The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.


Level the playing field for charters and neighborhood schools

Charter schools and traditional schools should have to give the same preference in admissions to neighborhood children. This would level the playing field between the types of schools. At the same time, charters need better access to facilities, also to level the playing field.

Photo by Adrienne Johnson SF on Flickr.

Charter schools don't have to give priority to children who live nearby, while neighborhood schools do. But neighborhood schools have the massive resources of DCPS to help them find and outfit good facilities, while charters do not.

A major argument for charter schools is that they provide an opportunity to innovate. Schools can try and innovative curriculum or teaching method, and see if it teaches kids better than traditional methods. Then, DCPS can replicate successful innovations systemwide.

But the only way we can really know if charters better educate their children is if they operate on a level playing field, without major tilts toward or away from them.

Neighborhood preference would strengthen all schools

Some DC officials have suggested requiring charter schools to give the same preference in admissions to neighborhood children as traditional schools do. Currently, neighborhood schools must accept all students living in their boundary, and fill remaining seats with an out-of-boundary lottery. By contrast, all charter school seats are filled through a city-wide lottery, with no priority given to neighborhood children.

Earlier this week, fellow contributor Steven Glazerman, a deeply knowledgeable education researcher, criticized the proposal, saying that the policy would interfere with schools' educational mission for non-education reasons. But there are several educational objectives that this proposal could advance.

Charter school critics often question whether the apparent success of top charter schools just comes from selection bias, the idea that only more dedicated students and families apply to charter schools. Glazerman partly validated this skepticism by saying that "charters need families who are committed to the program, rather than just attending for the short commute."

Traditional schools don't have the luxury of distinguishing between students who are committed to their program and students who are attending for the short commute. Until charters are unable to make these kinds of distinctions, their educational outcomes won't be taken as seriously.

Charter schools aren't alone in preferring students from a city-wide lottery. According to a high level education administrator who served in the Fenty administration, many big-city school systems find that principals try to fill their buildings with out-of-boundary students.

Out-of-boundary students who are admitted through a city-wide lottery, the administrator explained, are more likely to be committed to their program, and less likely to get into trouble around the building because the building is outside of their neighborhood. The kids and their parents are more likely to be grateful for the opportunity to attend the school and less likely to complain about minor issues.

If charters had to give priority in admissions to students from their neighborhood, they would have to face many of the same educational challenges that traditional schools have dealt with for years.

It's important to level this playing field to better bring charter innovations to a real cross-section of the population, and to ensure that we judge their success or failure evenly against neighborhood schools.

Why not bring charter innovation to bear on the most challenging populations? If charters were competing with traditional schools to produce better outcomes for children who are "just attending for the short commute," it's possible they would discover valuable innovations through their entrepreneurial approach.

Until charters do face the same challenges as traditional schools, traditional schools are unlikely to study and adopt successful charter innovations. For example, many top charter schools have found success with an extended school day. But DCPS appears to be doing little if anything to study extended school days or any other charter innovation.

It's safer for kids to get to nearby schools

Furthermore, charters should give priority to neighborhood children in order to help children get to school safely. Lots of kids die or are injured as a result of car commuting to school.

Car crashes are the No. 1 killer of kids. 30 children under the age of 16 died in car crashes from 2000-2009 in DC (though not specifically while commuting to school).

And increasing driving to school also increases fatalities of kids who walk to school. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 50% of children hit near schools are hit by parents of other students driving the cars.

Level the playing field on facilities

Glazerman makes the excellent point in a comment to his post that charters don't face a level playing field with traditional schools when it comes to facilities.

Charters often have to move multiple times in their first years. Once charters do become successful, requiring neighborhood preference could have some perverse consequences, as Glazerman explains.

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.
Glazerman is right, but the solution to one problem isn't to not solve another problem. That's why the DC Council should step in and level the playing field between charter and traditional schools' facilities.

The DC Council could require that school buildings vacant for 3 years be transferred to the Public Charter School Board to rent at below market rates to charters. When the government stops uses other buildings, it could give priority to charters, just as federal excessed properties get first priority to serve as homeless shelters. There are many ways to improve charters' access to facilities.

The bottom line is that the playing field is tilted against traditional schools by the charter citywide lottery and against charters by DCPS' management of its empty schools. The DC Council should level the playing field in both areas at the same time.

Neighborhood preference for charters is an idea whose time has come, and that can garner broad support from charter school skeptics, from parents in neighborhoods with successful charters and from urbanists advocating safe routes to school.

Ken Archer is CTO of a software firm in Tysons Corner. He commutes to Tysons by bus from his home in Georgetown, where he lives with his wife and son. Ken completed a Masters degree in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America. 


Add a comment »

Don't these normally have a disclosure?

by selxic on Feb 24, 2012 1:01 pm • linkreport

Excellent article and I agree. Charter schools should have to admit students from their local neighborhoods. Otherwise what’s the point of having them at all?

