The perils of a two-sector school system
As enthusiastic as we are about the growth of highperforming charter schools in the District, we should be wary of unintended consequences.
The different laws for our two public education sectors — D.C. Public Schools and D.C. public charter schools — mean that our most emotionally and academically challenged children are concentrated in traditional schools.
The District’s school system is a system of choice. But this welcome development tells us nothing about the optimum distribution of charter and traditional public schools or how best to manage a two-sector system.
If there is a “law” in public education, it is this: Most education-minded parents will enroll their children in schools with the lowest percentage of at-risk kids. In practice, this means that parents in low- and mixed-income neighborhoods will choose application-only schools over charter schools, charter schools over traditional public schools and district schools with a lower percentage of at-risk kids over district schools with a higher percentage.
Our charter schools do not willfully “skim” the best students. Charter schools are schools of choice. DCPS schools are schools of choice schools of default. Parents unwilling or unable to invest in their children’s education default to traditional, neighborhood schools.
As our charter sector expands and DCPS contracts, the concentration of at-risk kids at traditional schools will rise.
Only traditional public schools are legally required to accept midyear transfers. The argument against forcing charter schools to accept midyear transfers is compelling. Schools that help students “make rapid gains in their early years will be forced to spend a lot of time remediating new students who enter midstream,” argues education expert Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. But our traditional schools, already educating our most challenged students, are expected to integrate a steady influx of midyear transfers.
It is intellectually irresponsible for supporters of charter or traditional schools to insist on a level playing field. The sectors are beholden to different laws and political dynamics. If we are to ensure that all our public school students — not just kids with education-savvy parents — are well served by our public school system, we must escape the parameters of the old charter-district debate.
Our greatest challenge is to improve educational outcomes for kids who attend schools with a high percentage of at-risk students. This will require an unprecedented level of cooperation between the traditional and charter school boards. We cannot expect our lowest-performing schools to effectively absorb a high number of midyear transfers. But we can change the underlying dynamics of our two sector system without compromising its strengths.
Per-pupil school funding could be prorated over the course of the year instead of given as a lump sum. This would add an incentive for high-performing charter schools to lower attrition rates and provide DCPS schools with extra resources to manage the influx of new students.
Another option would be to convert the D.C. Common Lottery from an opt-in to an opt-out system. The evolution of the lottery is a sign that the relationship between charter and traditional schools need not be adversarial. An opt-out lottery would disperse at-risk students more evenly and manageably throughout the system. DCPS and the D.C. Public Charter School Board should ensure that every neighborhood has a high-performing charter so that students do not face onerous commutes.
Charter advocates argue that if traditional schools cannot compete in the education marketplace, they should be closed. But this is naive. The success of charter schools depends in part on the existence of traditional schools, which must absorb students who leave charters midyear.
If we are serious about education reform, we must address this impending crisis and rethink the laws and principles that govern our two-sector system.