At-risk student admission preference in D.C. charter schools is a bad idea

I would be a fool to argue with my friend Daniela Anello, head of school for DC Bilingual PCS. However, the notion of a voluntary at-risk student preference for students applying to charter schools in the nation’s capital, which Ms. Anello supports according to the Washington Post’s Perry Stein, strikes me as the wrong way to go.

I completely understand the logic behind making this change. Some charters, such as Washington Latin PCS, Basis PCS, and other highly sought-after language immersion schools, enroll relatively low levels of students who are categorized as at-risk. If charter schools could reserve a percentage of their seats for at-risk students, the number thirty percent is being floated, then the diversity of the student body would increase and low-income students would gain access to a quality education therefore helping to narrow the achievement gap. It all makes sense, perhaps in the short-term.

However, the plan is not consistent with the tenets of school choice. Under the philosophy of an education marketplace that has provided the foundation for public education reform in the District for more than twenty five years, admission to charters is on a random basis through a lottery once a school has more applicants than seats. There are a few admission preferences that exist today. Siblings of already admitted students get offers to attend before other students and the same is true of children of school employees and those of founding board members, although there are numerical limits to the latter two. St. Colletta PCS gained approval in 2017 for a special education student preference. I learned today that a charter school may, with the prior approval of the DC PCSB, give an admission preference to active members of the armed forces.

The best way to ensure that charter schools are responsive to the needs of their customers, who are their parents and their students, is to ensure that their customers want to be in that school. Anything that alters the relationship of supply and demand diminishes the power of choice. If more affluent pupils gain access to a school because more numbers apply to get in, then this is only fair.

The way to accomplish having more at-risk children attend our charters is to build them where these kids live. How often have we heard the mantra repeated that we need to “meet kids where they are.” This is exactly the route taken by Two Rivers PCS, Lee Montessori PCS, Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom PCS and potentially the future location of the second Washington Latin campus.

The advantage of this route for teaching more low-income students is that charters begin to become more of a neighborhood school, something that people like me who favor an educational marketplace predicted would occur. Young people then attend school with those that live around them and transportation for parents becomes simpler. Picture here KIPP DC PCS, Friendship PCS, and DC Prep PCS, for example.

Some will make the case that my solution to teaching more at-risk pupils reduces diversity in the classroom. This may be true when measuring this trait by race. My hope is that we have moved past this method of classification.

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