Should charters also be neighborhood schools?

At-large councilmember David Grosso has introduced a bill to allow DC charter schools to give priority to students in their neighborhood for admissions. Supporters say it will strengthen neighborhoods, while opponents worry it would further disadvantage children from poorer areas.

Image from Capital City PCS.

It's not a new idea. Denver, New York, New Orleans, Chicago, and Philadelphia all provide this sort of preference. In DC, a task force considered the issue last October, and then-Chairman Kwame Brown advocated for the idea last May.

The issue cuts across usual political divides in the city, with advocates and detractors in every area and constituency. Contributors on Greater Greater Washington have differing views about the proposal; in a pair of articles, Steve Glazerman argued it would undermine charter schools, while Ken Archer defended the concept.

After receiving support from Councilmember Tommy Wells, Chairman Brown, and Deputy Mayor for Education DeShawn Wright, the idea seemed to gain popularity. DC leaders formed a task force to consider the matter, with members from the council, the mayor's office, the Washington Teacher's Union, DC Public Schools, and the charter schools.

This past December, after reviewing testimony and having four public meetings, the task force decided that while charters near closing DCPS schools ought to offer priority to displaced children, in general charters should not be allowed to prefer children from their neighborhoods.

When the report was released, opponents criticized the report and the panel itself for ignoring the arguments for preference. Critics charged the task force largely decided against preference on the grounds that many schools already end up with a disproportionate number of students from their surrounding community.

The case for preference

The report's authors said they didn't see much demand from the public for this policy, but their own data shows the reverse. Despite randomly selecting students, charters still end up with disproportionate numbers of neighborhood kids. This demonstrates that parents generally want their children to attend school nearby.

It isn't simply an issue of wanting a shorter commute. The passion we see from school closure opponents reveals how residents—and especially parents—see schools as anchors of the community.

As DC education shifts toward having about half of students in charters versus DCPS, the charters cannot be just special schools that serve those with a particular, unusual interest. These are general attendance schools, and should be just as responsive to parental needs as are the DCPS schools they are replacing.

Having a social community at school is also not simply a luxury. It's vital that children feel that most of their friends are in the school they're being asked to travel alone to attend. Truancy, for instance, is linked to being socially unengaged or independent of one's school.

While charters now tend to draw children from families with the strongest interest in education, over time charters will be educating a wider cross-section of students. Some students will be committed enough to specialty programs to journey across the city, and will find closer friends when they arrive. However, many of the more marginal students, most vulnerable to truancy, will see the mandate to cross the city as an irritation when their friends live a short walk away.

Third, educational options require public support. Without neighborhoods feeling they have a stake in (and benefit from) DCPS schools becoming charters, the opposition DC has recently seen to school closures will arise every time DCPS considers consolidating schools and leasing their surplus sites to charter programs.

These residents aren't being unreasonable. If their children cannot reliably access the school, a building that was an amenity is being taken away from them without any compensating service being offered.

Finally, and most significantly, charters offer the possibility that residents of a community might band together to build programs that meet their needs. Currently, even if they do so on their own, their children many not be able to attend.

Community engagement in public education is vital, and neighborhood charter schools provide the avenue for these neighborhoods to directly participate in their own uplift. Unless charters can offer neighborhood preference, charter schools will remain the province of national non-profit chains and donor-backed specialty programs.

The case against preference

None of these arguments takes away from the single greatest argument that opponents of preference (including the task force) have identified: Neighborhood preference can further enshrine educational resource disparities between wealthier and less well-off communities in the city. While many charters are located in Wards 4 and 5, there are few across the Anacostia River. Any neighborhood preference regime would have to accommodate these communities.

There are other arguments against preference, but this is by far the most compelling. Without some resolution, the position of children in Wards 7 and 8 would be strictly worse than before, as Ward 3 DCPS schools fill up with in-boundary students, and charters fill with neighborhood kids.

