What Could a Neighborhood Admissions Preference Mean for DC’s Neediest Students?
The District of Columbia is known for its commitment to public school choice. If parents do not want to send their child to their neighborhood school, they can apply to an out-of-boundary DC public school or to any DC public charter school. But what happens when the most sought-after schools do not have enough seats available to meet the demand? Or what happens if your neighborhood DC public school (DCPS) closes but you cannot get into a nearby charter school because it accepts students city-wide?
One idea to be studied by a task force this summer is a neighborhood admissions preference for DC public charter schools. As the number of DCPS schools decline, helping families to access public charter schools in their neighborhoods is important to consider. But the District can use the opportunity of this task force to look at broader issues, too, including how to help more low-income students get access to the highest-performing schools.
Currently, if a DC charter school has more applications than available seats, students are selected through a random lottery (after preference is given to siblings of enrolled students and children of the school’s board members/founders). A neighborhood preference for a share of each charter school’s seats could mean a family living near a charter school has a greater chance for admission.
There are mixed reactions to this concept. Supporters believe it is unfair that parents who live near a high-quality charter school are not able to send their children there. This forces many DC children to travel far to go to school, which is inefficient, costly, and may prohibit some families from being able to access a better school. Many residents also feel that if low-performing schools are replaced with charters as recommended in a recent study of DC school quality, then a neighborhood admissions preference could help these families get access to the new schools first.
Others worry that this type of preference would lead to greater levels of segregation. Because many higher-performing charter schools are in middle class neighborhoods, neighborhood preference could, in some cases, make it harder for low-income students to get in, and would essentially displace low-income children by catering to more affluent neighborhood residents instead.
The task force will be led by Brian Jones, board chair of the DC Public Charter School Board. Other members now being selected will include representatives from government agencies, charter schools, researchers, and charter school advocates. The meetings, which should be open to the public, will take place this summer to complete the final report with recommendations by Sept. 1, 2012.
The task force is only charged with exploring a neighborhood preference but, why stop there? With all the right people in the room, why not maximize this opportunity to increase access for our city’s neediest students? DCFPI recommends the task force also consider a “weighted lottery” to give low-income students a preference in charter admissions. Research confirms that these students face the greatest educational barriers and that they benefit significantly from being in academically rigorous environments. A similar recommendation for the funding formula already came out of the DC Public Education Finance Reform Commission. Adding an income preference to the charter lottery system would truly increase access to quality schools for our neediest students. As they work through what works best for DC, DCFPI urges the task force to take the conversation even further to level the playing field for education.