Photo by Derek Bridges on Flickr.

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.

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.