A D.C. City Council’s task force looking at neighborhood preferences for the district’s charter schools came out recently with some sensible recommendations that ought to inform similar conversations in other cities.
D.C. charter schools, the task force decided, should remain open to all comers in the city, but charters that move into closed district schools should voluntarily give admissions preference to children who live nearby.
For the District of Columbia, this is a reasonable conclusion that helps to ensure that disadvantaged kids in a given locale have access to a good education while upholding a central tenet of the charter-school idea: that these institutions should be open to all students, regardless of their home address.
But the critical word here is “voluntarily.” Other school districts, such as those in Denver and Chicago, have insisted on neighborhood preference as a condition for handing over public school buildings to charters. That’s a cudgel the D.C. task force has wisely avoided using.
Instead, the task force (which included representatives from D.C. Public Schools, city government, the teacher union, and charter schools) recommended giving D.C. charters that move into district schools the ability to offer a “time-limited” admission preference to families most affected by the closure. “The objective of such a preference would be to ease the transition for students, families and communities impacted by these closures,” task-force members wrote in their report.
Such a preference in other cases, however, might defeat the purpose of school choice. For example, students in Wards 7 and 8—some of the poorest parts of the city—have the greatest need of high-quality public schools and presently attend charters in other wards. A policy of neighborhood preference might limit their access to those seats.
To be sure, the District of Columbia is unlike most cities in that charter schools are educating nearly half of the public school population. But that doesn’t mean that charters should fall into the exclusionary traps that characterize zip-code education. The task force deliberated publicly on several occasions before concluding that charters should maintain not just their autonomy but their openness, too.