Photo by markhillary on Flickr.

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?

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 choice — which 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 over — the 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.

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David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle.

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.