In a city still reeling from a series of school closures under the Fenty administration, education leaders in the District are abuzz over a controversial report on the school system released last week. Commissioned by the Deputy Mayor for Education, “Quality Schools: Every Child, Every School, Every Neighborhood,“ also known as the IFF study, recommends that the city close or turnaround 38 traditional public schools and three public charter schools and encourages the replication of high-performing charter schools in neighborhoods with the greatest need. DC officials have issued reassurances that there will not be any dramatic transfer of the city school system to public charter schools, but the study has sparked tensions between advocates of traditional public school and public charter schools.
The study analyzes supply and demand for “performing schools” in DC and provides data on the ten neighborhoods that have the largest gap in education service. This is defined as the difference between the number of students living in the neighborhood and enrolled in K-12 public schools (the demand) and the number of seats available in high-performing schools as defined by IFF (the supply). The study relied on DC-CAS test results to measure the number of “performing seats” at each school. IFF developed a four-tier system to rank schools from highest performing (Tier 1) to lowest performing (Tier 4) across 39 neighborhood clusters in the city. Not surprisingly, the need for performing seats was highest in DC’s poorest neighborhoods and for elementary school grades. Over half of the Tier 4 schools are located in Wards 7 and 8 and out of the additional 39,758 Tier 1 seats needed to meet demand across neighborhoods, 21,164 are for kindergarten to fifth grade.
One of the report’s main recommendations is to close or turn around Tier 4 DCPS schools and replace them with high-performing public charter schools. The researchers go as far as to suggest an incentive to maximize existing building capacity – “With cooperation and coordination between DCPS and PCSB [Public Charter School Board], PCSB can use the buildings as incentives to recruit the highest performing charter school operators into the Top Ten priority neighborhood clusters.”
DCFPI’s take? Policymakers should take the analysis with a grain of salt. There have been numerous criticisms of the study, from the rigor of the supply and demand analysis technique to IFF’s ties to charter school funders. For example, the researchers base their definition of quality on a school’s test scores rather than on student achievement growth from year to year, a better predictor of how well equipped schools are at teaching at-risk student populations over time. IFF also did not make the link between performing seats and schools serving large numbers of special education or English language learner students or poverty rates across neighborhoods. Ignoring these critical factors when making policy decisions regarding school closure, turnaround, or expansion would be short-sighted.