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School Choice—with Little to Choose From—in D.C?

Options for public school choice are often a lot more limited—and a lot less appealing—than they appear on paper, according to a new analysis, which examines the alternatives available to students in the District of Columbia.

As part of the No Child Left Behind Act, parents whose children attend failing schools are allowed to send them to other public schools, if space is available. But a paper released today by the American Enterprise Institute found that less than 30 percent of students in D.C. who picked a new traditional public or charter school in 2009-2010 enrolled in relatively strong-performing schools, or what the authors describe as a "higher proficiency" schools.

The overwhelming majority of those students instead end up in schools that are low-performers or of unproven quality, the authors say.

According to the analysis, D.C.'s public charter schools offer about twice as many higher-proficiency choices for students across the city as traditional schools do. Without those charters, disadvantaged and minority students "would not have any chance" at a spot in a higher-proficiency school, according to authors Mark Schneider, a vice president at the American Institutes for Research and a visiting AEI scholar, and Naomi Rubin DeVeaux, the director of school quality for Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, which supports the development of high-quality charters. Schneider is also a former commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, at the U.S. Department of Education.

The problem, the authors say, is that there just aren't enough slots at those high-ranking charter schools. What's more, the "hunting season," when on-the-ball mothers and fathers apply to get their children into charters and other schools, takes place before many other parents receive notices informing them that their current schools did not make "adequate yearly progress" under NCLB, which might spur them to take the school-choice option. So parents in the second group fall behind, in the rush to find the best schools. (D.C. school officials have not yet provided a comment on the study.)

Perhaps not surprisingly, when families land a child in a good charter or traditional public school, they stay there, the study shows. The most common time when parents enroll their children in those schools are preschool, 6th grade and 9th grades—typical entry points to elementary, middle, and high school. Few spots are open in other grades, and as a result, "significantly fewer seats are filled by new students transferring to the school," the authors conclude.

"We keep talking about the demand for charter schools," Schneider explained in an interview. "But there's a big supply problem."

In D.C.'s schools, choice "is in the DNA, it's in the culture," he added. "The problem is we just don't have enough seats" at high-performing schools.

Schneider and DeVeaux developed a metric for judging whether schools meet their standards for higher or lower proficiency, which is different than NCLB's yearly-progress measures. They evaluate the schools based on the portion of their students who are proficient on D.C. tests, in combination with those schools' ability to produce test-score gains.

The authors recommend that the federal government adopt new policies that encourage the expansion of high-quality charters. States should also be rewarded for providing equitable funding for charters, as opposed to giving traditional public school options more, they say. And the feds should support the creation of charter school authorities with easier access to bonds to help them build new facilities. That would make it easier for charters to find space and grow, the authors contend.

In your view, are the authors' points about choice—or the lack of it—on target?

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