Photo by Elizabeth/Table4Five on Flickr.

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.

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.