Photo by Cedward Brice on Flickr.

DC Councilmembers voiced anxiety about an impending change in school boundaries at a hearing last week.  But instead of redrawing boundaries, maybe we should replace them with school choice zones.

Three education policy analysts recently penned an op-ed in the Washington Post calling for “controlled choice zones” in parts of DC. They suggested that in certain gentrifying areas, students should no longer be assigned to their closest neighborhood school.

Instead, families would list their preferences within a certain zone, and an algorithm would match them with one of their preferred schools while simultaneously taking family income into account. The objective would be to ensure that all schools within the zone have a mix of socioeconomic groups.

The concept is intriguing, but why limit it to certain neighborhoods? We should consider extending it to include all students enrolling in public schools in the District, in any part of town and any time of year.

The San Francisco plan, modified

Currently, DC students have a right to enroll in their in-boundary DCPS school at any time.  They can also apply to enroll in out-of-boundary DCPS schools or charter schools through a lottery. Under a District-wide controlled choice model, there would be no more school boundaries.

San Francisco has a city-wide controlled choice model, with no school boundaries and algorithmic school placement.  But the city isn’t divided into zones, so conceivably a student could be placed at a school on the other side of town. 

This system aggravates many San Francisco parents, but the resulting educational diversity has created one of the highest quality urban school systems in the country.

That’s because research has shown that a balance of socioeconomic status produces the best educational outcomes, both overall and for students at each socioeconomic level.

There’s already evidence of that in the District. The top elementary school in terms of student growth is not Janney, Mann, or another school populated entirely with students from within a wealthy boundary.  It’s Hyde, whose students are evenly split between affluent Georgetown families and out-of-boundary lottery applicants.

Obviously, the central political hurdle to this system is getting people to give up the right to buy their way into a good school district. But the only way to provide diverse schools is to eliminate the property right to the school closest to your house and place students using an algorithm.  There’s no way around it.

But that doesn’t mean we have to adopt the San Francisco system. With controlled choice zones, we could have many of the educational benefits of greater diversity without the anxiety of possibly being placed in a school far from home. 

Benefits of District-wide controlled choice

The authors of the Post op-ed suggest that parents be allowed to choose any DCPS or charter school within a given zone. They limit their proposal to “strategic parts of the city (namely, Capitol Hill, Columbia Heights, Mount Pleasant, Adams Morgan, Dupont/Logan Circle, and Petworth).” 

This would promote greater diversity, resulting in school quality and test score growth. And it would create a system that values strong neighborhood schools, regardless of whether they are charter or DCPS.

However, expanding controlled choice zones to the entire District would deliver several additional benefits.  Imagine if the lottery website allowed you to prioritize all of the elementary schools within 2 miles of your home, middle schools within 2.5 miles of your home, or high schools within 3 miles of your home. 

Again, these schools would include both DCPS and charter schools.  If the radius runs up against the District line, you could extend the radius in the opposite direction to compensate so as to have the same amount of choices. The algorithmic placement of students within these zones would generate the following additional benefits:

  • No parents would have to watch kids from across town attend a nearby high-performing charter school that didn’t admit their own kids.
  • More affluent families moving east would be integrated into existing schools, raising the performance of all students.
  • If this enrollment system includes mid-year enrollees, students who move to town or are expelled from a school mid-year would be placed using the same algorithm.  Charters would thus grapple with the same mid-year enrollees as DCPS.
  • Students wouldn’t be allowed to transfer within their zone during the year, putting a stop to the practice of “counseling out” students with greater educational challenges.


This proposal isn’t as far-fetched as it may seem to some.  Chancellor Henderson has floated the idea of creating multiple District-wide high schools open to all, in addition to more District-wide magnet schools.  And the three leading challengers to Mayor Vincent Gray in the Democratic primary—Councilmembers Muriel Bowser, Tommy Wells, and Jack Evans—have all committed to supporting neighborhood preference in charter school admissions.

Some may object that confining students to schools within one zone would limit choice, making zip code one’s education destiny.  But the reality is that most students already travel within the distances I’m suggesting.

In fact, a DC government task force cited the short commuting distances of charter students as a reason that neighborhood preference in admissions is unnecessary.

Furthermore, what if the choice one wants is a diverse school?  Under the District’s current system, families don’t always have that choice. Schools that begin to attract affluent students can quickly “flip” from overwhelmingly low-income to the opposite.

Will all zones in DC benefit?

Another objection is that some zones in DC wouldn’t have nearly enough non-poor students to create the diversity this plans aims for.  However, it’s precisely in these poorer parts of town—Wards 5, 7, and 8—that the plan would deliver the most support. 

Because the plan would force charters to share the burden of mid-year enrollees and would stop mid-year “voluntary” transfers, enrollment numbers in DCPS schools in high-poverty areas would stabilize.   

Also, as more affluent families move into these parts of town—a trend that many consider inevitable—this model ensures they will be integrated into existing schools for the maximum benefit of all students.  There will be no more “flipping” of schools.

Some affluent families may not move into poor neighborhoods because they don’t want to share in the work of supporting community institutions. The result will be a slower migration into these neighborhoods, but one that is more equitable for all and prevents displacement of long-time residents.

Finally, the controlled choice model would solve the intractable problem of overcrowding at Wilson High School.  DCPS officials seem hesitant to solve the problem by returning Ellington High School in Georgetown to its original function as a neighborhood high school drawing students from Hardy Middle School.

That has left parents in Ward 4 whose elementary schools feed into Deal Middle School and Wilson particularly nervous. DCPS may decide to route those students into a less desirable feeder pattern.

And if that happens, it could generate a federal civil rights lawsuit, as school officials will have drawn boundaries that reflect racial and socioeconomic fault lines in the District.  In fact, it was just such a civil rights lawsuit in San Francisco that led a judge to require the controlled choice model they have today.

Let’s consider adopting the controlled choice model for DC.  It works because it prioritizes both school choice and neighborhood schools.  What do you think?