Worried about redrawing school boundaries? Why not try controlled choice zones instead?

DC Councilmembers voiced anxiety about an impending change in school boundaries at a hearing last week. But instead of redrawing boundaries, maybe we should replace them with school choice zones.

Photo by Cedward Brice on Flickr.

Three education policy analysts recently penned an op-ed in the Washington Post calling for "controlled choice zones" in parts of DC. They suggested that in certain gentrifying areas, students should no longer be assigned to their closest neighborhood school.

Instead, families would list their preferences within a certain zone, and an algorithm would match them with one of their preferred schools while simultaneously taking family income into account. The objective would be to ensure that all schools within the zone have a mix of socioeconomic groups.

The concept is intriguing, but why limit it to certain neighborhoods? We should consider extending it to include all students enrolling in public schools in the District, in any part of town and any time of year.

The San Francisco plan, modified

Currently, DC students have a right to enroll in their in-boundary DCPS school at any time. They can also apply to enroll in out-of-boundary DCPS schools or charter schools through a lottery. Under a District-wide controlled choice model, there would be no more school boundaries.

San Francisco has a city-wide controlled choice model, with no school boundaries and algorithmic school placement. But the city isn't divided into zones, so conceivably a student could be placed at a school on the other side of town.

This system aggravates many San Francisco parents, but the resulting educational diversity has created one of the highest quality urban school systems in the country.

That's because research has shown that a balance of socioeconomic status produces the best educational outcomes, both overall and for students at each socioeconomic level.

There's already evidence of that in the District. The top elementary school in terms of student growth is not Janney, Mann, or another school populated entirely with students from within a wealthy boundary. It's Hyde, whose students are evenly split between affluent Georgetown families and out-of-boundary lottery applicants.

Obviously, the central political hurdle to this system is getting people to give up the right to buy their way into a good school district. But the only way to provide diverse schools is to eliminate the property right to the school closest to your house and place students using an algorithm. There's no way around it.

But that doesn't mean we have to adopt the San Francisco system. With controlled choice zones, we could have many of the educational benefits of greater diversity without the anxiety of possibly being placed in a school far from home.

Benefits of District-wide controlled choice

The authors of the Post op-ed suggest that parents be allowed to choose any DCPS or charter school within a given zone. They limit their proposal to "strategic parts of the city (namely, Capitol Hill, Columbia Heights, Mount Pleasant, Adams Morgan, Dupont/Logan Circle, and Petworth)."

This would promote greater diversity, resulting in school quality and test score growth. And it would create a system that values strong neighborhood schools, regardless of whether they are charter or DCPS.

However, expanding controlled choice zones to the entire District would deliver several additional benefits. Imagine if the lottery website allowed you to prioritize all of the elementary schools within 2 miles of your home, middle schools within 2.5 miles of your home, or high schools within 3 miles of your home.

Again, these schools would include both DCPS and charter schools. If the radius runs up against the District line, you could extend the radius in the opposite direction to compensate so as to have the same amount of choices. The algorithmic placement of students within these zones would generate the following additional benefits:

  • No parents would have to watch kids from across town attend a nearby high-performing charter school that didn't admit their own kids.
  • More affluent families moving east would be integrated into existing schools, raising the performance of all students.
  • If this enrollment system includes mid-year enrollees, students who move to town or are expelled from a school mid-year would be placed using the same algorithm. Charters would thus grapple with the same mid-year enrollees as DCPS.
  • Students wouldn't be allowed to transfer within their zone during the year, putting a stop to the practice of "counseling out" students with greater educational challenges.
This proposal isn't as far-fetched as it may seem to some. Chancellor Henderson has floated the idea of creating multiple District-wide high schools open to all, in addition to more District-wide magnet schools. And the three leading challengers to Mayor Vincent Gray in the Democratic primary—Councilmembers Muriel Bowser, Tommy Wells, and Jack Evans—have all committed to supporting neighborhood preference in charter school admissions.

Some may object that confining students to schools within one zone would limit choice, making zip code one's education destiny. But the reality is that most students already travel within the distances I'm suggesting.

In fact, a DC government task force cited the short commuting distances of charter students as a reason that neighborhood preference in admissions is unnecessary.

Furthermore, what if the choice one wants is a diverse school? Under the District's current system, families don't always have that choice. Schools that begin to attract affluent students can quickly "flip" from overwhelmingly low-income to the opposite.

Will all zones in DC benefit?

Another objection is that some zones in DC wouldn't have nearly enough non-poor students to create the diversity this plans aims for. However, it's precisely in these poorer parts of town—Wards 5, 7, and 8—that the plan would deliver the most support.

Because the plan would force charters to share the burden of mid-year enrollees and would stop mid-year "voluntary" transfers, enrollment numbers in DCPS schools in high-poverty areas would stabilize.

