What Applying to Charter Schools Showed Me About Inequality

Charters are not a comprehensive solution to public education's problems.
Matt Rourke/AP Photo

By the time we arrived—five minutes late—the school’s basement was packed. As I turned my eyes to the lectern, I wondered at the speed of childhood. My son turns three this summer, and yet, here we were, jammed into this basement to hear one of D.C.’s best charter schools explain why we ought to send him to them next year. On a Saturday, no less!

Even though it was a chilly February day, the room was hot; my one-year-old daughter squirmed in my arms and pulled off her hat. The room’s temperature brought everyone to fidgeting with our scarves and sweaters—young, old, black, brown, white, parents, kids, male, and female. As we all peeled off layers, the room’s impressive diversity came into focus. In a town as racially, residentially, socially, culturally, and economically segregated as D.C., it was an encouraging sight. I want my kids to attend a school that looks like this, I thought.

Except this was just an information session to encourage parents to apply for the school’s admissions lottery. Only a tiny fraction of the families in that packed basement will ever receive a spot at the school. Who knows how that small slice will look?

School choice—exemplified by charter schools—has changed the relationship between parents, neighborhoods, communities, and schools. And D.C.’s experiment with choice is as fully developed as almost any other public school district in the United States. That day, I stood there primarily as a parent and (to a lesser degree) as a former first-grade teacher, not as someone who writes about public education for a living. But on Monday, that moment spilled into my day job. It’s been on my mind ever since.

A lot of debates on school choice’s merits are unproductively narrow. Sam Chaltain’s new book, Our School: Searching for Community in the Era of Choice, is a welcome exception. Chaltain spent a school year shadowing students, parents, teachers, and administrators in a new public charter school and a traditional district school to gauge how they’re coping with the state of public education today. Near the end of his book, Chaltain writes,

[O]ur democracy needs to be something we do, not something we have. When it comes to a nascent experiment like school choice, we have within us the capacity to turn an open marketplace of learning options into something creative and regenerative. But there is nothing automatic about it. Choice by itself leads to nothing.

One of the things that’s become clearer to me as we’ve worked through the application process in D.C. is the degree to which school choice is much less about choice than it looks on paper—or even in theory. There are Hebrew, Chinese, and Spanish language schools. One promises Spanish immersion, discovery-based learning, and an emphasis on ecological sustainability. There are multiple Montessori charters in our area (where I grew up, “public Montessori school” was an oxymoron).

My wife and I would love to pick a favorite from this list, but since demand for quality seats far outstrips supply, D.C.’s system is, in the words of a parent from Chaltain’s recent book, more “school chance” than school choice. “The most established charter schools have basically stopped being anything other than a true lottery ticket for families,” she continued. “Because most of the spots for the younger grades are taken.”

There are many reasons that the school’s basement was so packed. Washington, D.C.’s universal pre-K program is extremely popular: It enrolls almost 70 percent of the city’s three-year-olds and over 90 percent of the four-year-olds. It supports families by relieving some of their childcare costs and freeing parents to return to work sooner. It supports better academic outcomes for students in the short- and long-term.

But it also gives parents a chance to play the school lotteries earlier and more often. The sooner parents enter the lotteries, the better their chances of controlling some of the uncertainties involved. Parents prepared to enroll their children in the public schools at age three can sometimes secure a slot at a high-quality program that guarantees their child high-quality schooling through high school graduation. And if things don’t work out the first time around, they can take another crack the next year, since some schools start their pre-K programs at age four.

At another open house I attended (for a different charter school), a mother was incredulous to hear that the school anticipated having zero open slots for new kindergartners. They expected their already admitted pre-K students to fully fill those classrooms. Unless she had a three- or four-year-old she wanted to enroll in their lottery, they weren’t the school for her family.

Choice presents today’s parents with a brave new world of anxieties. In years past, her question wouldn’t have made any more sense than her disappointment—she wouldn’t have asked whether the school had open slots, since her child would have attended whatever public school the district assigned to her neighborhood, there would have been space, and school wouldn’t have started until the kid was (at least) five years old.

If the old system minimized parental anxiety, it also produced pathologies that fed its destruction. Too often, D.C.’s public schools have mirrored (and tracked) the city’s yawning income inequality gap—for every creative, exceptional program, there are several egregiously ineffective ones. And thus, as you’d expect, parental competition for seats in high-quality schools is intense. Property values in neighborhoods with strong schools have risen well beyond middle-class salaries; even small houses in these areas routinely fetch over a million dollars. In Washington, D.C., great neighborhood schools exist—but they are inaccessible to the middle class. This undercuts the democratic virtue of these schools; there’s nothing equitable about schools that are “open” to anyone whose parents can afford the steep property costs that serve as barriers to entry.

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Conor Williams is a senior researcher at New America's Early Education Initiative.

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