Dispatches from Planet Pollyanna: Charter School Walkability Edition

The other day, I participated in a phone call with several other people regarding the charter school walkability preference proposal. As you may recall, the mayor proposed on January 30 giving elementary-age students a preference in the lottery for charter schools if their by right DCPS schools are more than half a mile away from their homes and a charter school is closer.

(See more information here–there is even a survey, whose deadline is March 15, on the walkability proposal. You get to these lovely pieces of information by going to the deputy mayor for education’s (DME’s) website, going to the 6th tab (“Data Resources”) of the 7 drop-down tabs across the top of the home page, then choosing “proposed walkability preference analysis.” It’s all conveniently there! If you can find it.)

Anyhoo, that phone call the other day was held by the DME’s office in response to the fact that only one public meeting—this past Monday, attended by less than 20 people–was held on the charter school walkability proposal. The phone call itself was not publicized by the DME—and had only me and two other participants.

In the next week or two, the DME’s office will submit legislation for the charter walkability preference to the council—and the council will hold a hearing, as the proposal will require a change in the School Reform Act.

In the phone call, DME staff went through a slide deck presented at the public meeting, showing (on p. 4) that the goal of the walkability preference was “to improve access to walkable schools for our youngest students.”

But that was very different from what the DME herself, Jennifer Niles, said about a month ago, in a phone call with cross sector task force members about the preference proposal.

Then, the DME responded to a task force member’s query about helping neighborhoods that lack by right schools right now by ensuring that their by right schools are walkable. The DME noted that solving walkability was NOT the mayor’s priority, but that ensuring access to “high-quality schools” was.

Indeed, the mayor’s own press release introducing the walkability preference said “We are moving full steam ahead to ensure all our young people have access to the high-quality education they need and deserve.”

High-quality or walkable? Who knows? Who cares? On Planet Pollyanna, this is all great news!

As is the fact that Niles herself has spent most of the last 365 days working on specific policies to benefit charter school enrollments (the mobility proposal, the charter walkability proposal, and RFOs of closed DCPS schools)—all the while she has said she has no control of charter schools. Amazing!

To be sure, DCPS (which Niles actually does have control over) is a bit, as the current parlance goes, sad. Right now, for instance, a cadre of DCPS schools remain unrenovated–most with poor children.

Some parent advocates have even created a petition to the mayor, asking her to fix all the remaining untouched and poorly maintained DCPS schools asap. (Sign before March 19.)

Closely related is the reality of by right school deserts in DC. With so many DCPS closures in the last 20 years, some neighborhoods have no by right school, and kids have to endure long (and sometimes dangerous) walks to avail themselves of their right to attend a school–which very well may be in poor condition.

And yet, with this charter walkability proposal, the mayor has announced a way to make it easier to access schools of choice—while ignoring doing the same thing for schools that are charged with upholding the right to public education.

Hmm.

To be fair, the DME’s staff has tried to address how the walkability preference would work and what its impact on existing schools would be. They created “mock lottery” scenarios with, and without, the preference in place for all existing charter schools.

Those mock lottery scenarios (and especially this document, given to task force members but not available on the DME’s website that I can see) show that some charter schools can gain large numbers of students–all the while DME staff reassured that DCPS schools would actually not lose matches.

For instance, one of the slide decks on the DME’s website discusses (on p. 21) the so-called “ripple effect.” That means that “seats that were vacated at DCPS schools [by students matched with a charter school through the walkability preference] were then filled by other students, so DCPS did not lose matches.”

Happy days!

Well, except for the big red box at the bottom of that same slide, which suggested (like those ads for new drugs) that actual results may vary:

“Mock results are not necessarily predictive. Applicant behavior could change. DME will reevaluate in two years.”

I think it’s fair to say that applicant behavior will most certainly change, given that the mock lottery scenarios, using last year’s lottery participants, did not even take into account what the final choice of participants was, because a match doesn’t equate with a filled seat.

Does anyone have that analysis?

Nor could any of those mock lotteries take into account how those choices will change with the new preference for charter schools—and how parents will change their rankings accordingly.

Not to mention that it’s also unclear under what circumstances the DME would reevaluate this policy in 2 years: DCPS schools losing kids left and right? Charter schools without seats for kids outside their neighborhoods?

And if the DME does re-evaluate the law, how willing will the council be to go back and change the law again, after parsing legislation, holding a hearing, and then a vote right now to enact this in the first place?

Good times on Planet Pollyanna.

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