A good compromise however could be that they only have to admit 50% of the local population or some other % determined by the county.

by Matt R on Feb 24, 2012 1:17 pm • linkreport

@Matt R How do you define "their local neighborhoods" if they are in temporary space, knowing their lease ends in a year or two?

by Steven Glazerman on Feb 24, 2012 1:38 pm • linkreport

Forgive me if Steve already made this point, but while I understand your argument on how schools have an incentive to attract out of boundary kids, wouldn't that incentive be overcome by the incentive to open up in a neighborhood that has high achieving kids? If I were looking to start a charter school and wanted to post high test scores, and I wasn't allowed to be selective with my admissions, but I could give neighborhood priority, wouldn't I try to open in a neighborhood full of high scoring kids: i.e. a rich one?

Yes real estate is more expensive there but Washington Latin started off renting space right next to St. Albans. Space can be found in expensive neighborhoods.

by TM on Feb 24, 2012 1:42 pm • linkreport

While I understand that is an issue it should not be an excuse charter schools use to exclude a select population of students.
1. DCPS finds a way to reduce the amount of moving a charter schools does
2. Charter Schools have 2-3 years to find a permanent location and at that point they have to accept the local population
3. 25% of new students each year must come from the local population. If the school moves and the local population changes then the requirement stands, its just a different local population

The point here is if charter schools work (which is another argument all together) they should be used to elevate ALL students in DC. Not just a select few who apply.

by Matt R on Feb 24, 2012 2:01 pm • linkreport

I agree about leveling the playing field, but it goes so far beyond the issues mentioned above.

Did you know that charter school currently have to spend millions of dollars making sure their facilities are up to code? (Sprinklers, etc) Not DCPS schools- most would never be granted a certificate of occupancy!

And then there's the issues of the money spent at DCPS vs the charter schools... just imagine if THAT playing field were leveled! DCPS would implode.

by Tom A. on Feb 24, 2012 2:02 pm • linkreport

Is this really an issue, Ken? Rather than knocking charters (and vice versa I should note), vigorous school choice has exploded the number of options in DC. This isn't a zero sum game, and I can't help but noting that a neighborhood preference in, say Georgetown, would serve to keep kids who live in EOTR out.

You know, like traditional DCPS schools did before school choice came around.

I am NOT arguing this is deliberate, by the way. It's just how it would play out.

by Tim Krepp on Feb 24, 2012 2:04 pm • linkreport

Arlington county has a public speciality school called HB Woodlawn (middle senior, "progressive" orientation. Its located in the higher income northern part of the county. IIUC they run seperate lotteries in north arlington and south arlington. As a result its easier to gain admission from south arlington (more interested families in north arlington) IIUC this is to offset some of the segregating effect of parental concern. It actually runs in the opposite direction of being a neighborhood school though.

by AWalkerInTheCIty on Feb 24, 2012 2:07 pm • linkreport

It's simply not a charter's job to ensure detractors have an apples to apples ability to compare them in all the myriad ways that they want to measure something.

It's a charter's job to educate all the children that fit best into their overall strategy and goals.

If it was a charter's goal to introduce Ward 7 children to Ward 2 opportunities, would you require that the school take in Ward 2 kids? No, that would not necessarily advance the goal of the program. It could advance it, but that's better left to the discretion of the Board of Directors.

by One City on Feb 24, 2012 2:48 pm • linkreport

Anything that limits the choices parents have in educating their children is a mistake. Putting barriers around "our neighborhood school," be it DCPS or charter, serves to limit the competition that is essential to improve school quality. This is not a race between DCPS and charters, to see which one is better; this is a system top educate kids. Without that competition, DCPS was the worst system in the country.

by goldfish on Feb 24, 2012 3:07 pm • linkreport

If I were looking to start a charter school and wanted to post high test scores, and I wasn't allowed to be selective with my admissions, but I could give neighborhood priority, wouldn't I try to open in a neighborhood full of high scoring kids: i.e. a rich one?

So what if, say, Key or Stoddert Elementary had charters in their boundaries that had to give priority to in-boundary students? What would be wrong with that?

If the argument is that charters wouldn't set up in poorer neighborhoods if they knew they would have to educate the children in that neighborhood, I would say such a charter isn't really helping us solve the educational problems that plague our city.

by Ken Archer on Feb 24, 2012 3:08 pm • linkreport

Ken Archer: I'm not sure you, or anyone in DCPS knows what the single educational problem is in this city, or how to solve it. If you did, it would have been solved a decade ago before charters were invented. Charters increase the number of ideas for educational improvement which get a fair shake, they don't get locked into one tertiary educational goal ("nearness") which has practically zero influence on outcomes.

Also, if charters simply skimmed all the best students out of DCPS and allowed DCPS to focus on the neediest with more focus and clarity, it would still be a good approach. DCPS could simply narrow it's educational objectives and focus on the needs of a narrower diversity of educational goals.

by One City on Feb 24, 2012 4:00 pm • linkreport

I'm not sure you, or anyone in DCPS knows what the single educational problem is in this city, or how to solve it. If you did, it would have been solved a decade ago before charters were invented.

I can imagine a situation in which that isn't true. Let's imagine that the single educational problem in this city is concentrated poverty. You solve it by either lowering the number of poor children in the city, or raising the number of middle-class children.

