School choice is thriving in the nation’s capital which has now resulted in academic gains by all groups of students in both charter and traditional schools on this year’s DC CAS. This is extremely encouraging. However, there are several policy initiatives that threaten to slow down or even halt the progress being made in our public schools. These include:
1. Neighborhood admission preference for charters. The competition for students has led schools to innovate and for parents and students to be viewed as the customer in public education. In traditional schools, especially in the inner cities, it is most times the bureaucracy that becomes the customer. Therefore, anything that takes away from an educational marketplace can disrupt the relationship between schools and pupils. A neighborhood admissions preference provides charters with a guaranteed student population that is not necessarily attracted to the unique mission of the school. This can have the effect of lowering academic performance.
2. Feeder relationships between elementary and middle schools. A proposal from the Gray Administration, the idea is to set up student admission feeder relationships between, for example, a traditional elementary school and a charter middle school. Again, the notion of a guaranteed student population reduces the competition for students and works against the theory of school choice.
3. Chartering authority for DCPS. Competing charter authorities has been shown to improve the quality of charter schools and is usually something to be applauded. However, there is much concern about Chancellor Henderson’s proposal to allow DCPS to create their own charter schools. Some suspect that she is not interested in replicating the highly autonomous and accountable system developed by the PCSB, but instead simply wants to bring in charter operators to take over some of her most challenging facilities. However, if a charter-light plan is implemented it may harm the reputation of the entire movement. As Brian Jones, the former PCSB Chairman, has commented regarding this idea the devil is definitely in the details.
4. Sharing names on charter and DCPS waitlists. While on the surface this appears to be a logical step in trying to prevent families from holding valuable spots at more than one educational institution it could have the effect of putting pressure on parents to limit their selection of schools. What we have, and what we want, is schools clamoring for our kids since under our strong system of school choice money follows the child. Again, we don’t want to reduce competition in any way.
5. Coordination of facilities between DCPS and charters. Because of the free market nature of the spread of charter schools there have been calls for limits on the number, or restrictions on the location, of these non-traditional schools. For example, some say that charters often open in close proximity to neighborhood institutions thereby stealing their students. Again, if the competition for pupils is what makes schools perform at a higher level then we should have as many good charters as possible positioned throughout our town.
6. Ending the Opportunity Scholarship Program. President Obama and U.S. Education Duncan have tried for years to end funding for the OSP. But families love the private school vouchers; there are about four times the number of applicants for available spots. In addition, the four year high school graduation rate for these students far exceeds that of the traditional schools. Although limited to a couple of thousand kids, the OSP provides another avenue for families to place their sons or daughters in quality seats. The system should be allowed to continue and grow free from political pressure.
We are so fortunate in the nation's capital that experiments in the delivery of public education have been allowed to flourish. Academic advancement is now occurring as many of us predicted it would. The future looks bright as long as we stick with what has worked and have the strength not to go back to what got us in trouble in the first place.