Ron Brown Middle School in Ward 7, slated for closure

DC Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced yesterday that DCPS plans to close 20 schools. All of the closed schools are east of Rock Creek Park, and 9 are east of the Anacostia River.

In these areas, charter schools continue to grow and DCPS neighborhood schools shrink, while families are clamoring to attend neighborhood schools in the wealthiest parts of the District.

The danger of this trend is that the District will drift toward two, completely separate public school systems: a neighborhood-based school system primarily in the city’s west, and a charter school system in the east. 

These two systems are very different and geographically separate. But are they equal?  That’s the central question that yesterday’s announcement raises.  And it’s a question not for Henderson, who is responsible just for DCPS, but for the Mayor and Council.

DC is splitting into 2 separate school systems

For the past decade, more and more children who live in boundary for some traditional public schools, particularly west of Rock Creek Park, have wanted to enroll. The result has been a network of high-quality and popular local elementary schools — Janney, Key, LaFayette, Hyde-Addison, Murch, and so on — feeding into strong middle schools and ultimately into Wilson High School.

The Wilson boundary runs along 16th Street, next to the park that is re-dividing the city into the educational haves on the west and charter lottery applicants on the east.  There are a few exceptions, like schools on Capitol Hill, or Ross Elementary in Dupont Circle, but even in these neighborhoods, most families leave DCPS after elementary school because they’re not yet comfortable enough with the middle and high schools.

For decades, this boundary mattered far less as schools west of the park had spare capacity for many students east of the park in the out-of-boundary lottery.  However, rising in-boundary enrollment west of the park will soon make bus trips across the park a thing of the past.

Wilson High was designed to serve 400 students per grade.  Yet there are 750 4th grade students in the schools that feed into Wilson.

In much of the rest of the city, the local elementary school, anchor and civic space of the community, is too becoming a relic. As school closures due to under-enrollment eviscerate the institution of the neighborhood school, car and bus trips criss-crossing the city to charters are increasing in number. 

Meanwhile, middle and high schools east of the park struggle to coordinate programming with schools in their feeder patterns as schools open and close and students come and go in droves. 

These two public school systems are as separate as they could possibly be.  Are they equal?

Is separation a problem?

Should we worry about this? Some, such as perhaps the Washington Post editorial board, might say there’s not a problem. If one type of schools works well in some neighborhoods, but is failing in others, why not keep it where it’s working and ditch it where it’s not? Maybe we need a completely different educational approach for the poorest neighborhoods versus the richest.

However, even education experts still don’t agree about whether a system of all charters will actually work better. Charter school critics repeatedly point to studies that show charter schools do not, on the whole, deliver better results than do traditional public schools.  Of course, parents across the city know several charter schools that deliver amazing results.

The Public Charter School Board is supposed to address this problem by closing under-performing charter schools.  However, they have been more likely to give charters extensions of time to improve. If that works, perhaps that is wise, but there’s a real danger it just means more under-performing schools linger for years while doing their students a real disservice.

As out-of-boundary students get pushed out of the most desirable schools, many of them become less diverse. Many wealthier families choosing between public and private school cite diversity, both ethnic, income, and otherwise, as a major advantage of public education. And one of the best ways to help students with disadvantaged backgrounds is to include them in schools with many higher-performing peers.

Having 2 separate school systems could also create political problems. If there is one system that serves rich neighborhoods, and another service the poor neighborhoods, would well-meaning parents in the wealthier and more politically powerful neighborhoods lobby for more funding for traditional public education and inadvertently disadvantage less affluent areas? Or would politicians from the poorer wards of the District end up opposing DCPS’s needs? A battle for resources between the haves and have-nots is not what we need, regardless of how it turns out.

From a transportation standpoint, it’s not great to have most kids riding buses or being driven long distances to charter schools that might be nowhere near their neighborhoods, if there can be a good alternative nearby.

It’s not like residents of the poorest wards want to abolish all of their neighborhood schools. Staffers for Councilmember Marion Barry explained that most of their constituents want neighborhood schools to stay open, to improve and succeed.

What can be done?

Both traditional public schools and charter schools clearly have important roles to play in our public school system.  Few deny that.  The question is, how do their roles fit together such that we don’t end up with separate and unequal school systems?

For one, there needs to be leadership at a high level to reconcile these two systems. DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson will come in for the most strident and vocal criticism of the school closures.  This is unfortunate, as she only controls DCPS.

It’s difficult to fault Henderson for closing schools left under-enrolled by students leaving for charters. What is the alternative—keep many mostly-empty schools around?

The Deputy Mayor for Education and the DC Council are the bodies that should be thinking about the public school system as a whole, not Chancellor Henderson.  Yet both bodies claim organizational impotence.  The result is that no one is leading our public school system.

Second, these leaders need to think about this problem and explore ways to address it. For the more successful schools, they could consider a “controlled choice” system, which Michael Petrilli mentioned when interviewed for a recent Washington Post article, and which David Alpert discussed in a series of articles this year.

A related idea on the other side, which Councilmember Tommy Wells has been pushing and I previously discussed, is to give children who live near a non-specialized charter school a preference to attend. Charters would set aside some percentage of their spots for in-boundary families.

This would engage charters in the struggles of their community.  While many charters will object that they need parents who are committed to their program, these objections miss the point of charter autonomy.  Autonomy is supposed to be autonomy from the bureaucracy and red-tape of DC Public Schools, not autonomy from the educational challenges that students in one neighborhood present.

Ideas such as these for aligning and situating our two public school systems for the good of the entire system come up periodically from isolated councilmembers, advocates, and in the press.  It’s time for someone to rise to the moment, and forestall a return to separate and unequal school systems in the nation’s capital.

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.