Greater Greater Washington

Posts about School Choice


Montgomery's experiment with school choice really isn't

Each fall, thousands of 8th graders in Montgomery County participate in Maryland's oldest experiment in school choice, the Northeast and Downcounty consortia. Intended to prevent the school system's growing segregation, the consortia's 8 schools are not only more isolated than before, but academic performance has suffered.

SAT scores at the 3 Northeast Consortium high schools, Sherwood, and MCPS.

Since the 1970's, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) has struggled to close the "achievement gap" between white and minority students and create more integrated schools. While officials had some success with magnet schools, in the 1990's, they sought a new approach with James Hubert Blake High School, which was being built near Olney.

Instead of redrawing the catchment boundaries, a long and controversial process, the Board of Education decided to let students integrate themselves by letting them choose between the new school and 3 nearby schools, Sherwood, Paint Branch and Springbrook. In 1998, the US Department of Education gave MCPS a $2.9 million grant to set up the Northeast Consortium.

From "controlled choice" to "preferred choice"

Each school in the consortium had a unique "signature program": Blake had fine arts and humanities, Paint Branch had science and media, and Springbrook had information technology. The schools would compete for students, making each program stronger and more distinct and hopefully discouraging them from leaving for private school. If the schools failed to integrate, a "controlled choice" program would take over, assigning students based on race and ethnicity.

A middle school bulletin board showing Northeast Consortium high school choices.

But Sherwood never made it into the consortium, due to parent complaints about the uncertainty of a new school and long bus rides. There were unspoken concerns about mixing students from Sherwood, which was predominantly white and affluent, with Springbrook and Paint Branch, which were poorer and majority-minority.

"Sherwood parents [were] afraid of their kids going to Springbrook," said Pat Ryan, a civic activist who helped plan the consortium, during a 2008 interview. "I talked to a lot of parents who said they moved to Olney because it's a predominantly white area and they wanted their kids to go to school with white kids."

While some neighborhoods in Olney were still redistricted into the consortium, MCPS created "base areas" for each school as a concession, guaranteeing that those residents could attend Blake. Officials called this "preferred choice."

The problem repeated itself with the Downcounty Consortium, which MCPS started in 2004 with Montgomery Blair, Albert Einstein, John F. Kennedy, Wheaton, and Northwood high schools. While the Board of Education originally considered including adjacent Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, parent outcry led them to drop it.

Schools unsuccessfully compete for middle-class students

Some Sherwood students resisted being redistricted, but school officials quickly noticed that Blake, the emerging top choice, was siphoning white and affluent students from Springbrook and Paint Branch.

The percentage of white students at the 3 consortium high schools, Sherwood and MCPS over time.

To encourage a similar demographic mix at each school, in 2006 the Board of Education gave extra weight to the choices of students on free and reduced lunch (FARMS). A federal appeals court had declared the system's prior use of race in school assignments unconstitutional.

Immediately, the number of students who received their first choice fell. In 2002, every single kid in the consortium got their first choice, but only 85% did in 2006. Not surprisingly, parents and students were livid.

The percentage of students now or ever on free or reduced lunch at the 3 consortium high schools, Sherwood and MCPS over time.

But instead of becoming more integrated, the Northeast Consortium schools lost white and higher-income students, even as Sherwood's racial and socioeconomic mix remained steady. SAT scores plummeted in the consortium, but stayed the same at Sherwood.

To compete for a dwindling pool of middle-class students, each school began copying the others' signature programs. Here's what they offer today:

  • Blake: The arts, humanities and public service, science, technology, engineering
    and mathematics, business and consumer services
  • Paint Branch: Science and media, finance, engineering technology, child development
    and education, NJROTC, and restaurant management
  • Springbrook: International Baccalaureate, International studies, technology

  • Blake High School's jazz band, shown in 2009, is part of their signature program.

    Today, 97% of Northeast Consortium students get their first choice. With a new building that opened last fall, Paint Branch is now tied with Blake for first choice. But given very similar choices, students seem to end up at their base school, whether by choice or default. In 2008, 73% of students at Paint Branch came from that school's base area, compared to 59% at Blake and 58% at Springbrook.

    Were the consortia worth it?

    In recent years, county officials have questioned the value of the Northeast and Downcounty consortia, which have neither improved academic performance nor provided socioeconomic and racial balance. That may have been less of an issue if Sherwood and B-CC had been involved, or if the "base areas" hadn't been added.

    I was in one of the first classes to participate in the Northeast Consortium, and I chose Blake, where I graduated in 2005. I had a great experience, and certainly a different one that had I been sent to my neighborhood school, Paint Branch. But it appears that less than 10 years later, East County students have very different choices.

