D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education tries to get ahead of the charter school walkability admissions preference debate

Jennie Niles, D.C.’s Deputy Mayor for Education, took some steps yesterday to rebound from catching the city’s public school stakeholders by surprise with Mayor Bowser’s announcement on January 30th that she would institute a charter school walkability admissions preference for the 2018-2019 school year.  Never mind that such a change would require an amendment to the School Reform Act by a D.C. Council caught unaware that the proposal was coming.  Also left in the dark were charter school leaders, FOCUS, the D.C. Public Charter School Board, the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools, and I am guessing the new DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson, whose first day on the job was to come within the next 48 hours.

Also not thought important enough to be part of the conversation was the Deputy Mayor’s own Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force, established almost exactly a year ago to look at, among other topics, cross-sector student feeder patterns.  When Ms. Niles was asked last week on WAMU’s The Kojo Nmamdi Show why the plan was not introduced in front of this body, she replied that everything that comes across her desk has cross-sector implications and therefore she cannot bring everything before them.

Now I guess Ms. Niles has changed her mind.  Yesterday at noon she held a conference call with the Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force members, and during the discussion she presented an analysis of the impact of the admissions preference.  There a lot of assumptions made behind the data contained in the document.  For example, parents would be able to take advantage of the preference as long as their neighborhood school is more than 0.5 miles walking distance from their homes and a charter is within 0.5 miles of their location.  However, the study bases the 0.5 miles “as the crow flies” which the authors admit slightly overestimates the impact of the change.  Other criteria used include the notion that all charters would agree to participate in the preference and that the schools would rank this preference below the sibling preference.  Those compiling this report state that both of these scenarios are not certain to be implemented in practice.

Using My School DC application data from the 2015 to 2016 school year, there were approximately 18,000 (37 percent) of elementary school students in the city that have a neighborhood DCPS school more than 0.5 miles beyond where they live.  Of this group 10,600 (22 percent of all elementary school students) have a charter within this distance.  Among those 10,600 pupils, 4,859 currently attend a DCPS school.  The document states that schools in Wards 5 and 8 would have the greatest impact on admissions due to the preference.

The numbers were then calculated for the current 2015 to 2016 term.  14,470 students participated in the elementary school lottery.  Of these 1,441 would qualify for the walkability preference.  Then, running a mock lottery, it was determined that 254 students would gain entrance to a charter through the new policy, 18 percent of those that qualify for the preference and 2 percent of total applicants.

The study goes on to say that most schools would see a change in admission of one to four children.  Of course, this means that there would be little impact regarding where special education and low-income kids go to learn.

As you can see the number of children impacted by the proposal is an extremely small number.  This is exactly why it should not go forward.  There is a tremendous chance for unintended consequences here which myself and others have highlighted.  It is not hard to imagine families gaming the system to get their kids into a better school, and there is also the chance that charter operators will figure out how to position their facilities in a location where they are able to craft a student body more to their liking.

As I’ve stated previously, the answer to more neighborhood kids in charters is to open and replicate those that are high performing.

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