Concern over D.C. charter school at-risk children lottery admissions preference

I read with extreme interest the editorial in the Washington Post by Peter Anderson, the head of Washington Latin PCS. It drew my attention because I was the board treasurer and chair during a six year period in this high performing school’s history when its continued viability was strengthened. Moreover, I have been to education conferences for years in which the illustration that Mr. Anderson describes has been shown on projection screens big and small. But despite universal audience opinion that equity is a value that everyone who is involved in teaching children should try and reach above all others, the line of reasoning has left me uncertain.

We have seen multiple articles celebrating the success of public school reform in the nation’s capital. This improvement is due to the competition that charter schools offered to the traditional school system beginning a quarter of a century ago. Since money followed the child there was strong incentive for schools to improve. For the first time parents became the customers in an education bureaucracy that rewarded adherence to the chain of command. Before public school reform reached the District we left our kids’ classrooms without books, instructors without incentives to instruct, and buildings characterized by falling plaster, gang activity, and the presence of drugs and guns.

Families are returning to D.C. schools and enrollment is at its highest level since right before Mayor Fenty was elected in 2007 on an education agenda. A major contribution to this growth has been the equal chance of parents to have their children admitted to one of the city’s charter schools.

Charter schools were established to provide an alternative to the one-size-fits-all model of the regular schools. Their concentration has been rightly on those that have not been successful in traditional classrooms, especially those who come from low-income homes. This is why so many charters have located in Wards 6, 7, and 8.

My worry is that the ability of a charter to voluntarily provide admissions preference to at-risk students will elevate equity over equality. It may send an unintentional signal that this sector is not for every child with the impact being a dissatisfaction by a significant portion of our community.

I remember when Senator Patrick Moynihan was alive and he argued famously that life was a race in which black families were often left behind at the starting line. It was a view of society that led to welfare policies that ending up hurting the very people he wanted to help. Senator Moynihan’s analogy is not much different from the drawing Mr. Anderson references.

I contend that equality is a superior value to equity and that this should be reflected in the same admission probability for all those who want to attend our schools. This does not mean that we should not provide additional support to those pupils who need them.

Washington Latin PCS has about a 2,000 student wait list and has been approved by the DC Public Charter School Board to replicate. If it really wants to focus on improving the lives of at-risk children, it should locate its next campus near where they live.

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