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The Brookings Institution published a study of the D.C. school system, which is almost evenly divided between public schools and charter schools. It was written by three scholars: Vanessa Williamson, Brookings Institution; Jackson Gode, Brookings Institution; and Hao Sun, Gallaudet University. The title of their study is “We All Want What’s Best for Our Kids.” Their findings are based on close reading of an online parent forum called “DC Urban Moms,” where school choice is an important topic.
What they found is not surprising. Choice intensifies and facilitates racial and socioeconomic segregation. This is the same phenomenon that has been documented in choice programs everywhere. The most advantaged parents master the system and get their children into what is perceived as the “best schools.” The “best schools” are those that have the most advantaged students.
The study begins:
Public education in the District includes a system of traditional public schools and a system of public 8
charter schools; in 2018–19, these schools served over 90,000 students at 182 schools. The city is highly diverse, as is the incoming school-age population. Among children under five, 48 percent are Black, 27 percent are white non-Hispanic, and 17 percent are Hispanic.9 54 percent of the city’s public school students are in traditional (DCPS) public schools, while 46 percent are in public charter schools (DCPCS). All students have the right to attend their local public school, or they can enter a lottery for a seat at another traditional public school or public charter school.10
In practice, parents’ school choices are limited. Housing in Washington is strongly segregated by race and class, with popular schools generally located in expensive or rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods.11 Housing prices in the District are high and rising, and affordable housing is in exceptionally short supply.12 The District’s school system does not provide regular school bus transportation; children can ride public transit to school for free, but commutes can be long, and it is often impractical for working parents to accompany young children to a school that is far from home.13 Most students attend a school in their own wards, with students in poorer parts of the city facing longer commutes.14
In making decisions about where to send their children to school, parents (and especially more privileged parents) are key contributors to school segregation and inequality.
Even for parents willing or able to enroll their children far from home, there remain fewer options than might first appear. The most popular traditional public schools rarely have spaces available to students who live beyond the school’s catchment area. Popular charter schools often have waitlists of hundreds of students.15 Moreover, researching the schools available via the lottery requires time and resources; school lottery waitlists are dominated by families that are more socioeconomically privileged.16
In making decisions about where to send their children to school, parents (and especially more privileged parents) are key contributors to school segregation and inequality. As the District of Columbia Auditor’s office has stated, “there is a pattern of District families moving away from schools with more students considered at-risk17 to schools with fewer students considered at-risk. These moves are facilitated by the robust choice model in DC.”18