Also, as more affluent families move into these parts of town—a trend that many consider inevitable—this model ensures they will be integrated into existing schools for the maximum benefit of all students. There will be no more "flipping" of schools.

Some affluent families may not move into poor neighborhoods because they don't want to share in the work of supporting community institutions. The result will be a slower migration into these neighborhoods, but one that is more equitable for all and prevents displacement of long-time residents.

Finally, the controlled choice model would solve the intractable problem of overcrowding at Wilson High School. DCPS officials seem hesitant to solve the problem by returning Ellington High School in Georgetown to its original function as a neighborhood high school drawing students from Hardy Middle School.

That has left parents in Ward 4 whose elementary schools feed into Deal Middle School and Wilson particularly nervous. DCPS may decide to route those students into a less desirable feeder pattern.

And if that happens, it could generate a federal civil rights lawsuit, as school officials will have drawn boundaries that reflect racial and socioeconomic fault lines in the District. In fact, it was just such a civil rights lawsuit in San Francisco that led a judge to require the controlled choice model they have today.

Let's consider adopting the controlled choice model for DC. It works because it prioritizes both school choice and neighborhood schools. What do you think?

Ken Archer is CTO of a software firm in Tysons Corner. He commutes to Tysons by bus from his home in Georgetown, where he lives with his wife and son. Ken completed a Masters degree in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America. 


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The SF model sucks. Parents stream out of SF to the suburbs because of that school model. Not only do you have to tell your son that he won't be able to go to school with their friends but now you have to take your children clear across town to school everyday. Try telling your employer, "hey I'll be late everyday and leave early everyday because it takes me 2 hours to get my kid to and from school!" SF has the lowest amount of school age children for large cities in the US. Please no SF school model, even modified.

by dc denizen on Feb 5, 2014 11:16 am • linkreport

The SF model sucks...you have to take your children clear across town to school everyday.

The central modification that this proposal makes to the SF Model is the Zones. No one will take their children clear across town to school, in fact that will happen less under this model.

by Ken Archer on Feb 5, 2014 11:24 am • linkreport

My basic problem with this suggestion is that, given the socioeconomic segregation in DC, adopting the controlled choice model city-wide won't achieve what I take to be its primary goal--socioeconomic integration that benefits everyone. The research shows that if the poverty rate in a school is above 50% (or maybe even 30%), the low-income kids don't benefit from socioeconomic integration and the high-income kids suffer. We just don't have enough high-income kids east of the river to accomplish that ratio, and probably won't for quite some time. A city-wide controlled choice plan might accomplish other objectives, but not (at least outside the gentrifying central zones identified in the Post op-ed) socioeconomic integration.

by Natalie Wexler on Feb 5, 2014 11:38 am • linkreport

As I read the Op-Ed piece, the notion of schools "flipping" was based exclusively on anecdotes of a flip from poor 4th graders to rich 1st graders. I'd love to see statistics that reflect this being a real problem.

The idea that Charter schools have a problem with this same level of flipping, which hasn't been proven in DCPS, was just silly. The authors suggested that because of their success, charter schools would have a disproportionate number of wealthy families participating in their lotteries. Really?

If a school is good, it makes sense that EVERYBODY would want to go there. And since the reality is that charter schools already are diversified because of the lottery system, what exactly is the flipping problem we are trying to solve there?

Now if you are trying to solve a geographic problem, that is another story. But this diversity algorithm you mention ain't that.

by Steve Seelig on Feb 5, 2014 11:46 am • linkreport

The research shows that if the poverty rate in a school is above 50% (or maybe even 30%), the low-income kids don't benefit from socioeconomic integration and the high-income kids suffer. We just don't have enough high-income kids east of the river to accomplish that ratio, and probably won't for quite some time.

The same was true of these neighborhoods in transition a mere 15 years ago. The point isn't to achieve socioeconomic integration of schools EOTR today with this system, but to anticipate the inevitable migration of wealthier families east of the river to ensure that migration results in a lift for all students in EOTR schools.

by Ken Archer on Feb 5, 2014 12:14 pm • linkreport

Do you think that a zoned setup would concentrate demand around one school in a particular zone, e.g., if there was such a zoned arrangement in place in Ward 1 in 2020, between Tubman, Bancroft, Marie Reed, Cooke, etc., one would be seen as the desirable one and everyone would try to place their children all in that single school?

I imagine that being very possible, even likely. I can't decide whether it's good because it would build a more robust system not so dependent on Ward 3, or whether it would tend to concentrate what social capital there is in each zone into one school or another.

by Andy on Feb 5, 2014 12:23 pm • linkreport

Do you think that a zoned setup would concentrate demand around one school in a particular zone

The intent of Controlled Choice Zones would be to avoid the disparities in performance of schools a mere neighborhood away from each other. So, in Ward 1 in 2020, algorithmic placement would maximize socioeconomic diversity across Tubman, Bancroft, Marie Reed, Cooke, etc, to optimize educational outcomes at all of those schools.

by Ken Archer on Feb 5, 2014 12:28 pm • linkreport

One feature that I think gets lost in these discussions of "choice" is the commitment of families to a school. Whenever there is a lottery system parents seem to lose some commitment to their assigned school. While I don't want to say people shouldn't have an choice I think it's important to think about this drawback of choice. In my kids' school I have found that many people use it as a "stopping off point" and enter the lottery every year, to try to get into other schools. Those parents often are less committed and don't invest their time or energy in the school.

