School choice falls short

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - NAOMI RU­BIN DEVEAUXANDMARKSCHNEIDER Naomi Ru­bin DeVeaux is di­rec­tor of school qual­ity at Friends of Choice in Ur­ban Schools. Mark Schneider is a vice pres­i­dent at Amer­i­can In­sti­tutes for Re­search and a vis­it­ing scholar at the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute

Few high-qual­ity op­tions ex­ist for chil­dren in the District who hope to leave low-per­form­ing schools, which is a sit­u­a­tion that has to change.

Ev­ery sum­mer, an in­creas­ingly com­mon event oc­curs across the nation — par­ents open a let­ter telling them that their child’s school failed to meet bench­marks set by the fed­eral No Child Left Be­hind law. As a re­sult, the let­ter ex­plains, they have the right to send their child to an­other pub­lic school if space is avail­able.

The District is no stranger to this event. Some 39 per­cent of D.C. pub­lic school chil­dren at­tend in­de­pen­dently run but pub­licly fi­nanced char­ter schools. About 30 per­cent more re­ject their neigh­bor­hood school to par­tic­i­pate in the out-of-bound­ary pro­gram op­er­ated by D.C. pub­lic schools. So when par­ents with chil­dren in about 100 D.C. schools re­ceived this let­ter last year, you would think that they had plenty of good al­ter­na­tives to their fail­ing schools.

But a study thatwe con­ducted as part of our work at the Amer­i­can In­sti­tutes for Re­search and Friends of Choice in­Ur­ban Schools found that few D.C. par­ents re­ceiv­ing these letters can hope to find a place for their child at a high­er­per­form­ing school.

The re­search showed that D.C. par­ents trans­ferred a to­tal of 11,631 stu­dents from one pub­lic school — tra­di­tional or char­ter— to an­other last year. Of these, only 29 per­cent ended up in a “ higher pro­fi­ciency” school. To meet this def­i­ni­tion, schools had to ex­ceed the District av­er­age for stu­dent pro­fi­ciency and the state District av­er­age for pro­fi­ciency and growth in pro­fi­ciency com­bined. About 33 per­cent en­rolled in a school with be­low-av­er­age pro­fi­ciency, and 38 per­cent en­rolled in a school of un­proven qual­ity — schools that have in­suf­fi­cient data to judge them.

The par­ents and guardians of these 11,631 stu­dents had more than 90 char­ter schools and 100 D.C. pub­lic schools to choose from, yet few true op­tions are avail­able. This lack of op­tions may sur­prise those who con­sider the District a show­case for school choice. Af­ter all, the city’s 14-year-old char­ter school law is con­sid­ered to be one of the strong­est in the nation. And DCPS has had three years of may­oral con­trol and for­mer chan­cel­lor Michelle Rhee’s re­forms.

It’s true that, in the­ory, the District of­fers par­ents who can­not af­ford pri­vate tu­ition or hous­ing in neigh­bor­hoods with bet­ter pub­lic schools the op­por­tu­nity to send a child to a higher-per­form­ing school, but in prac­tice most trans­fer stu­dents will not get into one. Be­cause par­ents whose chil­dren are al­ready en­rolled in high­per­form­ing schools over­whelm­ingly — and un­der­stand­ably — re-en­roll their chil­dren each year, few places be­come avail­able for trans­fer­ring stu­dents. Since en­rolled stu­dents are guar­an­teed a place for each suc­ces­sive grade level, the great­est num­ber of seats avail­able in higher-pro­fi­ciency schools are at preschool, sixth grade and ninth grade — the en­try points for ele­men­tary, mid­dle and high school.

A close ex­am­i­na­tion of the num­bers starkly re­veals par­ents’ lack of choice be­cause of the pop­u­lar­ity of higher-pro­fi­ciency schools. The District’s four higher-pro­fi­ciency char­ter high schools (Friend­ship Col­le­giate Academy, Thur­good Mar­shall Academy, SEED School of Washington D.C. and Ce­sar Chavez Capi­tolHill Cam­pus) pro­vided 564 of the places made avail­able to trans­fer­ring stu­dents last year. But of these, 404 were in ninth grade, while just 75 places were avail­able for those try­ing to get in af­ter 10th grade— 45 spots in 11th grade and 30 in 12th. Worse, there were no open­ings in any grade for new out-of-bound­ary stu­dents in higher-pro­fi­ciency DCPS high schools.

Two trends make this scarcity more se­vere. In­creas­ingly, high­er­pro­fi­ciency pub­lic char­ter schools are adding ele­men­tary, mid­dle and high schools to their of­fer­ings. This is a good thing, but it also re­duces the chances of stu­dents who want to trans­fer into these schools. At the same time, the short­age of open­ings in high-qual­ity schools en­cour­ages D.C. par­ents to be­gin the hunt for qual­ity schools ear­lier and ear­lier, fa­vor­ing those with the most in­for­ma­tion and the most re­sources. This last trend re­duces the op­tions avail­able to dis­ad­van­taged par­ents in many neigh­bor­hoods and makes par­ents ev­ery­where work harder to find a qual­ity place.

The District’s pub­lic char­ter school re­form has done much to add higher-pro­fi­ciency schools to the choices avail­able, es­pe­cially in dis­ad­van­taged neigh­bor­hoods, and DCPS re­form has in­tro­duced new teach­ers, prin­ci­pals and man­age­ment to fail­ing schools. D.C. char­ters pro­vided more than three times as many qual­ity spa­ces as the DCPS out-of-bound­ary pro­gram did last year, of­fer­ing more than 2,600 trans­fer­ring stu­dents spots at higher-pro­fi­ciency schools. But both kinds of schools could do more to pro­vide qual­ity seats.

To cre­ate real school choice, DCPS should bring in more ed­u­ca­tors from out­side the school sys­tem to raise fail­ing city-run schools to a higher level. DCPS also should con­tinue Rhee’s drive to close un­der­per­form­ing schools.

In ad­di­tion, the city’s Pub­lic Char­ter School Board, which reg­u­lates char­ters in­de­pen­dently of DCPS, should in­vite suc­cess­ful char­ter op­er­a­tors from out­side the District to run schools, as well as al­low more D.C. char­ters to open and close more that fail.

Un­less our city rad­i­cally ex­pands its sup­ply of seats at high­qual­ity pub­lic schools, D.C. will con­tinue to of­fer lots of school choice but few real op­tions.

JAHI CHIKWENDIU/THE WASHINGTON POST

A les­son on the so­lar sys­tem at the Arts and Technology char­ter school in North­east.

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