    In 2009, the County Council's Office of Legislative Oversight asked if the consortia, which cost over $3 million to run each year, were a good use of public funds. When she ran for office, Councilmember Nancy Navarro, whose district includes both consortia, said she's open to making them neighborhood schools again.

    But school administrators say that regardless of the consortia schools' demographics, they can be fixed. Next, we'll talk to MCPS superintendent Dr. Joshua Starr about his thoughts on integration, school choice, and his plans to turn around Wheaton and Springbrook.


    De facto segregation threatens Montgomery public schools

    Montgomery County Public Schools are often regarded as one of the best school systems in the nation, with schools routinely topping regional and national rankings. But as the county grows more diverse, MCPS is becoming a system of haves and have-nots.

    Percentage of students on FARMS versus percentage of white students in MCPS high schools.

    In recent years, MCPS has experienced dramatic demographic shifts. In 2000, MCPS was predominantly white. Today, 2/3 of its 149,000 students are racial or ethnic minorities. 42% have at one time received free or reduced lunch (FARMS), a measure of poverty.

    But those demographic changes haven't occurred equally across the county. Despite claims to the contrary, a look at MCPS' own data shows that who you are and where you live in Montgomery County is the best indicator of what kind of education you'll get.

    Increase in minority, low-income students concentrated in East County

    Nowhere has the makeup of MCPS changed more than in the Northeast and Downcounty consortia, which were established in the late 1990's in an attempt to promote racial and socioeconomic integration in the county's east side. 8th graders living in the Northeast Consortium are allowed to pick between Blake, Paint Branch and Springbrook high schools, while in the Downcounty Consortium, they choose between Einstein, Northwood, Kennedy, Wheaton and Blair, which is also a magnet school.

    Graph of changes in white and FARMS student population at each school.

    Over the past 15 years, they've experienced massive increases in low-income students and drops in white students. Today, the 8 consortia schools contain almost half of the county's black, Hispanic and low-income students in a system with 26 high schools. Minorities make up at least 75% of the student body at each school. Nearly 80% of students at Wheaton and Kennedy high schools are on reduced lunch, while 10% of the county's black students attend Paint Branch.

    The Northeast and Downcounty consortia and "Top White" school clusters. Click for an interactive map.

    Meanwhile, 6 top-ranked high schools contain a plurality of the county's white students: Sherwood, Bethesda-Chevy Chase, and the vaunted "W schools," Winston Churchill, Walter Johnson, Walt Whitman and Thomas Wootton. We'll call these the "Top White" schools.

    Black, Hispanic and low-income students are a small minority at "Top White" schools, and in the case of Whitman, almost nonexistent. While they've all lost some white students in past years, the proportion of low-income students barely changed.

    MCPS is growing, but white flight is occurring too

    To an extent, these changes reflect the demographic shifts of the county as a whole, which became a majority-minority jurisdiction for the first time in 2010. MCPS is also growing, and demographer Bruce Crispell estimates that as many as 85% of the county's kids attend a public school, compared to 80% in 2000.

    The proportion of white students in MCPS (solid lines) versus white kids living in the county (dotted lines).

    If more students are attending MCPS, one might assume that it would look more like the county as a whole. But the gap between how many white students are in MCPS and how many live here is large and growing. Between 2000 and 2011, the percentage of teenagers living in Montgomery County who were white fell from 60% to 54%, while the proportion of white students in MCPS high schools fell from about 50% to 33%.

    This suggests that white families either have left MCPS or moved to higher-ranked schools while other families take their places.

    Your income level determines the quality of your school

    Like most public school systems, MCPS school assignments are based on where a student lives. This results in what education analyst Michael Petrilli calls "private public schools": high-ranked schools that serve few or no low-income students because the surrounding neighborhoods are prohibitively expensive.

    Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda is a "private public school."

    According to local agency MoCoRealEstate, the median sales price of a home in the Whitman cluster was $860,000 last year. That's compared to $330,000 in the Northeast Consortium and $322,000 in the Downcounty Consortium.

    Home prices in each high school catchment versus the percentage of students on free or reduced lunch there.

    Though MCPS boasts a high graduation rate, just 74% of students at Wheaton graduate within 4 years, below state and national averages. 1 out of every 8 students at Wheaton and Northwood drop out each year. But nearly all students in the "Top White" schools graduate on time.

    More students are suspended, withdraw from school or drop out entirely in consortia high schools.