One idea would be to give a different sort of preference to children in any neighborhood cluster that lacks a school and meets a certain threshold of poverty. Some percentage of seats could be set aside in each charter where neighborhood preference would not apply, and where these children would have preference relative to others.

While some concession like this must be a part of preference, the principle of neighborhood charter schools is a good one. A version of Grosso's bill deserves to move forward into law.

Rahul Mereand-Sinha was born in DC and grew up nearby in Bethesda. He now lives in Kalorama Triangle with his wife Katherine. He has a Masters of Public Policy from the University of Maryland and moonlights as a macroeconomist. 


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I strongly support this! We are fortunate to have a good neighborhood school in walking distance, and walking to school every day is great. It's a little bit of exercise for all of us, but more importantly it contributes to the community of a school. Even the brief conversations on the way to the school help create friendships, and we often see other (non-school) neighbors on our way. Having a school in a residential neighborhood is a pain for the neighbors, because of parking, traffic, special events at the school. Having a neighborhood preference mitigates some of the parking and traffic issues but also make the neighborhood more supportive of having the school locate there.

by Urbanette on Apr 12, 2013 11:16 am • linkreport

"While many charters are located in Wards 4 and 5, there are few across the Anacostia River."

I think this is an inaccurate statement. There are, in fact, many charters located in wards 7 and 8. This map from the PCSB shows the location of all charters in the District. I count 27 charters located east of the Anacostia.,-76.999134&spn=0.137619,0.154621&source=embed

I think a more accurate statement would be:

"While there are many charters in ward 7 and 8, most of the charters which most middle class DC residents currently feel comfortable sending their children are located in Wards 4 and 5."

by DCJoe on Apr 12, 2013 11:17 am • linkreport

One problem is that the coming need for seats is in of Ward 1 and southern parts of Ward 4, a.k.a. Cluster 2 and Cluster 18. And many fewer quality seats are available in those clusters than are needed.

I would love to see new charters built in Ward 1 or 4 to meet local need. (I live in that area.) But the charters keep ending up in excessed DCPS buildings where there is less student need. Capital City, Yu Ying, Stokes, Mundo Verde,

So why advantage people in places without high demand, and disadvantage those where there are huge numbers of students who are and will be needing seats?

I'm interested in matching up quality seats with need. If somebody wants to do something else - promote neighborhood integration, create a real estate magnet effect, lessen impact of school closures - please be clear that a generalized neighborhood preference policy won't help meet identified needs. See, e.g., and

by andy on Apr 12, 2013 12:18 pm • linkreport

A couple of points:

First, I believe the bill only applies to new charters, so please put your dreams of buying a house "in-bounds" for Yu Ying/Stokes/Lamb/EL Haynes/Cap City/etc. on hold.

That said, it's bad policy, mostly for the reasons described in the article. One of the benefits of charters is that ALL kids have equal access of admission, no matter where your parents live or how much they make. The kid from Ward 8 who wants a great education has just as much a chance of getting it as the kid from Ward 3. (Note: there are still plenty of barriers to attendance for low SES kids - transportation, support, etc., but at least we've eliminated the barriers to admission.) This policy would just make it that much harder for the most at-risk population to get a quality education.

As for the location of charters, there are many in Wards 7 and 8, but how many of them have waiting lists? And how many are well regarded? The vast majority of the highly-regarded charters are elsewhere.

As for the community benefits to local schools, I don't disagree with them, but they are a distant second, in my book, to educational policy. And as a city, our educational policy should not further disadvantage the kids that are already at the biggest disadvantage.

I also view the fact that many charters have a high number of "in-bounds" kids already not as evidence that we need this policy, but that we don't need it. Lots of kids from nearby already attend - no need to make sure ALL the kids from nearby attend.

