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Jonetta Rose Barras: D.C. charters and neighborhoods

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

Squirreled away in the 2013 budget the D.C. Council approved last week was a section mandating a study of admissions preference at charter schools for children who live in the neighborhoods where those facilities are located. Chairman Kwame R. Brown authored the measure, which has been embraced by Ward 6's Tommy Wells and other legislators.

Most folks have taken a what-is-the-harm position. Even charter advocates, like Friends of Choice in Urban Schools Executive Director Robert Cane, "favor" it. "[But] we are skeptical about anything that could limit parental choice."

Caution is a good thing.

Cane also told me data already exist that "could tell whether there's a need for neighborhood preference."

So, why conduct a study?

Brown said such information actually would not be available until January and pointed out that folks from the charter community would lead the task force. He called the study key in removing obstacles -- chiefly multiple lotteries -- faced by parents seeking admission to either premier charter or traditional public schools.

"Each charter has a lottery; DCPS has a lottery. A parent might be in five different lotteries," continued Brown. He said that process is unfair and frustrating, particularly if a child lives across the street from a charter and is denied access. "We have to work to find the best solution and create a win/win for everybody."

Wells said the discussion really is about "in-boundary rights." District law requires a child be guaranteed a seat in a school in his or her neighborhood. Traditional public schools (DCPS) have followed that mandate; charters, as independent institutions, have not. "The District has been forced to maintain two parallel systems," said Wells. "[That] is very expensive."

If ultimately neighborhood preference were adopted, it would be "voluntary" for current charters, Deputy Mayor for Education De'Shawn Wright told me. "We're primarily focused on going forward." He said the District could offer incentives to charters that located in certain neighborhoods and accepted more children from those communities.

If charters want neighborhood kids that is fine but it would not be good to mandate preference.

That could adversely affect the educational and management model of some charters, jeopardizing their potential effectiveness.

Already, charters have become too financially dependent on the government for my taste. Not enough of them have achieved the academic excellence promised in the mid-1990s when the system was created.

The DC Public Charter School Board rated 15 of the 53 charter schools at 34 percent or below -- the lowest of three tiers measuring academics and the overall quality of the schools. Many others were stuck in the middle -- somewhere around mediocre.

District eight-graders -- in charter and traditional public schools -- had an average scale score of 112 for science-based subject matter achievement in 2011, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress report card. The national average was 151.

Truth be told, this whole conversation about neighborhood preference is mostly a distraction.

"The real problem," Cane correctly assessed, "is not enough quality seats. If you had enough schools that were good schools we wouldn't be having this conversation."

Somebody say, amen.

Jonetta Rose Barras's column appears on Monday and Wednesday. She can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

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