    MCPS officials boast that every school offers Advanced Placement classes, a sign of academic rigor, but consortia students failed 60% of their AP exams last year. While most high school students countywide failed their math exams this year, the failure rate was much higher in the consortia. 4 out of every 5 students at Wheaton failed their math exams, compared to just 17% at Whitman.

    AP and math exam failures are dramatically higher at low-income schools.

    There's evidence that segregation has had a negative effect on student performance. A recent study from the County Council's Office of Legislative Oversight revealed that black, Hispanic and low-income students are falling further behind white and Asian students in performance on AP tests and the SAT.

    It's not that low-income or minority students are inherently inferior. But they often lack access to amenities like early education that can't be made up at school, especially when that school is dominated by kids with the same needs. Studies show that students of all socioeconomic backgrounds do better in a mixed environment, which I'll talk about in future posts.

    Montgomery's future depends on its schools

    This isn't a new problem. A 1994 study from the Harvard Project on School Desegregation found that past attempts at desegregation were ineffective, but MCPS administrators were unwilling to admit it. "The county's progressive image has created a fierce resistance to serious analysis of rapidly changing conditions," wrote author Gary Orfield.

    If administrators seriously want to help their low-income and minority students, they can't continue to ghettoize them in a handful of schools. Otherwise, MCPS will become a two-tier system, with a small group of highly-ranked, predominantly white and affluent schools, and another group of lower-ranked, predominantly poor and minority schools.

    MCPS is also integral to economic development. The county's efforts to revitalize East County neighborhoods, like Wheaton or White Oak, hinge on the perception of its most troubled schools.

    How did this happen? And what can we do about it? Over the next few days, I'll try to answer those questions, starting with a look at the the county's attempts at school choice.


    How do you choose a school?

    Schools are important. That's what everyone says, at least. But while much of the public discourse revolves around big picture school reform issues, parents just need to find a good school for their child.

    Photo by Sint Smeding on Flickr.

    Every parent in the country has school choice to a certain extent, but for the overwhelming majority of them it involves an expensive decision to move to a better school district. Washington residents can avail themselves of that option, and many do, but the bar is radically lower in the District thanks to both charter schools and the DCPS out-of-boundary lottery.

    There's been quite a bit of discussion recently about charters vs. DCPS, but that has little to do with the main decision for most parents: picking a school for their child. Most parents don't send their kids to "a charter" or "DCPS"; they pick a specific school. There are any number of advocates saying what they think schools should be, parents have to deal with what schools are today.

    With this brave new world of school choice, how should a parent choose a school? There is a wealth of data out there, like the DCPS school profiles and DC Public Charter School Board resources. The problem, of course, is that numbers often don't reflect how "good" a school is. So what should a parent look for?

    Here are a few data points that I, and many of my fellow parents, have found useful. It is in no way comprehensive. It is geared to DC public and charter schools, so there is no weighting for cost (if you are considering private schools) or time (if you are thinking of homeschooling).

    Nor does it include geographical proximity, as I assume that's a given (and it should be) in evaluating school choices. Finally, there is an inevitable bias towards elementary schools here, as that's where my, and the majority of my compatriots', experience lies.

    Here are 7 tips that can help screen school choices.

    Wait lists: This may be the very worst single number metric to use to choose a school, except for all the others. After all, you're not looking for the best overall school, you're looking for the school that is the best fit for your child. This is doubly true if you have a special needs child, but you certainly don't need me to tell you that. But, in the big picture, if there's demand for school A and not for school B, that's a sign that school A is worth investigating more deeply.

    Morning drop off: Schools are at their most open when children are being dropped off. Is the principal out and engaging with parents and students? Does he or she know their names? Is the process orderly? (It won't be, by the way, but can you find order in the chaos?)

    Are the kids eager to go to school? Are they greeting their friends and are parents stopping to chat with each other? A school is a community, not a building. Take this time to chat with teachers, parents, and the principal, if you can do so without getting in their way.

    Reach out to them: Drop the principal a note. She's a busy person, but if she doesn't respond personally to you within a day as a prospective parent, she probably won't to an attending parent, either. Your child will almost certainly have an issue or problem of some sort in the many years he attends the school. Do you get a response? Not agreement with your position, necessarily, but an honest engagement with you?

    The principal may hand you off to a current parent to answer some of your questions. This isn't a bad thing, but it's another data point for you to evaluate. How smoothly was it done, and do you feel that you are still being engaged or is the buck being passed? Good delegation skills are important, and this is a chance to see if the principal is ducking you or using a strong parent community as the asset it is.

