A coalition of DC education activists says we should strengthen the system of neighborhood by-right schools, and require coordinated planning between District of Columbia Public Schools and DC’s public charter sector.

The coalition has released six principles it hopes will provide a basis for discussion during the current election season. Over 60 DC residents have signed the statement, and the group’s press release says they include supporters “of each of the major candidates for Mayor.”

In addition, the signatories include representatives of education councils in several wards, parents and teachers, ANC commissioners, and several former members of the advisory committee that drew up the new school boundary plan.

A coalition spokesperson, Evelyn Boyd Simmons, says the group hopes that one or more of the mayoral candidates will incorporate the entire set of principles into his or her platform.

Some principles touch on areas of broad agreement, such as “Focus resources on students and communities with the greatest need.” Others, however, may encounter opposition from some in the charter school community.

The first principle calls for ensuring that “all families have access to high-quality DCPS schools in their neighborhoods,” arguing that the demand for matter-of-right neighborhood schools became clear during the recent debate over school boundaries.

“While residents want the ability to select alternatives,” the group’s statement says, “they do not want to be at the mercy of a lottery for access to a school that can fully meet the needs of their children and community.”

Charter school growth

The coalition appears to endorse the view that the growth of the charter sector, which now educates nearly half of all DC public school students, threatens to undermine efforts to strengthen the DCPS system.

The signatories urge the DC government to “require coordinated planning” between DCPS and the Public Charter School Board to “build a core system of stable DCPS neighborhood schools with a complementary set of alternative options.” Such planning, the statement says, should cover “proposed modernizations, expansions, closing, and openings of any school.”

Some charter advocates have resisted anything other than voluntary cooperation between the sectors. Of the 65 signatories to the principles that are currently listed on the group’s website, only three list affiliations with charter schools: two are charter parents, and one is a board member at a charter school for adult immigrants, Carlos Rosario.

Boyd Simmons said she hopes more charter school parents and leaders will sign on in the future. She also said that many parents don’t see the two sectors as that separate, because they move back and forth between them or have one child in each.

At the same time, she acknowledged that the conversation with the charter sector about the issue may be “dicey.” But, she added, “that doesn’t obviate the fact that it needs to be addressed.”

Of the three leading mayoral candidates, Carol Schwartz has been clearest in endorsing the idea that charter school growth and location should be limited. In her education platform, she criticized the recent opening of a science-focused charter school across the street from a similarly themed DCPS school.

Muriel Bowser has made increased collaboration between the two sectors one of the planks of her platform, but she stopped short of saying restrictions should be imposed on charters. Instead, she said she would “empower the Deputy Mayor for Education to make recommendations about improving collaboration” between DCPS and charters.

David Catania made no mention of charter growth or cross-sector collaboration in his lengthy education platform.

The six principles include calls to improve the transparency of the DCPS and charter school budgets and to use measures beyond proficiency rates on standardized tests to assess student growth. The signatories also want to ensure that families and community members are able to participate in decisions affecting education.

No stand on school boundaries

One thing the principles don’t take a stand on is the new school boundary plan, which has attempted to address overcrowding in some schools and under-enrollment in others. While a poll showed a majority of DC residents support the new plan, some who have been zoned out of more desirable school catchment areas have fiercely opposed it. Both Bowser and Catania have said they would not implement the plan as it stands now.

Boyd Simmons and Matt Frumin, another member of the coalition, said the boundary issue was simply not a focus of the group’s discussions, which started over a year ago, before the advisory committee on boundaries was even formed.

Both were also members of that committee, and they said that one frequent criticism of the committee’s work was that it didn’t address the issue of school quality. That, they said, is the focus of the principles the coalition has put forward.

“It’s more about whatever it takes to move the whole public education system forward in a positive direction,” Boyd Simmons said.

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.