What I want in my kids' school are committed parents and families who are going to stick around, not ones who are just going to be entering a lottery every year to go somewhere else.

The other note is that I am always struck by the amount of time and energy that parents in DC have to put into 1) finding a school for their kid, and 2) then "selling" that school to prospective other families. Seems like the schools would benefit if instead those efforts could be put into actually affecting the experiences of the kids in the school.

by DCParent on Feb 5, 2014 12:32 pm • linkreport

How much choice remains after "algorithmic placement?" Controlled choice is not assignment. Algorithmic placement to even out quality sounds like choice is being controlled out.

by Andy on Feb 5, 2014 12:43 pm • linkreport

How much choice remains after "algorithmic placement?"

How much choice remains when you can't choose a quality neighborhood school near your home?

How much choice remains when you can't choose a diverse school near your home?

by Ken Archer on Feb 5, 2014 12:56 pm • linkreport

For elementary school, I don't just want a quality school near my home, I want "the neighborhood school." I want to be able to walk just a couple blocks, I want to know a good number of the other parents from the neighborhood, and I want a community where everyone feels invested in their local school.

I'm very fortunate that I'm happy with my neighborhood school in DC. I wouldn't to be sent to a school in my zone that isn't the nearest one as it would likely mean driving. I would be disappointed if my son's best friend no longer went to the same neighborhood school both for him socially and for me having another parent to help with pick up and drop off.

I feel differently about middle and high school, mostly because my kids will be more able to get themselves to and from school, and the feeling of community is generally not as strong among the parents of middle or high schoolers.

I realize that there is some policy ideal of a diverse school (measured solely by income, ugh). But the realities of applying that policy ideal are ugly. I would much rather focus on diverse housing and neighborhood schools.

by SE on Feb 5, 2014 1:07 pm • linkreport

I wouldn't to be sent to a school in my zone that isn't the nearest one as it would likely mean driving.

There's no way to have diverse schools and also have the property-right to your nearest school that you desire. The latter directly undermines the former.

However, with this system you wouldn't be placed in an elementary school further than 2 miles from your home (close enough for public transportation) and the algorithm would maximize your stated preferences for the nearest school.

As for going to school with neighbors, this Controlled Choice Zones would improve the likelihood that most students in DC attend school with classmates in their part of town. I see the community-building aspect of this model as a huge benefit as well.

by Ken Archer on Feb 5, 2014 1:18 pm • linkreport

So do you think people in a choice driven schools environment with a huge charter market would actually buy into a zone-based assignment system? I absolutely want to see an equitable evened out system but who will accept being algorithmed into Raymond, LaSalle Backus, Drew, etc.?

It just seems like experience shows that a full assignment system without choice leads to opt out. And the charter system means people don't have to move. Understand I'm committed to my neighborhood school and many are but how do you get people to buy into assignment full-on assignment in areas of mixed quality.

by Andy on Feb 5, 2014 1:45 pm • linkreport

So do you think people in a choice driven schools environment with a huge charter market would actually buy into a zone-based assignment system? I absolutely want to see an equitable evened out system but who will accept being algorithmed into Raymond, LaSalle Backus, Drew, etc.?

Well, San Francisco is the most expensive housing market in the country, and has experience major urban revitalization over the past decade that has attracted lots of people including families.

Concerns that Controlled Choice would lead to exodus of families are probably as accurate as predictions that increasing taxes will lead to exodus of wealthy people.

by Ken Archer on Feb 5, 2014 1:50 pm • linkreport

The same was true of these neighborhoods in transition a mere 15 years ago. The point isn't to achieve socioeconomic integration of schools EOTR today with this system, but to anticipate the inevitable migration of wealthier families east of the river to ensure that migration results in a lift for all students in EOTR schools.

More likely, the inevitable migration of wealthier families east of the river will drive out many of the poorer families through gentrification in relatively short order. Those families won't be able to benefit from these Controlled Choice/Algorithmic Placement diversified schools if they've been priced out of their rentals and now reside in District Heights. Or whose property values have increased fourfold and who sell their homes and decamp for Upper Marlboro or Camp Springs.

by Dizzy on Feb 5, 2014 2:07 pm • linkreport

Ken - I'm not saying that there would be a mass exodus, though as you've seen charters already are the exodus in some respects, and if the situation is seen as bad enough would continue to be.