    Parents: The other parents will be your allies and often your friends for the next few years. Are the PTA meetings well-attended? In general, I place little stock in the utility of meetings per se, but they are a good indicator of how many people care enough to show up. Talk to friends and friends of friends whose kids attend the school. Find the cheerleaders, and find the complainers. All schools have both, and they both have quite a bit to share.

    Library: Frankly, this didn't even occur to me, until a friend of mine, a former DCPS librarian pointed it out. He noted, quite correctly, that the library is a microcosm of the school. Does a librarian greet you, or is the library locked up and only accessible at certain hours? Does the school provide a library budget (some don't)?

    Are the books new, or old and worn out? That's a good indicator of how involved the school and/or parents are with the library. In these days of test scores, libraries, and especially school librarians, can easily be regarded as "fat" to be cut, to pay for focused reading instructors for student test takers. Is that the school's priority?

    Curriculum: Many parents care deeply about curriculum, and have priorities on this topic before kids even go to school. If that's you, you probably already have a list of questions written already. If it's not you, don't feel left out. But know what you are getting into.

    Some schools have strong parental involvement in developing curriculum, some already have it scripted out, and most fall into a spectrum somewhere in the middle. When you talk to the principal and teachers, note if they are engaging in a conversation with you about it, or if they are just telling you what the curriculum is. There are pros and cons about both approaches, but know before you go what you're getting into.

    Finally, don't bother: As I noted, wait lists are often a metric of a good school, as is an energetic, noisy parent community. So, nearly by definition, you're not going to get your child into all the schools you're interested in.

    Apply to as many as the DCPS lottery will allow, throw in the charters you have your eye on, and walk away. Just walk away. Many a parent has been driven mad by this process. Don't join them.

    If your child gets into multiple excellent schools, then start winnowing them down. But you're going to want to keep that to yourself, as other parents are going to view you like a deer that walked in front of the Donner party.

    You know what didn't make the cut? Test scores. Because I don't care. As a parent, I don't have to, and I don't want to. The teacher has my child for 8 hours a day, if they can't tell me how she's doing without relying on a yearly standardized test, we've got bigger issues. Relying on test scores to choose a school is like picking a spouse based on taking someone's pulse on a first date.

    These are but a few data points I use and recommend to choose a school. Do you have others? Middle schools are coming up for my child, and I'm looking for tips.


    Don't favor local kids in charter admissions, says task force

    Charter schools don't give priority to kids who live nearby, instead choosing all students from a citywide lottery. Some other big cities, like New York, allow or require a neighborhood preference in charter admissions. In a report released Friday, a DC task force set up to consider this idea recommended against DC following the lead of these cities.

    Photo by Derek Bridges on Flickr.

    The task force did recommend a common lottery across charter and traditional public schools. Currently, parents enter separate lotteries for each charter, as well as the out-of-boundary lottery for DCPS neighborhood schools. As a result, they can't indicate neighborhood preference by ranking schools when applying.

    But the 12-member task force, which included 7 members from charter organizations, also concluded that other cities' reasons for neighborhood preference don't apply to DC. While there are valid arguments in favor and against neighborhood preference, the report appears to present and engage only the opposing arguments.

    Arguments for neighborhood preference in charter admissions

    Charter school critics often question whether the education outcomes of top tier charter schools results from selection bias, the idea that generally more dedicated students and families apply to charter schools. Charter advocates often validate this concern by claiming that the "model" of charter schools, even non-specialized ones, is somehow incompatible with educating neighborhood students.

    The task force report, for example, asserts that "charter schools are not well suited to be neighborhood schools." In a post earlier this year criticizing neighborhood preference, Steven Glazerman similarly argued, "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, critics argue, their educational outcomes won't be taken as seriously.

    Charter schools aren't alone in preferring students from a citywide 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 citywide 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 in DC had to give priority in admissions to students from their neighborhood, they would face many of the same educational challenges that neighborhood schools have faced for years. Charters in New York City, the school district with the most charters (136), have to face these same challenges. Why should DC be different?

    Task force report argues against neighborhood preference

    The task force report did not mention this central argument in favor of neighborhood preference in charter admissions. Instead, the report focused on the number of "quality seats" (a spot at a high-performing school) and access to existing high-quality charter seats.

    The report concluded that "neighborhood preference would not increase the number of quality seats but simply ration them based on the location of a student's home."

    Furthermore, the report argues that "wards east of the [Anacostia] River would be most negatively impacted." This is based on the large number of students from Ward 7 & 8 in charter schools outside of their ward compared to low number of charter seats in their ward occupied by students from other wards.

    The unstated assumption, of course, is that "quality seats" in charter schools are due to the school and not to selection bias. That's the central issue, and it is not raised anywhere in the report.

