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Should some charter schools be able to decide for themselves whether to give a preference to applicants who live in their neighborhood? The leaders of at least one DC charter think so, and the DCPS Chancellor seems to agree.

At a DC Council hearing last month on proposed new boundaries and feeder patterns, two top officials at a highly ranked charter school in Ward 8 pleaded for a change in the law that would allow them to give an admissions preference to families who live nearby.

Later at the same hearing, DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson expressed surprise at the charter school’s stance, given the general lack of enthusiasm for such a change in the charter sector, and seemed supportive of its plea. She also connected the issue to the charter community’s recent opposition to joint DCPS-charter planning. Charters have said such planning would infringe on their autonomy.

“If that’s not autonomy—a school saying I would like to be able to serve neighborhood kids,” Henderson said in exasperation, “then what is autonomy?”

Under current law, charter schools must admit any child who applies and must hold a lottery if there are more applicants than seats. A task force that considered the neighborhood preference issue two years ago recommended against it, saying it might exclude low-income children in Wards 7 and 8 from high-performing charters elsewhere in the District.

For example, if highly sought-after charter schools in gentrifying areas, such as the vastly oversubscribed Two Rivers, exercised a neighborhood preference, low-income applicants from other areas would be shut out.

The task force did consider allowing individual charters the option of adopting a neighborhood preference, as Eagle Academy wants to do, provided that it would be “educationally advantageous to the city as a whole” and would not harm “disadvantaged populations.” But no charter leaders indicated strong support for that idea, and the task force didn’t recommend it.

In fact, Eagle Academy’s founder, Cassandra Pinkney, was one of two charter leaders who spoke against neighborhood preference when the task force held a public hearing. But she says her understanding was that the task force was only considering a mandatory neighborhood preference rather than an optional one.

“You cannot require charters to be neighborhood schools, because some are specialized,” said Joe Smith, Eagle Academy’s chief operating and chief financial officer, in an interview. “We are a community school, so for our own school it would be very important to set aside a number of seats for kids in the neighborhood.”

But it’s not clear how many other charters feel the same way. When Smith testified at the DC Council hearing, he acknowledged that the school’s position was “a little heretical.”

Eagle Academy isn’t typical

Eagle Academy, which serves 3-year-olds through 3rd-graders, is in an anomalous position. Most charters in low-income locations already draw largely from their neighborhoods, so a neighborhood preference might not make much difference. In 2012, the neighborhood preference task force found that over half the charter students attending schools in Wards 7 and 8 go to schools within their own wards.

But recently, according to Smith, some parents from affluent Ward 3 have begun enrolling their children at Eagle Academy’s Ward 8 campus, drawn by its innovative technology program and award-winning new building. Meanwhile, the school has to turn many neighborhood applicants away.

While the number from Ward 3 is small—fewer than 20 children out of over 700 enrolled—the school wants to ensure that it primarily serves students from the surrounding low-income community.

Still, some charters in predominantly low-income neighborhoods oppose the idea of allowing charters a neighborhood preference option. That’s the view of Diane Cottman, executive director of Latin American Montessori Bilingual (LAMB), a school near Military Road and 13th Streets NW that is popular with middle-class parents from around the District.

She acknowledged that LAMB staff members find it difficult to turn away parents from the neighborhood who come in hoping to enroll their children, not realizing there were application deadlines and a lottery that they missed.

“In my heart of hearts,” Cottman said, “I’d say yes, we might want to reserve 10 or 15% of our slots” for neighborhood kids.

But, she continued, “the devil is in the details.” She questioned how a neighborhood would be defined, and what would happen with a “hardship case” a block outside the boundary. She also said that some bilingual schools, like hers, might prefer the option of a preference for children who speak languages other than English, and that other charters might lobby for other kinds of preferences.

“Once you inject preference,” she said, “it opens a wide array of what people would like to include.”

Those kinds of questions appear to have kept change at bay. Councilmember David Grosso introduced a bill last year that would have allowed new charters to give a preference to neighborhood children, but it hasn’t gone anywhere.

And a spokesman for Councilmember David Catania, chair of the education committee, echoed Cottman’s concern that the neighborhood preference issue was complex.

“We would need just as thorough an analysis of it as any other issue, like boundaries and feeder patterns,” said Brendan Williams-Kief, adding that Catania has been talking to “lots of different folks” about the idea and is “willing to have conversations about it.”

DCPS’s position

You might expect DCPS to oppose allowing a neighborhood preference for charters. After all, a charter that draws primarily from its neighborhood could lure away students from a DCPS school in the same area, leaving the DCPS school underenrolled.

But Henderson’s impassioned statement at last month’s Council hearing indicated that she supports the idea, at least in some cases. (To watch that part of her testimony, click here. It appears about 5 hours and 35 minutes into the hearing.)

A DCPS spokesperson said that a neighborhood preference for charters would “require lots of planning and lots of conversation.” But Henderson is particularly interested in a certain kind of preference: she wants a charter that takes over a building vacated by a closed DCPS school to be able to guarantee admission to the DCPS school’s former students.

That’s not allowed under current law, a problem that has derailed Henderson’s plan to have a high-performing charter in Ward 8 take over a struggling DCPS elementary school, Malcolm X. Still, that proposal appears to have a better chance of becoming a reality than the kind of preference Eagle Academy would like to exercise.

True, guaranteeing slots for students from a closed DCPS school is a more pressing need than a general neighborhood preference. And it would encourage the kind of DCPS-charter collaboration that could lead to better outcomes for many students.

But, as Henderson said in her DC Council testimony, it’s hard to see why Eagle Academy shouldn’t be allowed to give priority to low-income kids in its neighborhood, even if—or perhaps especially if—it’s the only charter that wants to do so.

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.