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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Don't Protect, Let's Plan for More High-Quality DC Schools

In an earlier blog post, I addressed what I thought was missing from this Washington Post piece on charter school enrollment and market share issues – a focus on high-quality schools and the growing enrollment in public schools across our city. Let me add another element to the conversation, on the topic of joint planning.

Everyone in the city, from residents to public officials, supports the idea of more joint education planning.  Mayor Gray called for such an effort in his recent State of the District address.  And DC Council Education Committee Chair David Catania has publicly stated his support for this.

What do we mean by planning? It’s a word used more frequently in the transportation field to talk about where to build new roads or create new traffic patterns. It’s a similar conversation for schools – what kind of schools are needed? Where? How can we create more high-performing schools that serve all students?

PCSB supports education planning.  We have long worked closely with the Office of the State Superintendent and DC Public Schools on issues related to a charter school closure, such as making sure students are placed. Also, the published analysis of school location and performance in DC, known as the IFF study, took collaboration across the entire education sector. Since the election of Mayor Gray our collaboration across the city on such issues as school closure, transportation and health has increased substantially.   

As this joint work has evolved, our conversations with DCPS, OSSE and the Deputy Mayor for Education have been around scoping a more comprehensive effort at joint planning  -- with a goal of producing the joint blueprint the mayor described in his address.  Central to our discussions have been how we can best involve parents, school leaders, and community members in this process.

With nearly as many DC students attending charter schools (43%) as traditional district schools, there is an increasing need to think more systematically about the overall DC educational system.   For example, here is some of the feedback I have heard from parents, the community and city officials alike that planning could start to address:

-       Too many DC neighborhoods still lack a high-performing school with available for nearby children;

-       Supply for high-performing schools still exceeds demand as evident in long charter waiting lists and high DCPS out-of-boundary requests;

-       The current system of choice – whereby families apply for dozens of independent lotteries – may not optimize outcomes for their students.  A family who most wants to attend a school in the neighborhood may end up getting into, and commuting to, a school across town;

-       Given the number of students who travel out of their neighborhoods to attend both DCPS and charter schools, there may be a need to look into policies and operations around transportation for school-aged youth;

-       We can identify ways to share resources around charter and DCPS schools, facilitating joint enrollment, hybrid schools, and shared programs;

-       When the city will soon have 26 former school buildings sitting empty; there is no rationality in having so many schools paying rent to private landlords;

-       The way the city funds schools – based on a single count in October and unequal between charters and DCPS – does not take into account student mobility and the lack of equity between the two systems.  It needs reexamination;

-       We have no common view about projections of future growth around the city.

PCSB is eager to find sustainable solutions to these concerns. Where our views may differ from others is around the nature of competition.  

Charter were created more than 15 years ago in DC as a way to spur choice, innovation an quality, with the goal of charter competition inspiring improvement in traditional schools.  I’ve heard more than once a concern about the locations of charters being an issue, and how existing schools – charter and traditional - need to be “protected” from a charter school opening nearby.

“Protecting” an existing school from competition by keeping out new entrants from locating nearby makes little sense.  Competition builds quality and strengthens neighborhoods. 

Rather than focus our energies walling off places schools can’t go, we should be working to get more great schools to locate in those neighborhoods most in need of more quality seats.   Let’s identify places we need great schools, and then offer facilities to our highest performing schools to open there.   

And, as I said in this post, rather than capping charter growth, we should consider how charters and DCPS together can continue attracting more families to public schools in the District.

Moreover, joint planning is different from central planning.   Joint planning takes a system built around competition and choice and seeks to optimize it.  Central planning allocates resources based on a single perspective of what is best for the city.

There is a lot of good joint planning can do for our city.  It can improve choices and efficiency, while preserving the autonomies and competition that have done so much to improve public schooling in the District.  We are eager to engage in this process with our partners in the city, and to hear more from community members about how best this process can serve them.

Posted by: Scott Pearson at
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