negative end result of neighborhood preference in charters and clarifies the issue for me.

"simply bid up the surrounding property values and become elite schools, attended by those who can afford to buy into the neighborhood"

For those concerned about charters gaming the system to passively select students (recruitment, dog whistling etc), adding a neighborhood selection will eventually make it a bit worse.

@ Mr Foster

"until each and every one of us understands that the most important "public commons" that this society has collective responsibility for is the care, attention and education of those who will still be here when you and I are gone. Not the 25% or the 35% or the 50% or even the 75% of those: all of them."

You are in some ways correct but putting that "understanding" into action is difficult for most people, myself included. The issue is to do this I must not put down just time/money but my children. I am willing to make some sacrifices but not so much with my children.

The charter system makes "public" schools a market place for everyone not just the better off middle classes that can move to Montgomery/Farifax or go Private.

In the end, if you give people a choice those that want and can do better generally will shop around until the find it. You can not stop it. The best approach I see is to try to give that power to more people with an more open system (what charter schools do) and work to help others take advantage of the more open system.

by LeeinDC on Feb 23, 2012 2:39 pm • linkreport

@oboe

My point was that even in a school with such an obvious cultural filter (clearly many people who advocate for hebrew charter schools, envision them as public funded alternatives to jewish day schools, for jewish parents who either A. Are secularists and prefer a jewish education without religious content or B. do prefer religious content, but find the econonomics of a free secular hebrew education combined with religious content provided in synagogue very enticing, compared to the cost of jewish day schools) STILL get a surprisingly diverse student body - not state funded segregation by religion and ethnicity.

of course they may not have the exact same mix of ethnicities is the general student body of a jurisdiction- the mix that each traditional public school would have IF there were no magnet or specialty public schools, and IF there was no de facto segregation by geography. and they are likely to self select for concerned parents. Whether the benefits they provide offset that negative, I am not sure. I just wanted to correct the possible belief that a Hebrew language charter school necessarily ends up with a 100% jewish student body.

by AJewToday on Feb 23, 2012 2:57 pm • linkreport

@AJewToday:

Right, exactly. The effect isn't large enough to ensure a 100% "core" student body, but it's significant enough that what would otherwise be a "typical" DC public school is massaged to be, demographically, a majority middle-class school.

Compare a well-regarded "generic" charter (EL Haynes), with an up-and-coming Capitol Hill DCPS school, and then to Yu Ying:

Name Race Low-Income
EL Haynes - 00/50/30/12 69%
Maury DCPS- 01/62/05/28 37%
YY - 14/47/05/28 20%

School - (Asian/Black/Hispanic/White) - Low Income %

EL Haynes and Yu Ying both have the same lottery procedure, etc, etc... But nearly 70% of Haynes' student body come from low-income households. Only 14% of YY students are Asian.

My guess is that a Hebrew charter in DC would look very similar to YY's demographics. That is to say, maybe 20% Jewish kids (the "core" demo, for lack of a better phrase), but with very low number of poor kids as well.

by oboe on Feb 23, 2012 4:01 pm • linkreport

Sorry, meant to add "only 14% of YY students are Asian, but only 20% of YY kids are low-income".

I don't mean this to be a critique of YY, by the way. These are all incredibly thorny issues, and I think it helps to explore them frankly.

by oboe on Feb 23, 2012 4:05 pm • linkreport

@oboe

1. how many DCPS schools are like Maury? Are there not many with demographics more like El Haynes, and some with demographics more like YY?

2. Actually I think a Hebrew Charter school would have more Jewish kids. There are private jewish day schools including one in the district (JPDS) - I know of no equivalent chinese language school. Indeed, I think the presence of a Hebrew language charter school would actually convince some Jewish families to stay in DC rather than move to MoCo or NoVa - saving 15 to 20k per year per kid can justify a lot of incremental spending on a house.

3. Perhaps more importantly, the experience of NYC suggests that in an urban setting, non Jewish constituency for Hebrew language education, both the "core" that wants Hebrew, and the others, will be mostly non-white - probably different from Chinese language, where there are many white folks in DC with a strong interest in the language, and not so many black or hispanic folks. Im not sure how many of the black kids at the hebrew lang school in NYC are poor.

by AJewToday on Feb 23, 2012 4:13 pm • linkreport

@AJewToday:

Aside from schools east of Rock Creek Park, and a few outliers on Capitol Hill, almost all of the DCPS schools have demographics similar to EL Haynes. But with fewer white kids. And higher low-income numbers.