    During the 2nd task force meeting, members asserted that "this Task Force was commissioned to focus on access to education, not quality of education." The legislation creating the task force, however, asserts no such restriction, asking instead for a report on "the pros and cons of a weighted lottery."

    The report didn't hear the pros of a lottery weighted by neighborhood for 2 reasons: 1) the report argues that the models of other cities don't apply to DC, and 2) the task force failed to solicit public comment.

    Other cities use neighborhood preference

    New York, Chicago, Denver and New Orleans all have varying models of neighborhood preference in charter admissions. Neighborhood preference is optional for Chicago charter schools (12 of 110 prioritize neighborhood kids in admissions) and mandatory for charters in the other 3 cities.

    After reviewing the models of these 4 cities, "the task force concluded that the models used in other jurisdictions are not closely applicable to DC." They say that is because of DC's "charter school market share," "distribution of charter schools across seven of eight wards," "the relative small size of the District," and "widespread availability of public transportation."

    The report doesn't mention why these differences make the charter admissions policies of other cities inapplicable to DC, concluding simply that "DC's unique public education history and current state" should make us "cautious about implementing neighborhood preference similar to any of the models explained above."

    If you didn't know about the public comment period for the task force, you are not alone. Only 4 people provided public comment. 2 of them were charter school leaders. The hearing was scheduled on November 15, at the same time as the DC Council hearing on DCPS school consolidation.

    The minutes to the subsequent task force meeting note "the low participation in public testimony" and the suspected "scheduling conflict with the DCPS school closure meeting," but the task force decided against extending the public comment period.

    Everyone agrees we need a common lottery

    The task force does recommend a common lottery across charter schools and the out-of-boundary lottery for DCPS neighborhood schools.

    The benefits of a common lottery are many, but the task force focused in particular on parents' ability to indicate neighborhood preferences by ranking schools accordingly.

    Currently, 2 children on opposite ends of town can apply to charters next to their homes and across town, and each win a spot at the charter across town but not at the local school even if they would both prefer to swap places.

    In April 2012, Denver and New Orleans both implemented a common lottery across all charter schools. New Orleans parents rank their top 8 schools (families choose 2.5 on average) while Denver parents rank their top 5 schools (2.8 average).

    If the Deputy Mayor for Education makes no progress toward a common lottery in time for the Spring 2014 lotteries, the DC Council will likely have to legislate a common lottery.

    What is becoming increasingly clear is that, while DC is a leader in charters as a share of the education market, other cities are leading DC in figuring out how to organize charters and non-charters into a single public school system.

    A common lottery and neighborhood preference in charter admissions are becoming standard in other cities with charters while in DC there is either lack of leadership to implement these polices or outright opposition from charters.

    While the Neighborhood Preference Task Force moves us close to a common lottery, it sets us further behind other school districts when it comes to neighborhood preference in charter admissions.


    Should school choice work like bank choice?

    A majority of public school students east of Rock Creek Park now attend charter or magnet schools, a fact that some consider a victory for school choice. If this trend continues, we'll have a system with no neighborhood schools at all, where everyone chooses a school from a menu, like you choose a bank. Is this an acceptable outcome?

    Photo by markhillary on Flickr.

    The Brookings Institution ranked urban school systems on various factors around its system for letting parents choose schools. The District scored 3rd in the nation on the overall index, largely because many kids opt out of their default local school.

    Grover Whitehurst, the report's author, told the Washington Post, "The thing that of course stands out about the District of Columbia is that 40, 45 percent of kids are in schools of choicewhich is very high with respect to the rest of the nation."

    Is this really a good thing?

    It's better than leaving kids stuck in a bad school, sure. But this isn't a number we'd like to see go up indefinitely. Far better would be for most kids to want to choose their neighborhood school because it's a good school, while letting those who need or want a different or more specialized educational experience to make a different choice.

    Charter schools have brought many educational innovations to DC and helped many kids. Unfortunately, the current track we're on is not to create high-quality neighborhood schools alongside high-quality charters and magnets, but just to eliminate one system in favor of the other.

    Would that be a problem? Some proponents of education reform think that it would be just great to chuck our entire public education system and replace it with a collection of different schools, each competing for kids based on how good an education they can provide. That creates a strong incentive for schools to do better or get left behind.

    Businesses cherry-pick the highest-margin customers

    Would we want the market for schools to look like the market for banks, cell phone companies, or other businesses where you generally have an ongoing relationship with just one? This analogy shows some huge pitfalls for education if the objective is choice above all.