But let's think about a passable plan. DC being democratically run (stifle the laughter everyone) with the First Amendment in place, people would simply be mad and not let it happen... I'm really not against your plan, I like a lot of this, I just want to get to a plan that won't simply be undone by the democratic process. We are no one's philosopher kings here.

by Andy on Feb 5, 2014 2:25 pm • linkreport

But let's think about a passable plan.

But is there a more passable solution to Wilson overcrowding?

Removing Shepherd Elementary (or any feeder elementary school) from the Deal/Wilson feeder would result in riots and likely the same federal civil rights case that forced San Francisco to adopt Controlled Choice.

Moving Duke Ellington HS to middle of town and bringing back Western High School is apparently untouchable because of the power of the Ellington boosters.

Unless we are going to build a new high school in the sky above Ward 3, I can't think of any other solution to Wilson overcrowding.

by Ken Archer on Feb 5, 2014 2:34 pm • linkreport

Wilson overcrowding suggests a problem at the high school level, so why do we need to change assignment rules at the elementary school level?

by SE on Feb 5, 2014 2:51 pm • linkreport

The concept is intriguing, but why limit it to certain neighborhoods? We should consider extending it to include all students enrolling in public schools in the District, in any part of town and any time of year.

Regardless of what you think of this idea, and I'm not sure myself, this is a critical point. Why on earth should the so-called JKLMM schools be exempt from this? Just so we don't aggravate upper-income WoTP families? To have socio-economic diversity, you need both poor AND wealthy families. So why exclude the largest pot of wealthy families in DC from the pool? It's absurd.

Concerns that Controlled Choice would lead to exodus of families are probably as accurate as predictions that increasing taxes will lead to exodus of wealthy people.

That's not really a good analogy. It's beyond question (isn't it?) that some parents who (i) don't have good school options in DC and (ii) can afford it remove themselves from the DC school scystem(s). Not all, but some. School choice, both OOB and charter schools, helped this problem a great deal - many middle and upper-middle class families stayed in neighborhoods with failing local DCPS schools because they had options other than moving. This plan doesn't take away those choices, but it limits them. The real question is will the remaining choices still be palatable enough to those families with options so that they stay in those neighborhoods, or will they reconsider their options. I don't know the answer to that, but it's a pretty important question. Because one of the few things that will get me out of my current house, and DC in general, is if I am unable to find an acceptable school for my daughter. I don't imagine I'm alone in this thinking.

by dcd on Feb 5, 2014 3:29 pm • linkreport

@ Ken Archer, I don't think we need to change boundaries at all. We need to end the rule (which has only been in place since 2009) that if you get into an elementary or middle school out of bounds, you automatically get into the middle or high school it feeds to.

There wouldn't be any overcrowding at Wilson or Deal if they just had in-bounds students with a guarantee of getting in, and others could lottery for the remaining spots.

It would also be fairer to people who move to the area after their kids are older, folks who were less successful in the elementary and middle school lottery, etc. And it would prevent the situation where parents like a school but lottery to schools with better feeder patterns in the later grades, draining schools of kids with involved parents.

by sbc on Feb 5, 2014 3:30 pm • linkreport

Moving Duke Ellington HS to middle of town and bringing back Western High School is apparently untouchable because of the power of the Ellington boosters.

this is one of the real frustrations in this process. There are so, so many reasons Ellington should be in a different location.

by dcd on Feb 5, 2014 3:31 pm • linkreport


Moving Duke Ellington HS to middle of town and bringing back Western High School is apparently untouchable because of the power of the Ellington boosters.

Is the stupid obstacle to fixing things at the HS level.

IIUC hardly any Ellington Students live west of the park and the school is in a transit (and driving) unfriendly location.

And we have 4 High Schools more or less along the GA Avenue corridor that are under enrolled.

There is no other high school geographically close to Wilson.

Cardozo is 4 miles from Wilson, Roosevelt 3.5 miles, Coolidge 4 miles & Dunbar is 5.5 miles.

But Ellington is only 3 miles from Wilson and more importantly Wilson is in the middle of Upper NW so folks who live in the Western most parts of DC will be looking at 6-7 mile commutes to alternate high schools.

All because no one has the courage to tell the Ellington Community that in exchange for getting a modernized school the school is going to be relocated to a site more central for its students and also more transit friendly?

Do Ellington parents think the school gets its magic because it is in Georgetown?

Perhaps the mayoral candidate I vote for will be the first one to admit how crazy this is and who comes out and tells the Ellington community that in exchange for getting a new 100 million dollar school you can suck it up and move to a more central location that oh by the way is closer to where your students live.

Find the political courage to do this and the re-districting problem is suddenly a lot less daunting with more logical solutions.

BTW if the feeder numbers at just the neighborhood elementary schools hold up the Wilson re-districting is not going to be a battle between Powell/Shepherd & Janney/Lafayette - it is going to be a fight for spaces between Lafayette & Janney & Murch & Hearst.

