The per­ils of a two-sec­tor school sys­tem

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - and The writer, an ad­junct pro­fes­sor at Howard Univer­sity, has two chil­dren in D.C. Public Schools.

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.

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