    Most banks don't compete to get all customers. They compete primarily for the highest-margin ones: people who keep a lot of cash in their checking accounts, or charge a lot on a credit card. That's why these customers get big cash rewards or miles on credit cards, or perks like free checks, ATM withdrawal fee reimbursement, and higher interest rates.

    Schools in the competitive market would have a strong incentive to get higher test scores, and to do so as cheaply as possible. The easiest way to do that is to try to attract the highest-performing kids and drive out the lowest-performing ones.

    Test scores reflect a school's performance to some extent, but also the effect of parents and the community. At least right now, we don't have an effective metric that only reflects the effect of a school itself, and experts disagree on how to compare the progress of kid already ahead of grade level, with involved parents and extracurricular enrichment, against one from a kid starting well behind.

    A purely competitive system will be a world where successful schools arbitrage flaws in the rating system and industry lobbyists convince legislators not to rejigger the formula in a way that pushes them to educate the more difficult kids.

    Meanwhile, traditional neighborhood schools would end up being just a safety net system for any kids left overthe Medicaid of education. They would just serve those who have gotten kicked out elsewhere for disciplinary problems, those whose families lack the basic initiative to research and apply for other schools or the means to transport kids across town, and those whose parents went to the neighborhood school and feel nostalgic.

    Charter schools were originally supposed to serve as innovation centers, free to try out new education approaches that, if successful, neighborhood schools could adopt. However, when the number of neighborhood schools is continually shrinking so dramatically, what schools will be left to adopt successful innovations?

    While the DCPS's slow pace incorporating validated innovations into neighborhood chools is frustrating, the solution is not to create a two-tier education system with neighborhood schools as the educational safety net or destroy the neighborhood school system completely. For a parent of a child in a neighborhood with a bad local school, it's understandable to want to escape this failing system, but just writing these schools off will not serve DC kids, especially our neediest ones.


    Create one single lottery for charter and non-charter schools

    The current application process for DC's charter and non-charter public schools is a chaotic mess that confuses parents and hurts education for students. DC could fix many problems by creating a centralized lottery process for all public schools, charter and non-charter.

    Photo by evmaiden on Flickr.

    Steve Glazerman called for a centralized application for charter schools in 2010. Since then, DC Public Schools (DCPS) instituted a common application for the District's specialized high schools.

    This is a great step, but it could go a lot further to include charter schools and traditional neighborhood schools at all grades. It wouldn't be hard; the company that operates whose software enables the centralized application for DCPS application-only high schools is currently implementing a centralized application for charters and non-charters in Denver.

    District officials generally agree. Scheherazade Salimi, Senior Advisor to the Deputy Mayor for Education, says that "a common application is something the Deputy Mayor would like to explore in partnership with DCPS and [the Public Charter School Board]."

    In a centralized application, parents would select several schools, rank-ordered by preference. They would select charters and non-charters, and could conceivably select up to 12, 15 or 20 schools.

    A single lottery would select applicants one by one, and assign each to the first school on his or her list with an open slot. This is similar to how many colleges assign dorm rooms, for instance.

    This type of centralized application would have many benefits over the current system.

    Parents are more likely to get into their top choice schools.

    When parents apply to schools now, they apply for DCPS schools using a centralized application, and apply to each charter school separately. Pre-K programs have lotteries for all children, while students in 1st grade and older enter lotteries only for out-of-boundary DCPS schools.

    As a result, one applicant in Capitol Hill could be waitlisted at a nearby charter that was their top choice and accepted into a Columbia Heights charter that was their 2nd choice, while a Columbia Heights family that preferred the nearby charter could be waitlisted there but accepted to the Capitol Hill charter school.

    The result is that neither child can go to his or her top choice charter, and both families are making unnecessary drives to get the kids to school.

    Spots at competitive schools won't be locked up by parents who don't plan to send kids there.

    Schools hold their lotteries in the spring for spots in the fall. In the current system, if a child gets accepted to multiple charter schools and/or an out-of-boundary DCPS school, parents might tell each school that the child will attend in the fall.

    When they decide which school to attend, they inform the schools at some point in the summer or they just don't show up for the schools they didn't select. There's no deposit or penalty, so they don't pay a cost for this, but other families lose out who might have taken the slot but had to make a decision earlier to go elsehwere.

    Some parents do this to give themselves more time to research the schools; some want to wait until school starts to assess the facilities of charter schools that were still preparing their facilities in the spring.

    When a student attending an out-of-boundary DCPS school gets into a different out-of-boundary DCPS school, the principal of the first school "releases" the student before they can secure their spot into the new school. Charter schools have no such process.