So we can antagonize one school community or every school community.

by Aldo Kelrast on Feb 5, 2014 3:59 pm • linkreport

also, I wouldn't be so quick to downplay the concern that families will leave DC if they implement a SF-like system. Despite your assertion that SF "has experience major urban revitalization over the past decade that has attracted lots of people including families" SF has actually lost 8,000 school-aged kids from 2000-2010.

According to http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Families-exodus-leaves-S-F-whiter-less-diverse-3393637.php "Just 13.4 percent of San Francisco's 805,235 residents are younger than 18, the smallest percentage of any major city in the country"

So will everyone leave? no. But SF has about 800k residents. If a comparable number of school aged kids left DC, it would mean over 6000 kids leaving the District. And those kids have parents, younger siblings, etc. who'd leave too. I think DC's large charter sector would make the exodus smaller than in SF, but it would still exist and it would be notable.

by sbc on Feb 5, 2014 4:05 pm • linkreport

But is there a more passable solution to Wilson overcrowding?
1. Change out-of-boundary feeder status from a right to a preference -- as it was before 2009. Wilson is 48% out-of-boundary, crowding goes away instantly.

2. Build a new high school on the five acre former site of Hardy Middle School at Foxhall and Q.

by contrarian on Feb 5, 2014 4:05 pm • linkreport

Imagine if the lottery website allowed you to prioritize all of the elementary schools within 2 miles of your home, middle schools within 2.5 miles of your home, or high schools within 3 miles of your home.

I live in Palisades. There's only one elementary school within 2 miles of my house, one middle school within 2.5 miles, and one high school within 3 miles.

by contrarian on Feb 5, 2014 4:06 pm • linkreport

Who do you think will attend this mythical Western High School? Hardy would be the obvious feeder for Western. But in-boundary parents are choosing not to send their kids to Hardy. Are they going to magically appear at Western High?

And the big draw for out-of-boundary parents to Hardy is that it is a ticket into Wilson. Take that away, and you lose many Hardy students.

I fear that the net result of Western High would be an empty Western High and a weaker Hardy.

by Dave on Feb 5, 2014 4:40 pm • linkreport

@Dave - that is a good question but one that applies to all schools as evidenced by all the quarter and half full high schools in DC today.

The thing is that Wilson is already an economically diverse school and really achievement wise it is nothing great now though it is turning out a good number of high achieving students every year.

So I think you are trying to duplicate Wilson which a lot of folks want to go to and that bar really is not that high so some of it is the optics but the geography is important too, especially if we are talking about getting back to some sort of neighborhood anchored schools model and even Ken's formula is grounded in that notion.

Maybe the kids from Capital Hill and even some of the kids from Upper NW head to Western and maybe that leaves enough space at Wilson for the Powell kids to continue to go there.

But duplicating the socio-economic mix at Wilson should not be that hard at a couple of more high schools if current demographic trends hold up - middle class kids from west of the park (of which there are soon going to be more than Wilson can accommodate) can make up much of that population at Western and the relocated Ellington Students could anchor that population as part of a school within a school at Dunbar/Roosevelt/Cardozo/Coolidge.

No one knows what will happen but there are a lot of parents in DC who expect that their kids are headed to Wilson and I suspect it is a number much larger than the 350 per year Wilson is supposed to take.

So would the option of Wilson/Western be good enough to pacify folks?

I don't know but it is more likely to pacify folks than the option of Wilson/Cardozo/Roosevelt which is where we are inevitably headed and the demographics demand it and the geography makes a lot more sense than other options.

by Aldo Kelrast on Feb 5, 2014 5:05 pm • linkreport

@ Aldo Kelrast,

Why would you put kids from Capitol Hill at some new Western when Eastern is right in their neighborhood and folks are trying to revitalize it?

by sbc on Feb 5, 2014 5:06 pm • linkreport

To back up the assertion that "a balance of socioeconomic status produces the best educational outcomes, … overall", you cite the Kahlenberg book, as does the Op-Ed. It is unfortunately is not in the DCPL collections. You also cite the piece in American Educator, which in turn also cites this book when discussing the benefits to middle-class students of economically classrooms. But its summary of the research is lukewarm: for income diversity, it says that "middle-class achievement does not decline so long as a strong core of middle-class children is present." (The advocacy site you cite only discusses the benefits of racial diversity to things like nonprejudicial attitudes.) So what does the book actually say?

Natalie Wexler above points out that the 'middle class core' needed to produce the benefit to at-risk students is at least 50% and might be as high as 70%. I think it's clear that any sort proposal to rebalance school diversity first needs to define the target socioeconomic balance, and then tally up the total number of students in each income band.

This proposal also presumes that charters are offering, in principle, the same educational program as any other school. But many of the most successful charters--the ones which are helping to keep middle-class families in the District--have very specialized programs. The language immersion charters in particular are using the most radical approach to cross-cultural education that's imaginable. Restricting them to students within 2 miles would cut out lots of people who are very much interested in this approach. And putting a 3rd grader in a language immersion program mid-year just won't work.

by thm on Feb 5, 2014 5:20 pm • linkreport

@sbc - you of course are right that it doesn't make sense.

