Photo by Adrienne Johnson SF on Flickr.

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.

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.