Image from Capital City PCS.

At-large councilmember David Grosso has introduced a bill to allow DC charter schools to give priority to students in their neighborhood for admissions. Supporters say it will strengthen neighborhoods, while opponents worry it would further disadvantage children from poorer areas.

It’s not a new idea. Denver, New York, New Orleans, Chicago, and Philadelphia all provide this sort of preference. In DC, a task force considered the issue last October, and then-Chairman Kwame Brown advocated for the idea last May.

The issue cuts across usual political divides in the city, with advocates and detractors in every area and constituency. Contributors on Greater Greater Washington have differing views about the proposal; in a pair of articles, Steve Glazerman argued it would undermine charter schools, while Ken Archer defended the concept.

After receiving support from Councilmember Tommy Wells, Chairman Brown, and Deputy Mayor for Education DeShawn Wright, the idea seemed to gain popularity. DC leaders formed a task force to consider the matter, with members from the council, the mayor’s office, the Washington Teacher’s Union, DC Public Schools, and the charter schools.

This past December, after reviewing testimony and having four public meetings, the task force decided that while charters near closing DCPS schools ought to offer priority to displaced children, in general charters should not be allowed to prefer children from their neighborhoods.

When the report was released, opponents criticized the report and the panel itself for ignoring the arguments for preference. Critics charged the task force largely decided against preference on the grounds that many schools already end up with a disproportionate number of students from their surrounding community.

The case for preference

The report’s authors said they didn’t see much demand from the public for this policy, but their own data shows the reverse. Despite randomly selecting students, charters still end up with disproportionate numbers of neighborhood kids. This demonstrates that parents generally want their children to attend school nearby.

It isn’t simply an issue of wanting a shorter commute. The passion we see from school closure opponents reveals how residents — and especially parents — see schools as anchors of the community.

As DC education shifts toward having about half of students in charters versus DCPS, the charters cannot be just special schools that serve those with a particular, unusual interest. These are general attendance schools, and should be just as responsive to parental needs as are the DCPS schools they are replacing.

Having a social community at school is also not simply a luxury. It’s vital that children feel that most of their friends are in the school they’re being asked to travel alone to attend. Truancy, for instance, is linked to being socially unengaged or independent of one’s school.

While charters now tend to draw children from families with the strongest interest in education, over time charters will be educating a wider cross-section of students. Some students will be committed enough to specialty programs to journey across the city, and will find closer friends when they arrive. However, many of the more marginal students, most vulnerable to truancy, will see the mandate to cross the city as an irritation when their friends live a short walk away.

Third, educational options require public support. Without neighborhoods feeling they have a stake in (and benefit from) DCPS schools becoming charters, the opposition DC has recently seen to school closures will arise every time DCPS considers consolidating schools and leasing their surplus sites to charter programs.

These residents aren’t being unreasonable. If their children cannot reliably access the school, a building that was an amenity is being taken away from them without any compensating service being offered.

Finally, and most significantly, charters offer the possibility that residents of a community might band together to build programs that meet their needs. Currently, even if they do so on their own, their children many not be able to attend.

Community engagement in public education is vital, and neighborhood charter schools provide the avenue for these neighborhoods to directly participate in their own uplift. Unless charters can offer neighborhood preference, charter schools will remain the province of national non-profit chains and donor-backed specialty programs.

The case against preference

None of these arguments takes away from the single greatest argument that opponents of preference (including the task force) have identified: Neighborhood preference can further enshrine educational resource disparities between wealthier and less well-off communities in the city. While many charters are located in Wards 4 and 5, there are few across the Anacostia River. Any neighborhood preference regime would have to accommodate these communities.

There are other arguments against preference, but this is by far the most compelling. Without some resolution, the position of children in Wards 7 and 8 would be strictly worse than before, as Ward 3 DCPS schools fill up with in-boundary students, and charters fill with neighborhood kids.

One idea would be to give a different sort of preference to children in any neighborhood cluster that lacks a school and meets a certain threshold of poverty. Some percentage of seats could be set aside in each charter where neighborhood preference would not apply, and where these children would have preference relative to others.

While some concession like this must be a part of preference, the principle of neighborhood charter schools is a good one. A version of Grosso’s bill deserves to move forward into law.

Rahul Sinha is a member of Greater Greater Washington’s Elections Committee, and has been a contributor since 2013. He was born in the District and has lived in Kalorama Triangle since 2009. During the day Rahul works as an economist and data scientist for international development. He served a term on a DCPS advisory board, and currently serves as a trustee on the board of a DC charter school.