D.C. charter school walkability admission preference favors affluent families

As I wrote about yesterday, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser on Monday introduced a policy proposal for a change in the School Reform Act that would give students an admissions preference to charters within a half mile of where they live if their regularly assigned DCPS school is more than that distance from their home.  The seismic change in admission policy which Ms. Bowser referred to as a “walkability prefernce” was advanced by the Mayor without consulting any of the major players in the charter school movement including the town’s most prominent charter advocacy group FOCUS.  Even her own Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force did not see this coming.

WAMU’s Martin Austermuhle quotes me in an article about this subject as opining that the idea is terrible and he raises a point by David Grosso, the chairman of the D.C. Council’s Education Committee, that I had not previously considered.  According to Mr. Grosso:

“Who does it really impact? In the really high quality, Tier 1 charters, are parents who have the money therefore able to buy a home strategically in that neighborhood? And if they do that, does it raise questions about segregation in our city?”

I see this working both ways.  Affluent parents can decide to locate near a charter to get their kids in or a school operator can decide on a site in which academically high performing kids can be skimmed from a DCPS facility.

To her credit, Ms. Bowser is trying to address an issue that frustrates many parents.  They may live physically close to a great charter, but because these are schools of choice they may be not able to gain access to them for their children.  I experienced this first hand with Washington Latin PCS both when we were in negotiations with the Cafritz’s for a permanent facility and with the neighbors around 2nd Street, N.W., where we eventually took over the old Rudolph Elementary.  Both groups expressed dismay that Latin could not pull pupils directly from the local community.

In his piece Mr. Austermuhle quotes my friend Susan Schaeffler,  the CEO of KIPP DC, as commenting:

“KIPP D.C. is trying to work with the public chartering authority to say, ‘Hey, is there a chance we can give preference to kids that can walk to school, and make it so that it’s not the entire school, but maybe 15 percent of the seats are held for students that can walk to school?’ That just makes sense citywide as a strategy.”

But I strongly contend that the solution to this problem is not to mess with admission preferences.  The answer is to greatly accelerate the replication of excellent charters and to bring some of the best ones from around the United States to the nation’s capital.  Once we have added a sufficient capacity of good quality seats these schools will naturally draw from the blocks around where they are situated.

Parents would much prefer to have neighborhood schools that work.

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