And I'm not suggesting it is the right solution.

But for reasons not entirely clear lots of folks (including apparently the Ellington community) seem to believe there is some magic in sending kids west of the park for High School.

So if we're trying to convince families to stay and avoid the political bloodbath that redistricting seems headed towards maybe we have to accept that Western is going to be more appealing than Eastern.

I don't know what the numbers are in the Capital Hill elementary schools but given how low the enrollment is at Eastern it does not seem like it would be impossible to duplicate the socio-economic mix at Wilson immediately by sending all of the new middle class kids to Eastern.

In any case the elementary school numbers west of the park will require either another west of the park high school or an unlikely eastern migration of west of the park students to east of the park high school seats.

by Aldo Kelrast on Feb 5, 2014 5:24 pm • linkreport

Looking at the current boundaries, Eastern is not the neighborhood school of Capitol Hill. Capitol Hill students can attend Wilson, Dunbar, or Eastern by right, depending on where they are in Capitol Hill. In theory, spreading middle class Capitol Hill students across 3 high schools would improve diversity. In practice, few middle class Capitol Hill kids attend any of these schools.

by SE on Feb 5, 2014 5:30 pm • linkreport

Within 2 miles is not a community school, and it's not necessarily doable by public transportation twice a day before and after work.

by KM on Feb 5, 2014 5:54 pm • linkreport

I see zoned choice as only giving most people the option of choosing more of the same. What is the benefit of having a ward 3 family choose between Janney, Murch or Lafayette? Or a Ward 1 family between Cooke, Tubman, or Marie Reed? Real choice for a Ward 8 family is letting them go to a charter in Ward 5 or out-of-bounds to Ward 3 -- not picking from a host of schools in Ward 8.

Oh, and I've lived in Ward 1 for a decade and somehow failed to notice the Big Flip. Is it related to The Plan?

by cheshire on Feb 5, 2014 9:09 pm • linkreport

This is a solution in search of a problem. It's presented as an alternative to boundary revision, but DCPS doesn't have a boundary problem. For the most part, the boundaries are fine, there are only about a half dozen schools in DCPS -- out of over 130 -- that are unable to accommodate their in-boundary population. The problem is that very few families want to attend their in-boundary school. Only about 25% of the kids in public school in DC attend an in-boundary DCPS school, and even for some of those it's not their first choice. Moving the boundaries or otherwise changing assignment policies isn't going to change the fact that there just aren't enough schools that people want to attend (and too many schools overall, DCPS has about 50% more space than it needs.)

What about the schools that can't accommodate their in-boundary population? Moving boundaries isn't the solution for them either. These schools -- Mann, Key, Janney, Murch and Lafayette -- are all geographically contiguous. There's no boundary adjustment that's going to solve crowding. What's needed is a new elementary school in Ward 3.

by contrarian on Feb 5, 2014 10:11 pm • linkreport

The solution is to fix the underperforming schools not mix kids from all over DC! Keep kids close by to their own neighborhood schools. The problem in DC is not the race or income level of the kids but the administration, teachers etc at the schools! Stop the lottery system so Wilson would not be overcrowded. Simple as that.

by Elisa on Feb 5, 2014 10:49 pm • linkreport

My wife and I happily lived in a great walkable urban neighborhood for years before we had a family. But when we had kids, our number one priority became finding a neighborhood in which our kids were guaranteed to get a good education.

Unfortunately we found the same solution so many others have -- we moved to the suburbs. Our kids can walk to great public schools to which they are guaranteed admittance.

If we were forced to live in one of these school choice zones, or to leave school choice up to some lottery system, we would find a way to pay for private schools.

by Good bye public schools on Feb 5, 2014 10:59 pm • linkreport

Contrarian has it correct. In a hypothetical "controlled choice" cluster for my neighborhood (MtP), my educational choices would be limited to Bancroft, Cooke, Marie-Reed, Tubman (for ES) and Cardozo/Roosevelt/CHEC for HS. Failing schools ALL---with less than 50% of their students scoring proficient on the DC-CAS. Presumably I would not be eligible --due to geographic distance---to send my kids to Latin---the socio-economically diverse but performing charter school my children currently attend. Limit my high school choices to the high schools I just named and my middle class family will leave the District.

This is a solution in search of a problem---as DCPS (and now GGW) seem enamoured of a grandiose social engineering scheme with no demonstrable evidence to support it. Or, more likely, DCPS has fastened onto this idea as a way to trap families into attending failing schools before the quasi-free market of the charter school system results in a complete implosion of DCPS EOTP.

