When School Choice Isn’t About OUR Choice (Or, Why We Need An Audit Of The Lottery)

In the wake of the DCPS lottery scandal, and local as well as national politicians’ embrace of school choice, it seems fitting to examine school choice in DC.

This year, as in years past, about 20,000 students participated in the annual lottery for DC’s public schools. There are about 90,000 public school students in DC, so the number participating each year is less than a quarter of the total.

Such a relatively small percentage does not, however, indicate lack of interest. All charter schools, all preK slots, all DCPS out of bounds slots, and all DCPS specialty high schools as well as DCPS citywide schools require participation in the lottery. Thus, since most DC students attend schools that are not their by right schools, most students enrolled in our public schools will–eventually–participate in the lottery, even when only a relatively small portion do so every year.

Which is why the ongoing lottery scandal is so important.

Despite the unbelievable stuff reported in the amended report of the DC inspector general (former chancellor Kaya Henderson chewing out a principal for asking whether a preference would be granted at his otherwise fully enrolled school; parents skipping over the lottery entirely and getting their preferred placements; parents missing the deadline for enrolling and still getting a preferred placement; the chancellor justifying such preferences by noting that the public officials who thusly enrolled in DCPS send a good message about the schools; slots being granted in schools that were already over capacity; etc.), there is a lot we still don’t know:

–What preferences has any DCPS chancellor honored at other times beside the small time frame examined in that report (April through August 2015)?
–For whom were those preferences honored?
–And why and where?
–Who else in DC besides the DCPS chancellor has the power to affect lottery placements in this manner?
–Have those people exercised that power?
–If so, when; for whom; why; and where?
–Who asked for and was not granted preferences by either the chancellor or someone else with that power?
–And when and why?
–And how many people would likely have enrolled in those schools but for those granted preferences?

And then there are the questions that arise simply from examining what we actually DO know.

For instance, in that 4-month period, Kaya Henderson granted preferences for slots in DCPS schools to 7 of 10 families that made requests directly to her. Granting preferences to only seven families out of the many thousands who participated in the lottery in that time is not exactly unrealistic—especially as the chancellor is accorded power to grant such placements in DCPS.

But those seven families had a commonality beyond wanting to enroll their children in DCPS schools otherwise inaccessible to them: they were all, for lack of a better term, well-connected. They included mayoral appointees; a former mayor; and a friend of the chancellor, among others.

Moreover, the inspector general’s report makes clear that in each instance, the preferences were granted when there were viable school options available for those families and that the parents appeared to have either no clue, or desire, to play by the rules everyone else is obliged to play by.

Such incredible events and lack of clarity in a process that tens of thousands of parents participate in every year is troubling.

But the murkiness of DC’s school choice goes well beyond whatever Kaya Henderson did in those 4 months.

On March 2, 2016, for instance, lottery director Cat Peretti testified before the council’s education committee. Peretti noted “robust” feedback from parents participating that year in the lottery, via surveys and focus groups. With 22 minutes left in the hearing, Peretti said, “It’s consistent across the survey data and the focus group data: The primary piece they [parents] value is the school’s proximity to their home.” [emphasis mine]

Months later, the council was given a report by the Urban Institute on those lottery survey results. That report makes clear that the most important factor for parental choice is the test scores of a school—not proximity to home.

When I asked Peretti via email about this apparent discrepancy, she responded via email that she had only looked at the lottery survey results in survey monkey and that there are many ways to look at such results. In what she had looked at, she noted, the most respondents had marked “school is close to where we live or work” as a “very important” factor that influenced their decision.

Peretti also noted to me that the Urban Institute used a different analysis than what survey monkey provided–as well as summarizing responses that she ignored. When I then asked if she had screen shots of the survey monkey results she consulted, Peretti wrote that the Urban Institute’s analysis was the record—not her testimony.

So: do DC parents value proximity to home or test scores when exercising school choice?

In the shadow of our city’s apparent discrepancy on that topic, at least one recent study suggests that the answer to this question depends on who is providing the answer.

That is, in April 2017, a report of 2014 DC school lottery data was published that expanded on a report published in June 2016 using the same lottery data. The researchers examined what school attributes were valued by families and how those preferences varied according to demographics.

The April 2017 study concluded that “commuting distance, school demographics, and academic indicators play important roles in school choice.”