The highly regarded DCPS schools are already closed to OOB kids - this would effectively do the same for charters.
Let's be honest about this - this movement stems from irritation on the part of middle and upper-middle class parents who live close to a good charter and are irritated that "other" kids get it but theirs don't. The motives are selfish. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but don't try to dress it up as altruistic. It's not.

by dcd on Apr 12, 2013 1:01 pm • linkreport

Look forward to all the "high-performing" charters locating in far NW...

by oboe on Apr 12, 2013 1:48 pm • linkreport

I don't think rationing existing "quality seats" is the answer. By informing neighborhoods that they can reap the rewards of their efforts, we can incent residents, businesses, and organizations to work together to build new schools filled with quality seats. With a 30% set aside that's not subject to neighborhood preference, some of the fruits of these efforts will go to people outside these communities.

Let's also recall that what constitutes a "good" school changes depending on one's circumstance. A school that attracts only 40% of its enrollments' worth of local students may still provide a great opportunity for less privileged kids, who will have 30% of its seats to compete for, and another 30% where they are almost guaranteed admission. This may seem unfair to most (and it is), but it's pareto-optimal; it improves peoples' lives without hurting anyone.

The fundamental truth is that you will not have parents band together to build a school if they can't guarantee their children will get to attend it. Leaving these school uncreated hurts poor students and rich alike.

by Rahul Mereand-Sinha. on Apr 12, 2013 3:36 pm • linkreport

Who "band together to build a school?"

Founders get preference.

Neighborhoods can't get some pile of money to build a school.

Charter schools take existing school-size buildings - usually former schools - and turn them into their campuses.

What am I missing?

by andy on Apr 12, 2013 4:14 pm • linkreport

I don't think rationing existing "quality seats" is the answer.

I'm not either. That's why I'm in favor of a city-wide lottery, not setting aside seats for the exclusive use of some students to the detriment of others (many of whom will be in the most at-risk population).

by dcd on Apr 12, 2013 5:12 pm • linkreport

Finally, and most significantly, charters offer the possibility that residents of a community might band together to build programs that meet their needs. Currently, even if they do so on their own, their children many not be able to attend.

First, this is still possible, except the community is the entire District of Columbia. Founders' kids do get preference. If they want to start up a school, go for it. What this would do is piggy-back on that work and grant preference to those who simply live near the school. (And if there's a burning desire to support education, I'm sure the local DCPS would welcome the input.)

Second, you seem to be suggesting that some charters that would otherwise exist do not today because there is no neighborhood preference. Similarly, that additional charters will be created if this bill passes. Is there anything to back that up, other than idle speculation? (Although I do admit that Oboe's hypothesis about upper NW charters, all of which woudl be significant distances from any mass transit, seems pretty likely. That's not exactly a filling a crippling need, though.)

by dcd on Apr 12, 2013 5:22 pm • linkreport

dcd: Why aren't public schools that serve Ward 3 parents needed? The schools up there are overflowing, and that's with many of their neighbors paying $30k for private schools. They may be wealthy, but they have the same right to expect public schools that serve their needs as any other resident of the city.

Where is the text of the provision you cite? I doubt it would accommodate all the staff of a coalition of groups working together, in which case my point stands.

andy: There are other buildings that can be repurposed as schools. Potentially, ANCs could concede more PUD density in exchange for space in new developments, etc. Space can be found, if the community believes it will benefit enough.

by Rahul Mereand-Sinha. on Apr 12, 2013 5:47 pm • linkreport

dcd: When you talk about ensuring a Ward 8 child has access equal to the Ward 3 child in gaining access to a seat at a good school, you assume the amount of seats is finite, and are talking about rationing them for fairness. I think we should increase the incentive for more "good schools" to open.

This of course presupposes that what makes a school bad are the staff; if it's the children (and the parents behind them), nothing can save any school that receives too many "bad" students. I prefer to think that good school administration can be transformative, and that currently-failing students aren't condemned for the rest of their academic career.

by Rahul Mereand-Sinha. on Apr 12, 2013 5:54 pm • linkreport

While I agree that requiring charters to give preference to neighborhood kids, at least in some instances, is a good idea, I question the argument that the main benefit of that will be to encourage neighborhood parents to "band together" to start a charter school. It's far from easy to start a high-quality charter school, and most parents don't have the expertise or the time to figure it out. It's far more efficient to entrust that task to people who have done it before and figured out what works (e.g., KIPP or other high-performing charter school operators). And there's no inherent reason why a charter school that is part of a network can't be responsive to its surrounding neighborhood and well-integrated into it.

by Natalie on Apr 13, 2013 5:15 pm • linkreport

Natalie: You may be right, though certainly while it's difficult to start one's own charter it has happened repeatedly. What reasons do you find compelling, for charters to offer neighbourhood preference?

