How to Make School Choice More Equitable
Jessica Sutter is a former teacher and policy scholar who was elected to the Washington, D.C., Board of Education last year. Jessica started her career as an educator at a Catholic school in Chicago before ultimately founding EdPro Consulting, where she advised clients like the D.C. Public Charter School Board and the School District of Philadelphia. Jessica will be writing about her experience as an elected member of the D.C. Board and what it's like to be a policy wonk navigating the political arena.
Education is supposed to be the path to the American Dream, the great equalizer, a tool for remedying the various societal inequities we have not managed to set right by way of other social policies. But too often we design policy that, whether intentionally or not, replicates rather than upends inequitable systems.
Washington, D.C., has a robust system of educational choice, including traditional neighborhood public schools, citywide public schools, public charter schools, and application high schools. While this system provides all families with access to choices via a common lottery known as My School DC, it maintains distinct advantages for some families. Existing enrollment policies have reinforced structures of inequity, most notably by allowing residential school assignment to persist. Wealthy D.C. residents benefit from school choice outside the lottery by where they choose (and can afford) to live.
What might happen if we wholly exchanged the school choice process from one driven by real estate to one driven by equity? How might we shift policy to make that possible?
Our city's student population has grown increasingly diverse as a result of rapid gentrification over the past two decades. Of the 93,000 public school students in the District, 67 percent are black, 10 percent are white, and 19 percent identify as Latinx. D.C. schools also serve a high proportion of disadvantaged students, with 46 percent identified as "at risk," a category denoting students with particularly high needs including those who are homeless, in foster care, or receiving public financial assistance.
D.C. is one tax jurisdiction, so every city resident pays into the same public funds which pay for all public school options, but schools in some parts of the city educate a higher proportion of at risk students than others. One Northwest D.C. elementary school serving 745 students serves none of whom are designated at risk while another, in Southeast D.C., serves 454 students, 93 percent of whom are considered at risk.
Recently, Washington Post education reporter Perry Stein wrote about a public charter school with disproportionately low enrollment of students identified as at risk. Enrollment in city-wide traditional public schools and public charter schools is determined by the common lottery. Families can apply, annually, to as many as 12 citywide schools anywhere in D.C. While these schools have no residential boundaries, the lottery applies certain "preferences" that give some applications greater weight.
Ideally, the lottery would ensure that all students—both at risk and not—would have an equivalent shot at attending a high quality citywide school. But as Stein's piece highlights, that is not happening right now.
It isn't happening in neighborhood schools, either.
In the ward I represent, we have several highly-sought-after neighborhood elementary schools. The school closest to my home educates more than 400 children in grades PK3 through 5. Its student body is 59 percent white, 25 percent black, and 9 percent of its enrolled students are identified as at risk. A half mile away, in the same greater Capitol Hill neighborhood, are two other neighborhood public schools. One serves a student body that is 17 percent white and 75 percent black; 53 percent of its students are identified as at risk. The other serves 11 percent white students and 81 percent black students; 62 percent of its enrolled students are identified as at risk.
My School DC looked at the possibility of enacting an "at risk" preference in the school choice lottery. Data modeling on this policy idea revealed it was hardly a slam-dunk. If at-risk students were given the highest level of preference in the lottery, only 8 percent of such students would be able to enroll in higher-performing schools. And, to give them this shot, sibling preference (designed to help keep families together) would need to be prioritized lower. As the report noted, "Giving an advantage to one group disadvantages another group's lottery results" at high-performing schools.
To make the choice process more equitable, those who are used to advantages in the system will need to be disadvantaged. Instead of granting preference for the small number of excess seats currently available in schools with few at-risk students, more seats will need to be proactively made available. That will mean less access for students not at risk.
Other cities already set aside seats in sought-after schools for vulnerable students. San Antonio uses a "controlled choice" model that reserves 25 percent of seats in a group of choice and magnet schools for students with the greatest needs. Denver is piloting a program where affluent district neighborhood schools may opt-in to reserve a percentage of seats for low-income out-of-boundary students.
In both Denver and San Antonio, the policy efforts are meant to prioritize children with high levels of need in the school choice process. These policies prioritize equity. They require trade-offs.
Could D.C. prioritize access for at-risk students to high-performing schools? Reserving seats for vulnerable students would mean fewer chances for other students to enroll in sought-after citywide schools in both DCPS and charter schools. Setting aside seats for out-of-boundary at-risk students in wealthy, high-performing neighborhood schools means reducing the certainty that buying a home will guarantee a family enrollment for all of their children in a desirable school.
Such policy changes will require strong political will and the courage to upend popular, but deeply inequitable systems and structures. I hope education and political leaders in the District can find both the courage and the will to do just that.