Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) introduced a new program Monday aimed at increasing students’ access to public elementary schools, despite concerns that the plan may be inaccessible to students in low-income neighborhoods.
The announcement marks a change in the D.C. Public Schools’ policy toward charter schools, which are publicly funded schools operating independently of the area school system. Previously, charter school enrollment was determined solely by a lottery system.
The “walkability” program grants access based on the proximity of the schools to the students’ homes. This program would allow students residing within a certain distance of a charter school to become eligible to attend that school.
Currently, about 45,000 students — half of the DCPS student population — attend charter schools, but the proposal could affect to up to 10,000 students who live more than a half-mile from their designated public school and within a half-mile of a charter school.
Still, charter schools choose to opt in to the program, then decide if they should add the “walkability” standard to other admissions preferences, such as preference for siblings of current charter school students.
If the D.C Council approves the measure, the plan will go into effect during the 2018-19 school year.
Currently, District students are guaranteed enrollment at one of D.C.’s 61 public elementary schools. However, under the new system, students will be offered a preference in the admissions lottery if they live within a half-mile of the charter school they wish to attend or if they live more than a half-mile from a DCPS-zoned school, according to a statement from the mayor’s office.
In an interview with The Hoya, Bowser said the new plan strikes a balance between advocates and critics of charter schools. The opponents of charter schools argue that traditional public schools can shut down due to the popularity of charter schools, leaving many students without traditional public school access. Supporters of charter schools maintain that access to a higher quality education outweighs the costs.
“We have achieved a delicate balance that is working for us. There is enough choice for parents who want to go outside of their neighborhood schools and we have had robust investment in our traditional public neighborhood schools,” Bowser said. “I think we have achieved the right balance in Washington, D.C.”
Bowser also said she hopes the next federal secretary of education does not interfere in the District’s education plan, for fear of disrupting improvements she has made in the public school system.
Currently, President Donald Trump’s nomination for the position, Betsy DeVos — a billionaire and former chair of the pro-school choice education advocacy group American Federation for Children — has been an advocate for charter schools.
DeVos has expressed support for using public school funds to pay for private education through various programs and vouchers.
“People who like to experiment in education sometimes look to Washington, D.C., as a place to try things,” Bowser said. “In my discussions with the president and the people who are surrounding him around education policy, my message is ‘We’ve got it right in D.C.’ We have choice for parents and families who want it and investment that we need in traditional public schools.”
In her announcement at the D.C. Bilingual Public Charter School, Bowser said the plan’s purpose is to create easier access for students who are forced to travel longer distances because they live far from their schools.
“We are moving full steam ahead to ensure all our young people have access to the high-quality education they need and deserve,” Bowser said. “My administration will continue to expand opportunity and make unprecedented investments in public education so that students from every neighborhood, in every ward, are set up for success.”
Bowser said this policy will also ensure parents can choose a school that offers the best services for their students.
“We want to make it easier for every parent to choose a school that best fits their child’s needs,” Bowser said.
Charter school advocates have expressed concerns that the plan might negatively impact less-affluent regions, such as D.C.’s Ward 8, and undermine the concept of charter autonomy, which allows charter schools to determine their own admissions process.
Scott Pearson, the executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, said he is still analyzing the implications of the new plan.
“It’s an interesting enrollment proposal that addresses real issues families face,” Pearson wrote in an email to The Hoya. “All preferences have complex effects so we’re speaking with school leaders and others to better understand their perspectives.”
D.C. Councilmember David Grosso (I-At Large), chairman of the D.C. Council Committee on Education, said any effective policy will require significant time to implement.
“The proposal that was announced by the Mayor will require an amendment to the School Reform Act, which as you know, must be done through the legislative process,” Gross wrote in an email to The Hoya. “My staff and I are currently analyzing the issues with the proposal and both the intended and unintended consequences of such a preference.”
Grosso said he may hold a public hearing this spring or summer to listen to constituent opinions.
Hoya Staff Writer Paula Hong contributed reporting.
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