How's this for a radical idea: Instead of trying the "stick" of controlled choice to prop up failing EOTP schools by limiting charter and OOB access, and trying to "juice" the DC-CAS stats by some algorithmic distribution of 50% FARMs per school to try to reduce the number of schools with truly abysmal test results---why not actually try to build a MS and HS feeder pattern EOTP that has a critical mass (i.e., over 70%) of middle and upper middle class families. You could probably achieve this by drawing a MS/HS zone along the 16th Street corridor, completely rehauling one of the recently renovated high schools, and then funneling the OOB kids currently at WOTP elementaries into this new feeder pattern when OOB feeder rights for Deal/Wilson are eliminated. That way, all the OOB kids who have had the benefit of similarly strong ES programs can go to one MS (and then HS) where they will all be on the same academic level.

The justifiable concern on the part of middle class parents is that schools with FARMs percentages in excess of 30% will spend the bulk of their resources in trying to remediate the significant deficits which children from high-poverty households face. Instead of trying "controlled choice" ---why doesn't DCPS look at the educational models of high-performing charters like KIPP---which are targeted at helping low-income kids overcome those deficits---and revamp DCPS programming in high-FARMs schools accordingly.

And finally, I would note that one of the authors of the Post OpEd endorsing "controlled choice" was unwilling to "walk the walk" when it came to his own children. He elected to move from Takoma Park, MD---where the local school had more than 30% FARMs, to affluent Bethesda. But he wants to use MY children as the guinea pigs for his educational theorizing? No thank you.

by Ward 1 Parent on Feb 5, 2014 11:26 pm • linkreport

“Choice” means and always has meant segregation and fleeing the fight to create great schools for all leaving deficient low expectation schools for those who could not flee or cared so little they did not flee. All these double standards and side tracking do nothing except continue the tragically pathetic outcomes we have seen for a century from our schools and parents. A nation of poorly educated and unmotivated voters stems from the source, our schools and families leading to new generations of people who end up with a lot less and the chains of apathy.

by AndrewJ on Feb 6, 2014 7:04 am • linkreport

[This comment has been deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by bcc on Feb 6, 2014 11:11 am • linkreport

There just has to be some method that at least looks fair that can be used to get the black people to go away. If not, we will continue to make proposals through Greater, Greater, Washington, until we find one. Where is Einstein when you need him?

by topryder1 on Feb 6, 2014 11:17 am • linkreport

This proposal is premature. Middle class parents of any race will not risk their child's education in schools that have more than 20-30% low income families when the school system itself is not reliable and doesn't seem to know how to effectively educate all kids.

The gains of middle class families in some DCPS elementary schools and charter schools that are not in Northwest DC are very new, fragile and based on the idea that they can cluster together in one place and have a bit of control through collective action and fundraising on the quality of education at that school.

This confidence and increase in middle class families using public education needs to be nurtured and allowed to grow much stronger before trying something like controlled choice for socio economic diversity. Or else there will be a mass exodus out of public education in DC. All you need to do is look at history where thousands of students left the system within a year or two after boundaries were re drawn to achieve racial integration. It took decades to recover from that and students left in the system suffered horrible education outcomes because of it.

This misguided and premature attempt to limit the charter sector and parent choice in DC will lead to worse outcomes for the exact disadvantaged students it is trying to help. Find another way and revisit this one in another decade or so.

by Coopnat on Feb 6, 2014 11:29 am • linkreport

I think you greatly underestimate the effect this will have on middle to upper class families deciding to stay in the District. I live on Capitol Hill and everywhere you look there are young children. They far outnumber the middle and high school student populations. That is because parent communities, with the help of school administrations that have been welcoming to parent involvement and innovation, have been able to make real inroads at elementary schools like Maury and Brent. The big flip that is being discussed has only resulted from middle and upper class families staying and outreach from forward-thinking school administrators. Is it optimal to have mainly middle and upper class populations enrolled at a school? I don't think the people who choose to raise their families in DC would say yes. But I do know that parents will not enroll their children in a school they do not have confidence in. There are too many choices now for a social engineering experiment like this to work. There are top rate public schools in Md, Va, and upper NW. Hill families who do not get into a well regarded charter or elementary school will either go private or, if they cannot afford that option, leave DC or move to a "better" zipcode. Two families on my street have already left DC this year for that reason. Greater emphasis needs to be made on improving the schools themselves through better principals and other substantive benchmarks not just diluting low socioeconomic student populations.

by Caphill Mom on Feb 6, 2014 2:27 pm • linkreport

What keeps the bad schools bad? Is it the lack of middle- to upper-income families? If that's all it is, then maybe 'controlled choice' is the cudgel that will force middle- and upper-income 'school improver' families into bad schools to work their magic. Sounds great. Three years later you will be looking for another cudgel because these 'school improver' families will have gone elsewhere.

However, if 'forcing higher income families into schools they otherwise would not attend' is not even the problem, then this is just another way to postpone real improvement in the schools.