For the record, no one is discussing requiring it, as far as I know. It would be allowed should the charter wish, if CM Grosso's bill passes.

by Rahul Mereand-Sinha on Apr 13, 2013 6:12 pm • linkreport

Rahul - explain how this PUD density thing works. A developer comes to an ANC for agreement on a design plan and in exchange the ANC makes them offer space? PUDs aren't something I'm familiar with - 30 seconds on Google tells me a little, but how ANCs transform that process into a charter school would be of interest.

Or any other ideas for generating available space, as I'm convinced inbound or nearly space is the only way charters can grow in core north/central growth areas. Though the PUD thing doesn't seem like something that works outside of major growth areas.

by andy on Apr 13, 2013 10:01 pm • linkreport

Andy: It's a form of zoning variance for multiunit dwellings/office buildings, where density credits are given in exchange for certain attributes of the project.

I'm not sure whether current law would have to be changed to allow charter buildings to be considered a community amenity, but it's a pretty flexible process.

The Zoning Commission approves PUDs, but I believe ANCs are allowed to provide input, and are often essentially the deciding factor in approval.

Now, I'm not sure how zoning overlays interact with this process, but it's possible to code specific concessions into density calculations outside the PUD process. That would take changing current law, however.

by Rahul Mereand-Sinha on Apr 13, 2013 10:19 pm • linkreport

When you talk about ensuring a Ward 8 child has access equal to the Ward 3 child in gaining access to a seat at a good school, you assume the amount of seats is finite, and are talking about rationing them for fairness. I think we should increase the incentive for more "good schools" to open.

The Post this morning reported that the PCSB will vote on nine applications for new charter schools next month; there were 11 applications in 2012, and 17 in 2011. Nearly 35,000 students are enrolled in charter schools this year, a 10% jump from last year. DCPS enrollement, in contrast, rose just 1%, and 15 schools are closing because of low enrollment. It appears that no additional incentive is needed to encourage people to open charter schools, what with 37 applications in the last three years. Certainly not incentives that disadvantage the kids that need those slots the most.

This does not assume that slots in "good" schools are static, in perpetuity - I don't know where you get this idea. But in any given year, when students are applying in the lottery to various schools, the "good" seats ARE finite. Why on earth would you want to set up (another) roadblock for the most disadvantaged kids?

by dcd on Apr 14, 2013 9:44 am • linkreport

Rahul: I think it makes sense for charters to give neighborhood preferences for many of the reasons you mention (ease of access, building a sense of community). But I think those reasons carry less weight as kids get older. By the time they're in high school, they're better able to get themselves to a distant school, and parents are generally less involved.

by Natalie on Apr 14, 2013 5:32 pm • linkreport

As the author of the post arguing strongly against neighborhood preferences, I should add that I do not oppose allowing it for new charter schools whose mission is to serve a particular neighborhood and be a community "anchor", whatever that means. That is totally fine, as long as the city cooperates and works hard to ensure that the school is given access to a permanent facility in that neighborhood.

However, if the school has a unique offering or has to fend for itself on the real estate market, then it should draw students who want that curricular program and will move with it and are not just attending for the short commute.

by Steven Glazerman on Apr 16, 2013 11:56 am • linkreport

For those who ask, "There's a great charter school in my neighborhood, why can't I send my kids there?" the solution is not to give your child preference but to expand the capacity at that school to accommodate more students so nobody is left out.

by Steven Glazerman on Apr 16, 2013 12:01 pm • linkreport

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