For example, Kenilworth ES in Ward 7 has 98% Black, 2% Hispanic, and 0% White kids. 88% are low-income.

Ketcham ES in Ward 8 has 100% Black students; 83% are low-income.

Kimball ES in Ward 7 has 97% Black, 2% Hispanic, and 0% White kids. 84% are low-income.

As a comparison, one of the "good" elementary schools west of the Park is Key ES in Ward 3 which has 6% Asian, 7% Black, 10% Hispanic, 68% White. 7% are low-income.

A great reference:
http://www.greatschools.org/res/pdf/DC/DC_School_Chooser_2012-2013.pdf

by oboe on Feb 23, 2012 4:26 pm • linkreport

Interesting discussion. For what it's worth, I am Jewish and would have little interest in a Hebrew immersion school for my own kids.

Also, if I understand correctly, many of DC's heritage Chinese speakers do not speak Mandarin (the language used at Yu Ying), but are from Fujian or other parts of China where they speak a completely different dialect and might have little interest in learning in Mandarin at school.

Another thing about Yu Ying is that it's distinctiveness doesn't just come from Chinese immersion but from the International Baccalaureate's primary years program. This is an inquiry-driven model that differs quite markedly from many other schools in DC. Some kids thrive in an IB environment and others might prefer something more traditional.

by Steven Glazerman on Feb 23, 2012 5:35 pm • linkreport

Uhh, I'd say GGW needs to set some better frameworks for posts/editorial positions, unless it's all about "letting it all hang out" without having a specific editorial viewpoint that favors preferred urban policy outcomes.

The biggest problem with the charter schools--besides the fact that because they are decoupled from neighborhoods thus generating huge numbers of additional vehicle trips to take kids to school and pick them up after, during the rush periods--is that they eviscerate neighborhood schools. (I would think that creating additional vehicle trips is not a preferred smart growth policy.)

Now, I admit that charter schools can be a "solution" to declining public schools incapable of change, but the required action is to improve traditional schools by any means necessary, rather than destroying the value of school and civic assets by creating a competing school system. I would think that destroying the economic value of civic assets is not a preferred smart growth policy.

Neighborhood schools are anchors for neighborhoods. Neighborhoods are the basic building blocks for successful cities.

De-coupling schools from neighborhoods eliminates the one universal civic asset that typically is sited at the neighborhood level--after all, all neighborhoods don't have parks and libraries.

Destroying neighborhood schools is not a preferred smart growth policy.

So if you want to have charter schools and you want to have neighborhood schools, you need to develop a congruent policy to allow both.

That means having a neighborhood preference for charter school enrollment.

And it means that school systems (or charter school boards) should not be the only agencies making these decisions.

See http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2011/07/rethinking-community-planning-around.html

by Richard Layman on Feb 24, 2012 6:05 am • linkreport

Oops, I missed another "biggest problem" with charter schools, although Employment and Oboe have discussed it, but without using the term "social and community capital."

Oboe talks about self-selection and that's absolutely true. Charter schools and the voucher program skim off the most motivated parents and families, dissipating the social and community capital available to the traditional school system.

Don't get me wrong, I am the first to say that DCPS is a failure. My joke about this is that the reason that the schools are so bad is that is where local control/Home Rule started first, so they have had even more time than the rest of the government to get "fouled up."

But something is wrong in society when the primary response to something that doesn't work is "exit." Either exiting the city or exiting the traditional school system--both are bad.

The charter movement and vouchers provide more choice to the most motivated but help consign the rest of the population to dysfunction.

That shouldn't be an acceptable social policy either. It certainly shouldn't be considered a reasonable "smart growth" policy.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2004/mar/17/guardiansocietysupplement.publicservices

http://soc.sagepub.com/content/37/1/121.abstract
http://usj.sagepub.com/content/44/7/1191.abstract

http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2007/mar/13/schooladmissions.schools

by Richard Layman on Feb 24, 2012 6:22 am • linkreport

I am a big fan of Richard Layman's writing on transportation and urbanism, but I think he misses a few key points on specialty charter schools.