Assuming the above were true, we can easily imagine a situation where we know the problem, and how to solve it, but the problem would still persist.

by oboe on Feb 24, 2012 4:19 pm • linkreport

my understanding is that the reason neighborhood schools have to give priority to nabe kids first, is that some (MANY?) families want a neighborhood school, and they shouldnt be forced to travel when there is room at the school. But given that option, there is no reason for specialized schools to have neighborhood preferences. Again, HB Woodlawn has no such preference (in fact the opposite) TJ has no such preference. The specialized high schools in NYC do not have such preferences. The reason is that neighborhood schools already exist for those who wish for that experience. If you think of a charter is simply a variant on the specialized school model, I think you see there is no need for it to take kids by neighborhood.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Feb 24, 2012 4:22 pm • linkreport

First, the notion that "competition [between charters and DCPS] has to be fair, on a level playing field" really loses sight of the objective - improving public education in DC.

Regardless, unfair competition is a smokescreen - implicit in this proposal is the notion that neighborhood schools are inherently better than city-wide lottery admission schools. That's really what you're saying. There are some good points raised, but at this point, isn't there room for dual systems (neighborhood and city-wide lottery) in DC? The charter school system here is still relatively young, and there is a wide range of quality in charters and DCPS. Some charters are better than most DCPS; some DCPS are better than most charters. It seems like it's a little early to begin tinkering with the fundamentals of charter schools, especially since it's undeniable that there are more high-performing schools now than there were before charters existed. Yes, there are numerous factors that went into that, many of which have nothing to do with either charters or DCPS. But, there are numerous high-performing charters schools (10? 15?) that didn't exist 20 years ago.

There are also unintended consequences to this idea. Think there are grumbles about gentrification now? The single most significant factor for many young families in determining where they live is school quality. Wait until a sought-after charter school opens up in a neighborhood with traditionally sub-par schools and low property values. It'll only take a few years before gentrification is steaming along in that neighborhood at a heretofore unheard of pace. That's not a reason to completely discount the idea, but it shouldn't be ignored either.

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

I think this would just invite segregation. If I was trying to opt out of DCPS because I don't want my white kid going to school that is majority poor/black, I'd locate my charter school in upper northwest, get preference for me and my neighbors. It would just be a back door way to more segregation.

I love neighborhood schools and wish more people used them in DC, but if you are going to have schools of choice, you cannot set up a system that can be gamed to exclude certain demographics.

by DCmama on Feb 24, 2012 5:41 pm • linkreport

A lot of charters are based on ideas that are more gimmick than proven. Forcing them to draw at least partially from a local community would provide more accountability. There are charters in the DC system (mostly in NW) that used to be district schools that built their programs on the basis of parent and community involvement. It also would force them to do more than skim children of more savvy or motivated parents, and it would more clearly indicate which charters are no better than the most regular public schools, which tends to be more often the case than most parents know.

It would still be possible to have schools without specific attendance zones, but, again, it might make these be based on something more than just an educational gimmick.

by Rich on Feb 24, 2012 9:15 pm • linkreport

Charter schools are having a terrible time finding permanent facilities to move into. I don't think you know what you're talking about here, sorry. Let's move on to the next topic.

by adinaINdc on Feb 25, 2012 8:02 pm • linkreport

Charters cannot give preference by location - federal law.

by Wayan on Feb 26, 2012 7:47 pm • linkreport

Charter schools without neighborhood preference DO help level the playing field for DC STUDENTS - most importantly. If you can live anywhere and have the same chance for a high-quality school as a kid with upper middle class parents, then the playing field is more level for the low-income kids. For generations before charters, it was about the neighborhood school you could afford. I know personally of families that have rented tiny apartments across the park to be in-boundary for Murch, Lafayette, Deal and Wilson, rather than purchase a family home they could afford elsewhere. Can we imagine the long-term sacrifice and missed opportunity that implies? The very idea of educational equity is based on NOT having neighborhood preference. Charter schools have sucked up the funding equity, raised private money and become more efficient in order to have the autonomy and freedom from bureaucracy. It's a small price to pay if it avoids this question of what neighborhood a family comes from.

by DCCOMMOM on Feb 27, 2012 11:36 am • linkreport

Further, Wilson, in its beautifully renovated building with every amenity, has announced that it cannot accept any new out of boundary students next year (and the year after that, and so on..) because of the increased demand for families in its (outrageously expensive) neighborhood. Is this what we want for charters too?

by DCCOMMOM on Feb 27, 2012 11:47 am • linkreport

DCPS doesn't run the charter schools. The charter school board and OSSE do. This is something that happened in 2007 when the governance structure of the schools changed with the education reform act. Also reading the charter law would help, as someone mentioned earlier. This is the main problem with people interested in education in DC-- an ahistorical and largely misinformed view.

by CL on Mar 7, 2012 9:33 am • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

You can use some HTML, like <blockquote>quoting another comment</blockquote>, <i>italics</i>, and <a href="http://url_here">hyperlinks</a>. More here.

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.


Support Us