    Squatting on multiple school slots is unfair to everybody. When children accepted through the lottery don't show up in the fall, principals have to scramble to contact any remaining applicants on their wait list. Squatting also leads to the next problem.

    Principals could provide better estimates of enrollment for funding purposes.

    One of the most common grievances from charter advocates is that DCPS principals overestimate their enrollment to receive extra funding.

    DCPS schools project fall enrollment in the spring and these projections determine funding for the following year. If the actual enrollment is lower, DCPS' budget doesn't shrink. But charter schools receive funding quarterly based on their actual enrollment. If a charter school's enrollment declines, it loses money.

    Some principals might be doing this on purpose, but it's also difficult for DCPS principals to accurately estimate enrollment for the following fall when applicants hold a spot at their school while they spend the summer deciding whether to attend charter schools.

    A centralized application would eliminate much of this problem. Each school, DCPS and charter, would know that every child on its list isn't going to suddenly go elsewhere in the DC system. They could go to private school or move to another jurisdiction, but that applies to a smaller number of children.

    Charter principals wouldn't be able to "skim the cream."

    Charter school critics often complain that charter school principals find ways to weed out students during enrollment who may be harder to educate. The lottery initially fills all charter school slots randomly, but as parents of children who got in on the lottery tell the school that they won't be taking the slot, the charter itself contacts applicants off of their wait list.

    There are opportunities for principals to intentially or unintentionally abuse this system. For example, principals can give an applicant more or less time to respond and claim the slot before they move on to the next child. They might give more "desirable" children more time than others.

    A charter school in New York was put on probation last year for weeding out applicants in the enrollment process. While there hasn't been a specific accusation like this against any DC charter school, a centralized application system could remove this because students would be assigned to a single school.

    We would have data on capacity needs at all grades, especially pre-K.

    District officials say that DC has achieved universal pre-K, but the city's auditor of pre-K capacity disagrees. Who is right? We won't know until we have data on the actual demand for pre-K.

    A centralized application for pre-K, including all of the pre-K programs, would generate this data. It would then be easy to compare the number of total children applying against the number of public pre-K slots.

    The data wouldn't be perfect, as some parents apply to DCPS pre-K programs as a backup to their private pre-K applications, while other parents miss the pre-K lottery (in February) but still want to send their children to pre-K. But it would be far better than the current audit, which effectively measures nothing.

    All students would start school on time together.

    One of the unintended consequences of the plethora of charter school choices is that schools don't really know who will show up for school in September. This is largely due to parents holding spots through the summer for multiple schools but only sending their kids to one school.

    The result is that classroom compositions are in flux throughout September and October as principals contact students off the wait list to fill suddenly vacated spots. This is challenging for teachers and ultimately hurts students' education.

    District education officials and the State Board of Education can start pushing toward a single lottery right away. An education committee in the Council, as many have suggested, could also help move this forward.


    DC charter schools should centralize admissions

    How can we make education greater in DC? One place to start is by making it easier for families to select great public schools.

    Image by OCAL at

    Our current system is rich with options. We have a wide variety of schools in the traditional DCPS school system, which offers an out-of-boundary process for any school with available space, and a robust system of charter schools.

    By law, each charter school has open admissions and must use a lottery to select students if the school has more applicants than spaces. Unfortunately, the options can be overwhelming, and this fair-sounding system can be very unfair in practice, as well as inefficient.

    Risk-averse parents may enter dozens of lotteries. As a result, each school's applicant list is inflated by these extra "safety school" applications. The school has no way of knowing which family on their list is serious about enrolling in their school, even after the lottery is conducted. Since every child can only attend one school, then it's mathematically true that every school will have dozens of phantom applications.

    Based on public school choice systems I've studied around the country, most of the real sorting happens after the lottery. School operators spend all spring and summer working down their list contacting "next in line" parents once they learn that students accepted through the lottery are not in fact planning to enroll.

    How hard they work to inform each replacement child's family before they move on determines the makeup of the incoming class. School operators can work extra hard to get "desirable" students or even submit to the will of the pushy parent who spends the most time checking in, thereby subverting the intent of open admissions.

    Even if the schools do not play games, they must contend with an unstable student count and a miserable months-long process of juggling lists. Who loses in all this? Schools, parents, and most of all students whose parents are not savvy, persistent, or lucky enough to work the system.

    Fortunately, the solution is rather simple. Centralize the admissions process so there is a single application that parents fill out, a central (but not exclusive) clearinghouse for information about school options, and a single multi-school lottery that aggregates preferences and gives every family a fair shot at their most- (and second-most, third-most, etc.) preferred school.

