Mayer Bowser takes first step to allow charters to become neighborhood schools

Yesterday, at a ceremony at D.C. Bilingual PCS as part of a celebration of D.C. Education Week, Mayor Bowser took the first step in her long-held desire to have charter schools offer a neighborhood admissions preference.  Calling her concept a “walkability preference” the announced change in policy would allow the city’s charters to provide partiality to elementary school children who live within a half mile of a charter when their normally assigned neighborhood traditional school is more than this distance from their homes.

This is a terrible idea.  For 20 years charters in this town have driven the rise of quality for all schools through the competition for students and the per pupil revenue that is associated with their education.  The arrangement instantaneously transformed parents into customers because their decision as to where to send their kids has powerful consequences for school budgets.  Before the forces of school choice were unleashed in the nation’s capital the traditional schools were wastelands of educational malpractice in facilities that were literally falling apart all around them.

Anything that interferes with an educational marketplace takes away from the clout of parents.  Under Ms. Bowser’s proposal, and it is really only a proposal because its implementation would take amending the School Reform Act through approval of the D.C. Council,  parents could be provided access to charters not because they like the curriculum, or the principal, or the standardized test scores, but simply due to its location.  We would be turning our backs on the incentives that turned around a deplorable situation.

Do you think I’m exaggerating the impact of all this?  Under a walkability preference an operator can open a charter in Ward 3, the most affluent part of town, strategically locate it more than a half a mile from a regular school, and then fill it with children living steps from its door, thereby blocking access by low-income kids from Wards 6, 7, and 8 that this charter movement was created to serve.  Mayor Bowser would effectively be providing a private school education on the taxpayers’ dime.

The fear of diminishing the availability of charters to at risk kids was a primary reason that a Neighborhood Preference Task Force rejected the notion of a admissions preference back in 2012.  The Mayor could have been reminded of this finding if she had consulted with FOCUS or any other public leaders of the charter movement before making this decision, but the information I have is that she failed to take this step.  As the Washington Post’s Alejandra Matos

The preference came sandwiched between a flurry of other dictums.  The Mayor stated that she would include in this year’s budget request a two percent increase in the charter school per pupil facility allotment which would raise it to $3,193; closer but not quite up to the $3,250 that charter leaders had begged for in 2016.  She also announced that D.C. Bilingual will be allowed to stay at the Keene School and that the P.R. Harris School will be provided to Building Hope’s Charter School Incubator Initiative for the eventual home to two Ward 8 charters.

The Washington Post quotes D.C. Council education committee chairman David Grosso as stating that he has “already heard some ‘vocal uproar'” regarding the walkability preference concept.  Let’s hope that he along with others can stop this revision to the SRA before one child is harmed.

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