In essence your 'controlled choice' model makes the assumption that demand for schools should just be equalized, without really looking at what magic is worked by those 'school improver' families. As an analogy, let's say the most in-demand restaurants have well-trained, well-compensated cookstaff. To ensure everybody can get a seat at a high-quality restaurant let's equalize demand by requiring potential diners to participate in a lottery assigning them to a restaurant in their neighborhood. Do you think that would work, or would these potential diners just go elsewhere where they can get what they want?

by LouDC on Feb 6, 2014 3:52 pm • linkreport

I just want to weigh in against Controlled choice. Others have already made great arguments. The fact is people who have a choice middle/upper middle class will leave, as they did in years past and they have in SF. The folks who have no choice will stay resulting in increased poverty. Perhaps they won't leave DC just move to a zone with better schools. I can see Cap Hill become such a zone where folks descend en-mass to be in the good zone and drive out the lower wage folks. Maybe the zones will be increased in size or we will try to force VA and MD folks into DC. Really, just leave it be and stop pretending folks are dying to have more diversity. They may like it somewhat but not like Ken or Petrelli et al. suggest they do. Also, will people with kids not in the system stop making suggestions to control me and my kids. Really. Just. Stop.

by leeindc on Feb 7, 2014 12:43 am • linkreport

Your proposed zones sound on paper like they might be a good compromise to the SF model, but let's be realistic. I drive my kids only 2 miles to their Montessori school each day now, which is happens to be in the opposite direction of my commute, adding, in effect 4 long city miles and 40 minutes to my commute to work each day. My hope that this will be reduced to a 5 minute walk one way if they will get into our inbound school for Pre-K 3. Your proposal could potentially add another 10 minutes to that commute for me. This indeed may be the last straw and a sign that we need to move out of the city or enroll in the day school around the corner!

by Karen on Feb 7, 2014 10:25 pm • linkreport

This is a response that won't solve the problem.

How many schools in DC currently have less than 30% FARM/low-SES population? There are a number of elementary schools but for higher grades, not so much.

Middle Schools - there is one, Deal (at 23% FARM, 1165 population).
High Schools - there is one, School w/o Walls (at 17% FARM, 548 population).

Wilson has 37% FARM with a population of 1713. Just imagine the uproar if that was to be dropped to 50%.

BTW, School w/o Walls has only recently moved to this low-FARM population. It used to be in the 30% range.

And please don't talk about the research showing "50% poverty showing success"... the number is much closer to 30% and even this may not work in DC, since unlike the Montgomery County study, there are no other high-SES residence characteristics working to help the kids socialize to a non-poverty mindset. MoCo housing study says that about a third of the improvement comes from non-school environment being non-poverty. The FARM population in DC that could be merged with high-SES populations would still be living in poor neighborhoods.

How many additional schools could be delivered into this group if all the "excess" high-SES students (the ones that take the demographics to 95% high-SES at some WoTP elementary schools). Might the answer be zero?

by Data Freak on Feb 12, 2014 2:19 am • linkreport

There's a new study which flies in the face of the claim that "a balance of socioeconomic status produces the best educational outcomes, both overall and for students at each socioeconomic level."

In fact, it specifically states "large numbers of low-income children who begin formal schooling with many disadvantages - poor medical care, homelessness, an uneducated mother, for example - not only struggle with schoolwork but hurt the achievement of other children in their classrooms." It goes on to conclude "in schools with a high concentration of children with “risk factors,” the academic performance of all children - not just those with disadvantages - was negatively affected."

All of this makes intuitive sense, but you can read the write-up here:


by bcc on Feb 14, 2014 10:56 am • linkreport

The question in DC is that is it even possible to distribute the very large number of poor kids across schools. There are maybe 20% of the schools that are not title one. In urban school systems we are in a default poverty concentration, social engineering won't do it, we have to figure how to mitigate within these schools. In my mind that was the point of the Harlem Children's Zone.

by DC Parent on Feb 14, 2014 4:04 pm • linkreport

Definitely do not do what San Francisco did. The system is a complete mess and the education department could care less.Woe betide if you do not get a school that meets your family's needs you might as well talk to the wall.They require you to go to the educational placement center daily and spend a couple of hours trying to get through to the counselors who definitely need plenty of training.(When you do get through to the counselor, the available slot is already gone either to someone whom the counselor knows or to a child on the other side of town who does not want it).The board of education is corrupt, selfish and work the system to suit themselves, so it looks like they are achieving something therefore justifying their pay.BTW none of their children are in any low performing schools.Plenty of families leave the city on a yearly basis because they are told they will be dropped from the system if they do not take the school they are assigned! Is that even lawful and or constitutional? What happened to democracy and rights of the parents and their families? Traffic would be a lot less if children went to their neighborhood schools.Resources would be better utilized if they followed the will of the people instead of their own misguided ideas.

by samim shaikh on Jun 2, 2014 5:17 pm • linkreport

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