    Once you have one-stop shopping for the application and notification process, you can realize other benefits, like a highly visible Parent Welcome Center, where parents can turn for information about the schools, much the way our Board of Elections provides voter guides. Parents can be counseled on the options and how to create a rank-ordered list of preferred schools and how to get a good shot at their favorites.

    So why don't we have a system like this? The DCPS out of boundary system is centralized. The charter schools, however, have not really organized themselves to get it done. It's obvious why they might be hesitant. The one thing they all have in common is that they value their autonomy. But even autonomy-loving charter schools should be able to see the benefits of collective action in this case.


    How do parents pick schools?

    For parents in our region, the hardest quality-of-life, "why am I here?" question is not related to transportation or even crime or retail amenities, but education. Is this a good place to raise our kids and send them to school?

    Photo by jGregor on Flickr.

    In DC in particular, this is the existential question that residents who are starting families have been asking themselves over and over since my wife and I moved here to start a family almost 10 years ago and surely long before then.

    There are families who have been in DC for generations but decamped to the suburbs. There are those who moved to DC as singles or childless couples and began plotting their exit as soon as the pregnancy test came back positive. Maybe they'd stick around until their babies hit school age, or finish elementary school, but the question was when, not whether to leave.

    Enrollment trends and anecdotes we pick up on the playgrounds and listservs make us wonder: How much of this is changing?

    Public school enrollment turning the corner in DC.

    DC has a vibrant system of charter schools, which are autonomous, tuition-free public schools. DC also has a school district whose leadership has been in the national news for hard-charging reform for over three years. Both the charters and DCPS have attracted hundreds of millions of dollars from private philanthropy.

    The aggressive facilities modernization of DCPS has included several flashy projects that are visible from the street, not to mention the improvements behind the scenes. The "state" of DC is one of 12 to win a Race to the Top funding from the feds, a $75 million grant. We just had a Mayoral campaign in which both major candidates pledged to continue aggressive school reform, with the only differences being who and how to implement it.

    As DC improves its schools, we should ask what, exactly, do parents look for in schools?

    In the mid-90s I wrote a doctoral dissertation using econometric methods to estimate the value that urban parents placed on elementary school options. Based on their revealed preferences from school lottery data, how much farther would they send their kindergartner to attend a school with a special language immersion program? What effect does the racial composition of a school have on parents' likelihood of choosing it for their own child?

    How do they trade off distance and quality? Is there a tipping point when they switched from walkable distances to bus-rides? How do these individual preferences aggregate to affect racial segregation? What if you change the rules that constrain parental choice of schools?

    I found that factors that were easy for me as a researcher to observe, as well as for parents to observe, like race and distance, were important. Looking at each race/ethnicity separately, all families had a preference for schools where their own group was represented, but according to my estimates each group (white, black, Asian/Hmong, and Native American) had a "bliss point" that was over 30% or 40% but well under 100%. In other words, everyone had both an own-race preference, but also a taste for diversity. (For smaller groups it was harder to achieve statistical precision in determining how strong that taste was or where the bliss point lay).

    Distance was critical. Nobody wants to put their six year-old kid on a bus for an hour twice a day, right? Evidence suggested that there were parents who were wiling to pass by half a dozen schools on the way to one with a special program. Fast forward 15 years and I am married, we have a 6 year-old, and that is exactly what we do for an international baccalaureate school with Chinese immersion.

    There was insufficient data to distinguish between the hypothesis that students were attending a school for its special program or to be with other kids like themselves. For example, if a school offers instruction in Native American Ojibwe language, does that explain why so many Native Americans cross town to attend, or is it because they want to be in a school with other Native Americans, or both?

    Since then there have been some interesting research papers demonstrating further how school quality and race and ethnicity factor into residential and school choices.

    The larger lesson for us is that where schools are located and what goes in them educationally will affect who attends them, which will in turn critically impact the city's social makeup and fabric. And our tax base. They affect how we are distributed within the city, but across the region as well.

    Almost six years ago my wife and I joined a group of parents who started our own public school through the chartering mechanism and many of our friends and neighbors have used the DCPS Out of Boundary choice system or moved to a particular DC neighborhood to select a traditional DCPS school.

    Photo by gsbrown99 on Flickr.
    I see anecdotally that more and more families are changing the question. Instead of "How long can we stand to stay here?" it's "Which DC school is right for our child?" and "How long a commute to school can we handle?"

    Maybe the big quality-of-life question is about transportation after all.

    Support Us
    DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City
    CC BY-NC