There is a lot of choice in D.C. public schools.
But there is very little control in balancing school populations in the district—with the result that you have schools with strikingly different achievement levels and demographics in the same neighborhood. Now, something called controlled choice is being used in a number of districts across the country.
To get a sense of why controlled choice might make sense for D.C., let's take a look at two elementary schools:
Brent Elementary School is located in Washington, D.C.’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, just a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol. D.C. public schools classifies Brent as a “Rising” school, the second highest of its five school rating categories.
It’s one of the better schools in the district, based on standardized test scores and student progress. Just 11 percent of students at the school are low-income, and the student body is quite racially diverse: 65 percent white, 19 percent black, 8 percent Hispanic, 2 percent Asian, and 6 percent multiple races. In two weeks, the school is having a fundraising gala with food, wine, live music, and a silent auction, selling tickets for $85 a pop.
Now walk exactly one mile east to the other side of Capitol Hill, past Seward Square park, a CVS Pharmacy, and the year-round farmer stands at Eastern Market. Arrive at Payne Elementary School.
Payne is a “Focus” school, the second lowest of the district’s ratings. The percentages of students passing standardized tests in math and reading at Payne are less than half the rates at Brent. Ninety-nine percent of Payne students are low-income; 91 percent of students are black, 4 percent are multiple races, 3 percent are Hispanic, and 1 percent are white. Payne recently lost $6 million in funding that had originally been slated for renovations to the school’s facilities.
Only 28 percent of students in D.C. attend their in-boundary district school, while another 28 percent attend an out-of-boundary school, and 44 percent attend charter schools. Through a system of controlled choice, you could have two schools in the same neighborhood where half of all students are low-income and half are middle-class, instead of 11 percent low-income enrollment at Brent and 99 percent at Payne.
Of course, not everyone thinks controlled choice is a good idea for D.C. Some argue that “controlled choice” would restrict families’ education options, hurt the home values in affluent neighborhoods, or distract from efforts to provide high-poverty schools with desperately needed resources.
To examine these issues, The Century Foundation and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute are co-hosting a discussion on “Encouraging integrated schools in the District of Columbia?” The proposal on the table—put forth by Richard Kahlenberg, Michael Petrilli, and Sam Chaltain in a recent op-ed for The Washington Post—is that D.C. should increase the number of socioeconomically and racially integrated public schools by adopting “controlled choice” zones. Parents would rank their preferences from among a group of local schools, and students would be assigned based on a combination of those preferences and the goal of balancing socioeconomic status across schools.
Tune in this Friday at 10 a.m. EST to hear the debate and weigh in with your own views. (You can still register to attend or watch the live-stream.)