Is it Time for “Controlled Choice” in Washington, DC?

The District of Columbia’s rapid gentrification provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create racially and socio-economically integrated public schools. But misguided public policies might be allowing this moment to slip through our hands.

That was the upshot of a very interesting conversation that transpired the other day at a forum held in Fordham’s conference center (and moderated by yours truly). Panelists, including city councilman Sekou Biddle, Century Foundation scholar Richard Kahlenberg, community activist Sam Chaltain, and Center for Education Reform president Jeanne Allen, contemplated what it would take to seize the opportunity.

Here’s what’s happening, in a nutshell: Upper middle class families have moved into neighborhoods such as Capitol Hill, Columbia Heights, and Petworth in large numbers. And—this is what’s new—these families are staying in the District even after their kids reach school age, and many are sending their children to public schools. (Nobody can quite explain this;  I suspect it’s a combination of the iffy real estate market; the huge decrease in crime in the District over the past two decades; the recession (making private schools out of reach for many); and confidence in Michelle Rhee’s reforms.)

At the same time, more parents in long-gentrified neighborhoods west of Rock Creek Park are also sending their kids to public schools. Which means there are fewer spots for “out of boundary” students in high-performing middle class schools such as Lafayette, Murch, Eaton, or Deal.

So affluent parents in the transitioning neighborhoods—squeezed out of schools west of the park—are taking a shot at the school down the street. In several cases, this has been an orchestrated effort, organized via community meetings, list-serves, and the like, with middle-class parents saying “let’s all hold hands and do it together.” And many are taking the leap into pre-school programs where the risks are lower and the upside is quite high. (Free full day preschool! Starting at age 3! Imagine the savings in childcare!)

So far so good. If you believe in school integration, this is a fantastic development. After all, the reason urban schools haven’t been racially or economically diverse for the past three decades is that they have served so few white or middle class kids. (And there are plenty of reasons to cheer school integration, beyond the feel-good notion of making Dr. King’s dream a reality. Lots of evidence shows that poor kids learn more, on average, when they attend middle class schools. And many middle class families want their kids going to schools that reflect the diversity of the society they will inherit.)

But here’s the rub: Rather than settling into a nice racial balance, several D.C. schools are on their way to flipping from all-black to all-white in just a few years. Go visit schools like Brent on Capitol Hill or Ross in Dupont Circle and you’ll notice that their fourth-graders are mostly African-American and their Kindergarteners are mostly white. Follow that trend for a few more years and say goodbye to our once-in-a-lifetime shot at integrated schools.

At these rapidly changing schools, white families—who now live “in boundary”—are inadvertently pushing out black “out of boundary” families who come from other nearby neighborhoods. And many of these white middle class parents—at least many that I’ve spoken to—want their schools to remain diverse, but feel powerless to keep the Big Flip from happening.

Even charter schools—which don’t have “in boundary” families at all—are facing kindred challenges. The high-performing E.L. Haynes Public Charter School, for instance, has seen its proportion of low-income students decline as affluent (mostly white) parents apply in droves. Because the school is required to select students via a blind lottery, the more affluent parents that apply, the more who are likely to get in.

So what to do? One possibility is to move to some version of “controlled choice,” whereby public officials would work to manage enrollment at D.C. schools in order to create more socio-economic balance. (A Supreme Court decision a few years ago made overt management by race unallowable.) This sort of effort comes in several flavors; here are the major options:

1. Eliminate the boundary system entirely. Nobody would have a claim to a particular school, even the one down the block. Everyone would apply to several schools and a computer would determine enrollments, based on a mix of a lottery, geographic proximity, and the goal of socio-economic balance. This is what Wake County, North Carolina had until recently—and until a populist uprising overturned it.

2. Redraw boundaries to engineer more schools with socio-economic balance. This could take a couple of different forms. If a school is near a border that separates an affluent neighborhood and a poor one, its boundaries could be drawn to ensure enrollment from both communities. (This could certainly work in parts of Columbia Heights and Capitol Hill.) Another option is to ensure that all schools have a large number of out-of-boundary slots reserved for poor kids. But since the “middle class” schools are already full, the only way that would work is by redrawing boundaries to be tighter, and pushing some current families into other school zones.

3. Create magnet schools in strategic locations to draw middle class and poor students alike. This strategy has worked for at least a generation—at least if officials come up with magnet schools that are worth attending. For instance, DCPS officials could take an under-enrolled “poor” school on Capitol Hill and turn it into Montessori program, or an accelerated math and science academy—something attractive to affluent parents on the hill. Or they could put a bilingual Spanish-immersion magnet school in Columbia Heights (perhaps a replication of the Oyster School in Woodley Park). Charter schools could play this “magnet” role, too—but they would need to be able to manage their lotteries to ensure a balance of middle class and low-income students—something not allowed today.

To be sure, Option 1 is probably a non-starter. If implemented, you’d see liberal Chevy Chase residents turn into Tea Partiers overnight, as their property values would plummet once their expensive houses no longer came with a guaranteed enrollment in Lafayette. Option 2 might be more palatable, but would lead to huge conflicts too, especially if officials didn’t grandfather students into their current schools. Option 3 is probably most doable—but would only impact a handful of schools.

What’s more important than any of the details, though, is starting this conversation. Whatever you might think of gentrification, it’s a bona fide phenomenon in the District and shows no signs of slowing down. Wouldn’t we be smart to seize the opportunities it provides?

-Mike Petrilli

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