Last week, the District of Columbia Council began exploring a proposal to dramatically expand the number of dual language immersion programs in DC Public Schools. These programs, which offer academic instruction in two languages—English and a non-English partner language—are extraordinarily popular with D.C. families. Each of these schools amasses waitlists well into the hundreds (and occasionally over one thousand) each year.

The current proposal would require the D.C. school district, DC Public Schools (DCPS), to open eight additional programs in fall 2020, with more to come in the following five years. There’s no question that there’s sufficient parental demand to justify opening additional seats in multilingual schools.

However, it’s interesting that the proposal only addresses DCPS schools, when nearly half of the city’s public school students attend charter schools, including seven dual language immersion schools spanning Spanish, French, Mandarin, and Hebrew.

As the D.C. Council seeks ways to provide equitable access to high-quality dual language immersion (DLI) in DCPS, it should also take advantage of this political momentum to explore ways of doing the same in D.C. charter schools as well.

Facing Gentrification—and Fighting Back

The equity challenges for D.C. charters are somewhat different from those confronting DCPS. This starts with charters’ enrollment model. Given that English-learning (EL) students are more likely to be growing up in low-income households than monolingual English-speaking students, there is significant reason to worry that these students will be less able to engage in real-estate-driven versions of school choice (i.e. neighborhood schools).

D.C. charter schools enroll students through open enrollment lotteries untethered from the city’s hot real estate market. This insulates them from gentrification pressures that push EL students out of DCPS’s neighborhood schools’ dual immersion programs. But it does not render them immune. As gentrification reaches every neighborhood in D.C., ELs and their families are being pushed out of the city as a whole—and dual language immersion (DLI) charter schools are seeing drops in their EL enrollments.

Nonetheless, the fact of existing, expanding wealth and housing inequities does not give D.C. policymakers license to exacerbate them through enrollment policies. So: what can local policymakers do to ensure that ELs have equitable access to dual immersion programs in D.C.’s charter schools?
One simple solution: the city could amend its charter law to permit charter schools to opt into giving extra weight to ELs in their lotteries.

First Steps and Possible Obstacles

There’s precedent for this move. The city already allows schools to choose to offer a preference to students with special needs. This allows schools that have built their instructional models around inclusion classrooms, which aim to serve significant percentages of these students, to enroll a student body that will benefit from those models.

Why not do the same with ELs and dual language immersion? DLI programming is uniquely effective for ELs, and a number of D.C. charter schools (including the one my two children attend) are designed as two-way dual immersion programs. Most of these schools have designed their staffing, curricula, and more around linguistic integration—serving a mixed population of ELs and English-dominant students. That is, their models work best when they enroll large numbers of ELs who speak their program’s other language at home (in D.C., this language is usually, though not always, Spanish). But—unlike DCPS schools—under D.C.’s charter school law, these schools are currently prohibited from holding spots for Spanish-dominant children (or French-dominant children, in the case of Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School or Mandarin-dominant children, in the case of Yu Ying Public Charter School). Why not let charters hold a percentage of seats for EL students?

As the Council explores ways to equitably expand access to DLI in DCPS schools, this would be a relatively straightforward reform to make to the city’s charter sector. If it would prefer not to allow charters to opt into offering a weighted preference for EL students, it could also explore allowing these charters to hold a separate lottery for students who speak their school’s non-English language of instruction at home. This would similarly improve equitable access to DLI programs for EL students, just through a different policy design. It would also allow charter schools to demonstrate their willingness to serve these students, who do not always enroll in charter schools at high rates.

There are technical challenges worth noting, however. The city would need to think through how students could document their native languages. Who, that is, would be counted as an EL, for the purposes of being given preferential weighting in the lottery? Would it only apply to children who have formally been classified as English learners by a public school in Washington, D.C.? This could work for students applying to join DLI charter schools in kindergarten and above. However, new preschoolers applying to charter schools at three years old (when public education begins in D.C.) will not yet have formal EL designations.

How to address this? Schools could ask parents of preschoolers to affirm that their family speaks a non-English language at home. This is DCPS’s model in schools where it reserves seats for Spanish-dominant children. In past interviews, however, multiple administrators in multiple schools have complained to me that privileged, English-dominant D.C. parents frequently present their children as native Spanish-speakers even though they have limited exposure to the language.

In response, the city could explore a two-step process for determining whether pre-K children receive EL preference in a charter’s enrollment lottery (if the charter opts in). Families could (1) present their young children as native speakers of a non-English language and receive preferential lottery weighting, but they would then (2) be required to bring their child to the school to have their language abilities screened to ensure that they are, in fact, ELs. If the school determines that the child is not actually a native speaker of a non-English language, the family would not be permitted to enroll in the school. If, for instance, school leaders determine that the child’s parents are monolingual English speakers who employ a Spanish-speaking nanny during the day, they might decide that this was inadequate linguistic exposure to render the child a native Spanish-speaker.

However, this process would be cumbersome—and controversial—for schools. Instead, the city could simplify the process by only allowing students whose families qualify as low-income to register their children for the EL preference. This would ensure that, for instance, privileged families who strategically employ linguistically diverse nannies would not qualify, while providing more equitable access for EL children from low-income backgrounds. In addition to being much simpler to implement, this approach would dovetail with existing D.C. policy thinking around whether to allow schools to give “at-risk” students preferential weighting in school lotteries.

If city leaders go this route, however, they will need to ensure that ELs’ families could apply for the EL preference regardless of their legal documentation status. At present, undocumented families are not eligible for many of the public programs that D.C. uses as factors to determine whether a D.C. child is “at-risk.” The city would need to ensure that EL children with undocumented immigrant caregivers were able to access the new EL preference. To address this, the city could also give the EL preference to children whose families whose heads of household use identification cards that the city provides to undocumented residents.

Partnerships between charter schools could also help to expand equitable EL access to DLI programs. It could allow DLI programs to partner with linguistically-diverse early education programs like Briya Public Charter School. Specifically, it could allow Spanish–English DLI programs to establish an enrollment “feeder pattern” that would give lottery preference to preschoolers who complete Briya’s program.

Finally, note that any education policy reforms aimed at countering wealth-driven inequities in D.C. school access will have limited efficacy. Absent a significant, unprecedented push on affordable housing, access to D.C.’s DLI programs will remain inequitable in DCPS’s neighborhood schools and D.C. charters alike. That is, better school enrollment policies cannot prevent D.C.’s hot housing market from pushing English learners out of neighborhoods with DLI schools—and the city entirely.