The Corner

Don’t Blame D.C.’s Woes on School Choice

Parents’ perspectives on education reform are often missing from the education policy debate, with technocrats typically arguing with one another about what parents want or what’s best for them. So I was heartened to see the New York Times publish an op-ed by a bona fide parent from Washington, D.C. — and on the topic of school choice, no less.

Leave it to the Times to get it wrong.

The parent, Natalie Hopkinson, is understandably frustrated about the poor public-school options available in her mostly African-American neighborhood. She’s also angry that D.C.’s hard-charging former schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, closed down some of the public schools in her vicinity. But her depiction of “school choice” as the culprit is misguided.

The real story is more complicated, and more interesting. In the last five years, Washington parents have seen some school-choice options disappear (Hopkinson’s beef) while new options have come onto the scene. But the reduction of choice isn’t because of Michelle Rhee’s policies — it’s because of gentrification. It used to be that black families living east of Rock Creek Park could send their kids to schools “west of the park” via the district’s out-of-boundary choice system. After all, the schools in tony neighborhoods weren’t filled to capacity.

That’s changed because more families (mostly white, virtually all of them affluent and well-educated) are living in west-of-the-park neighborhoods like Cleveland Park and Chevy Chase. And what else is new is that they are sending their kids to the public schools again. (Perhaps Rhee should get the blame for that — or the credit.) As a result, there’s no space for “out of boundary” kids, most of them black, and thus fewer choices for families like Ms. Hopkinson’s. A similar dynamic is playing out in Washington’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.

At the same time, new charter schools are opening every year, and an increasing number of them are finding a market in Washington’s middle class. As Hopkinson points out, these are not neighborhood schools, and families need to win a lottery in order to enroll their children in them. The best charter schools (like the best west-of-the-park schools) have long waiting lists, which can breed frustration and a sense of despair.

Rebuilding strong neighborhood schools is certainly part of the solution to the problem, which is that Washington still has too few high-quality school choice options. But replicating high-performing charter schools, and expanding the city’s private-school-scholarship program, could help too.

Ms. Hopkinson and other Washington families are demanding better choices. Let’s remove the red tape keeping the supply of good schools from catching up.

— Michael J. Petrilli is executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank based in Washington, D.C.

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