Schooling is not a homogeneous good. You can't just put one in every neighborhood and satisfy everyone's preferences. Children have different learning styles, even within the same family. Families have different preferences over an inquiry-based curriculum or a traditional mode of instruction, student-centered math like Investigations or teacher-directed math like Saxon Math or Singapore Math, language immersion or arts focus, vocational specialization or college preparation, high schools with great football practice fields or high schools with tricked out stages and music facilities, and so on. Ideally every school would meet every need, but that's just not possible in the short or even medium term.

Also, schools often have diseconomies of scale. It is very challenging to scale up even successful educational enterprises. It's not so easy replicating a good principal or my son's teacher who is native Chinese and just brilliant in the classroom at connecting with young children.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't try to replicate and scale up oversubscribed schools. If we did so -- and that would require a serious city commitment to finding facilities for successful school operators -- then we wouldn't have to debate neighborhood preferences because there would be no over-subscription at all.

But this is unrealistic in the short term, especially with the current policymakers' hollow support for charter school facilities. So you will have at least some schools that have no natural neighborhood. Trying to force a specialty school that is in rented space to become a neighborhood school is going to kill off specialty schools and we'll be left with cookie cutter schools of average (mediocre) quality.

Also, reducing unnecessary trips is good, but who are we to say what is unnecessary? We are willing to travel further for a good meal or to visit a friend. Why should we be so militaristic about commuting to good schools with a good school-child fit? One of the wonderful things about a densely settled city is that we should be able to have a rich portfolio of school options and it's no big deal to pass by four schools on the way to the one you prefer. Families already have a very strong built-in desire for short trips to school. Anybody with a four-year old knows this. Safety is paramount. We should not impose restrictions on attendance boundaries because we don't like parents' preferences/choices for their kids.

So this desire to limit transportation by legislation can be taken way too far. Carried to its logical extreme, we should all home-school our kids.

The other point I want to make is that having specialty schools in the city's education portfolio does not destroy neighborhoods. Yes, all things equal if we worked, slept, shopped, and dined in the same five-block radius then we'd be very attached to that small community. But I consider DC to be my community. I now care about my home neighborhood (U Street) as well as the ones I go to a lot for amenities (Columbia Heights to shop, Shaw for the library, the Mall and Met Branch trail for recreation, Michigan Park for school, and NoMa for work).

So I see absolutely no conflict between smart growth/good urbanism on one hand and a rich diversity of neighborhood and specialty schools on the other.

However, if you're concerned that GGW has lost its religion, fear not. I believe that a fellow contributor is planning a counterpoint post that will present another view. Stay tuned!

by Steven Glazerman on Feb 24, 2012 10:18 am • linkreport

Of all the "urban" bloggers in the region, I've written more about education issues in the past 7 years by a factor of 10 at least. It's too bad that Blogger's indexing functions are so paltry and that they only provide active access to the last 5,000 entries (I have almost 8,000 entries). You'd see.

Anyway, I don't disagree with you about a system of neighborhood schools and schools with specialties, or a recognition that some schools will be sited with specialties that aren't necessarily congruent with local interests.

And I will say that after I wrote what I wrote I was thinking about what retired Wilson/Phelps history teacher Erich Martel writes all the time on the concerned4dcps list about "requirements" for participation in AP etc. being hollow, because a lot of the students enrolled in the classes don't care, and it makes it impossible to teach at AP level. It's a different case, but still broadly relevant to this point.

I guess I'd say that the #1 priority should be to focus on the maintenance and improvement of neighborhood schools as fundamental building blocks of solid neighborhoods and key civic assets.

And #2 is rather than dissipating social and community capital amongst charter schools, voucher programs, and the traditional public school system, that energies should be directed on improving the public schools, and incorporating specialty programs there.

If you have read my writings on "positive deviance" and the DCPS issue, then you'll know I make the point constantly that the excellent programs in DCPS, such as the Capitol Hill Cluster Schools, Oyster, Montessori programs, etc., need to be built upon and extended.

Instead, DCPS is seriously f*ing up some of these programs, like Montessori at Langdon, meanwhile the Latin American Montessori Bilingual elementary education charter school is growing massively.

