Missing The Point on Charter School Neighborhood Preference

Jonetta Rose Barras’s article last month missed the point. Every District of Columbia resident wants a high quality public school in their neighborhood; sadly, however, history shows that the District has long failed to provide it.

I was a member of the Neighborhood Preference Taskforce, which was created by the DC Council to examine whether the District’s public charter schools, which educate 43 percent of all DC public school students,, should offer an admissions preference to students in the neighborhoods in which they are located. For goods reasons, we concluded that any such preference should be strictly voluntary and limited to charters that move into former DCPS school buildings.

Today, thousands of students from disadvantaged neighborhoods cross the Anacostia River to escape failing neighborhood schools and attend high-quality public charter schools, of which there are not enough in Wards Seven and Eight.

Given the demand across the District for admission to high-quality schools, a required neighborhood preference for charter schools west of the Anacostia would likely mean that these students would be forced back across the river to the city-run schools from which they fled. This would deny these students access to a high-quality public school--something which is not available to most of them in their home wards, through no fault of their own.

DC public charter schools have been instrumental in improving the quality of public education. Charters’ high-school graduation rate is 21 percentage points higher than that of the city’s traditional public schools. And DC charter students, who are disproportionately from minority groups and economically disadvantaged, outscore their school-system peers on DC’s standardized reading and math tests

DC parents understand the high-quality public education that public charter schools offer: last spring charters got 22,000 more applications than there were seats available. Many top-performing public charter schools have been unable to expand to accommodate this demand because they traditionally have been denied sufficient access to school buildings DCPS no longer needs.

Far from undermining the neighborhood schools run by DCPS, charters—with their safe environments and superior academic performance—have been a catalyst for the city to reform the long-neglected school system.

Instead of trying to turn the open-admission charter schools into neighborhood schools, to the detriment of the most vulnerable, we should be talking about how to provide a quality seat to every DC public school student.


Robert Cane is the Executive Director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools.

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