OK–well, except for information the study didn’t bother to even mention, all of which does affect school choice in DC.

That would be the effect of widespread and publicly uncontrolled school closures on parental preferences; how school deserts affect choice; how many people simply play the lottery every year and do not avail themselves of any of their matches; and the effect of families enrolling after the lottery is over.

Rather, the researchers’ conclusions were in another place entirely:

“Simulations suggest segregation by race and income would be reduced and enrollment in high-performing schools increased if policymakers were to relax school capacity constraints in individual campuses. The simulations also suggest that removing the lowest performing schools as choice options could further reduce segregation and increase enrollment in high-performing schools.” (abstract, p. 1)

All this sounds pretty much like what many school choice advocates have promoted–and what the deputy mayor for education is actively engaged with through the cross sector task force’s working group on facilities.

Certainly, it’s what the Walton Family Foundation has supported and fundedjust like that same foundation supported and funded these researchers in this report.


Now, you might dismiss my critique as too pointed at this one study–except that the problem goes well beyond that study.

For instance, the Urban Institute published a recent study, also funded by the Walton Family Foundation, that sought to examine how students get to their public schools in several “choice-rich” cities, including Washington, DC.

Like the first study, this one also ignored any accounting of school closures, and school deserts, on school choice and transit in DC.

Perhaps more concerning, while this study examined in detail the costs of transit for students in those cities—and what this means for budgets—it ignored entirely the costs and benefits of investing in neighborhood schools as compared to the costs of increased transit to new and more distant schools, along with the costs of their creation in the first place and what that creation means in costs for existing schools.

Instead, we get the following:

“Though school transportation can introduce logistical challenges, publicly provided student transportation could enable access to a wider variety of high-quality schools.” (p. 7)

While that statement seems reasonable, we don’t know at what cost “publicly provided student transportation” will in fact “enable access.” And for whom it will enable access. Nor do we know how that cost compares to investing in neighborhood schools–alongside the cost of school closures.

Costs matter–or do they?

Oh, and then there’s this statement:

“Transportation matters for students everywhere, but it is especially important in choice-rich cities that are working to break the link between where students live and where they go to school.” [emphasis mine] (p. 17)

Sooooo the goal of school choice (and presumably our lottery, as the tool of school choice) is to “break the link” between home and school?!?

And here I thought school choice was about empowering parents and students and helping them access more quality school options!

Just pile this on to the growing list of what we do not really know about school choice in DC:

That is, we have no way of knowing if the Henderson lottery scandal is the reason that the lottery will be folded into a function of our state superintendent of education (OSSE) next school year—away from the deputy mayor for education, who as the mayor’s direct overseer of public education currently runs it and was responsible during the time period identified in the report.

And we also have no way of knowing if the apparent discrepancy over the importance of test scores for parents in school choice is related to the unbelievably untransparent move to our city’s test-score heavy accountability system under ESSA.

Right now, for instance, we have NO idea what the myriad private groups that city leaders met with or got feedback from on ESSA had to recommend—nor why this information is being withheld from the public.

Even the rather nonresponsive response I got to my FOIA request on this topic makes clear that on numerous occasions (including testimony before the state board of education), the public made clear it did not want a test-heavy approach for school accountability—even though this is what was offered by OSSE and finally approved by the state board.

All the while we know nothing at all about preferential placements in the lottery outside one small window of 4 months in 2015 for one sector of our schools. And while we have lottery data released to researchers funded by an organization whose main goal appears to be enhancing school choice and creating new charter schools at any cost.

Maybe school choice in DC really IS about breaking links—in this case, between the public and their own schools?

So, DC auditor Kathy Patterson, for all of these reasons, can we please, PLEASE, have an audit already of our lottery?

One thought on “When School Choice Isn’t About OUR Choice (Or, Why We Need An Audit Of The Lottery)

  1. Thanks so much for staying on top of this issue and for spelling it all out in this post. I fully support your call for an audit of the “lottery” and would like to see it lead to an abandonment of this extremely perverse rendition of “choice” as a matter of parents telling a machine what schools they want then wait for a machine to tell them which one they will get! Of all the absurdities that have been foisted on the public and its schools in the name of “reform,” this game of education roulette posing as parent directed choosing is by far the most absurd of all.


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