My proposal about 7 years ago for an arts cluster in the H Street neighborhood as a positive deviance and school improvement initiative built off those findings. Components included (1) leveraging the H St. arts focus at the eastern end (Atlas, H St. Playhouse, etc.), (2) the various public schools north and south of H Street, (3) adding artist-in-residence programs at the schools, (4) the French language program at Wilson, (5) a proposal to capture public buildings (now converted to housing) that were empty--old E10 fire station, old Precinct 9 police station, the old school building on the Miner campus now used as an office building for the police department--as arts/civic/educational facilities that could be integrated into the school arts cluster, (5) but a specialized curriculum focusing on visual, performing, and media arts, as well as language arts (writing etc.), including "foreign" language arts and culture, and designating a particular but different language focus for each of the schools (Wheatley, Wilson, Ludlow-Taylor, Maury, Miner, etc. + middle and high school).

Anyway, I understand your points, but disagree somewhat. But my argument is about where to focus precious community resources on school improvement, which is a more meta-level question than the ground covered by your post.

by Richard Layman on Feb 24, 2012 11:24 am • linkreport

@Richard Layman yeah, we probably agree on more than we're willing to admit and we also talk past each other on a few points. Thanks for joining this comment thread.

by Steven Glazerman on Feb 24, 2012 11:32 am • linkreport

@RL: The biggest problem with the charter schools ... is that they eviscerate neighborhood schools.

Can you provide an example of this? On Cap Hill, neighborhood schools such as Tyler, Brent, and Maury have blossomed, impressively, over the past 10 years despite the opening of nearby high-quality charters such as Two Rivers.

Now, I admit that charter schools can be a "solution" to declining public schools incapable of change, but the required action is to improve traditional schools by any means necessary, rather than destroying the value of school and civic assets by creating a competing school system.

I think you are looking at this backward: competition from charters has provided motivation to improve. DCPS was not dealing with its lousy schools until the charters came along and took 40% of its budget.

by goldfish on Feb 24, 2012 12:05 pm • linkreport

DK this went through. My experience is with W4 and W5 and the number of closed schools in the heart of Brookland. In W4, we live 3.5 blocks from Whittier. None of the 6 school aged children go to it, or to regular public schools. Both Whittier and Takoma Ed. Center (now K-8) have paltry enrollments. Lots of charters around though.

by Richard Layman on Feb 24, 2012 4:37 pm • linkreport

sorry, I meant none of the school children living on my street block.

by Richard Layman on Feb 24, 2012 4:41 pm • linkreport

goldfish -- this is too hard to respond to. I am not sure it's fair to say that DCPS finally is responding to the competition that charters provide. The city is dealing with the schools, but the people in charge, including the mayor, don't really care about the public school system it appears, they are happy with its shrinkage and de facto replacement by the charter schools. Charters were around for years and had no impact on DCPS's willingness to modernize and improve. It's complicated. But those are other issues.

by Richard Layman on Feb 24, 2012 4:44 pm • linkreport

@RL How do you separate cause from effect? Maybe the low enrollment in the DCPS school is because they are performing poorly: Whittier, for example, is showing declining test scores.

by goldfish on Feb 24, 2012 4:53 pm • linkreport

I'd have to say that the boom in Capitol Hill schools in the last year has most certainly been driven in part by school choice, from both charters but especially amongst traditional schools. Over half of my daughters 2nd grade class if from out of bounds. Only a hand full of my other daughters pre-K 3 class is.

The pattern is simple. School community wants to grow. This can be started by activist principal, committed parents, interested neighbors. But once the ball is started, the school starts to develop some buzz, normally at the pre-K level. At first the school is begging people to come, soon it has a wait list. At first it's driven by out of bounds parents who's neighborhood schools are NOT doing these things. In-bounds families take another look, and rather than decamping to the suburbs, private schools, or playing the lottery game, they send their kid here as well. Soon, there's no more room for out of bounds kids, and the school is "turned around".

This happens because parents can choose what school they want. If we go back to the top down, traditional neighborhood boundary model, there's no incentive to build your school up.

I wouldn't say that DCPS isn't responding to competition. Perhaps DCPS leadership isn't, but the schools on the ground very much are.

Why do we think the death spiral we talk about in transit wouldn't apply to education? Poorly performing schools are going to lose the most active parents. Bad schools have low enrollment, good ones have wait list. Charters and DCPS alike.

by Tim Krepp on Feb 24, 2012 5:52 pm • linkreport

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