Integrating D.C. schools — or not

The District of Columbia’s rapid gentrification makes it possible to create “racially and socio-economically integrated public schools,” writes Mike Petrilli on Flypaper. But without some form of  “controlled choice,” there will be no space in gentrified, high-performing schools for less affluent non-white students who live outside the boundaries.

Increasingly, well-off, white parents are sending their children to public schools, he writes. Perhaps they can’t afford private schools any more. Perhaps it’s the decrease in crime or confidence in Michelle Rhee’s reforms.

In some cases, middle-class parents in gentrifying neighborhoods are persuading others to give the local public school a try, starting with free full-day preschool.

Lots of evidence shows that poor kids learn more, on average, when they attend middle class schools. And many middle class families want their kids going to schools that reflect the diversity of the society they will inherit.

But here’s the rub: Rather than settling into a nice racial balance, several D.C. schools are on their way to flipping from all-black to all-white in just a few years. Go visit schools like Brent on Capitol Hill or Ross in Dupont Circle and you’ll notice that their fourth-graders are mostly African-American and their kindergarteners are mostly white. Follow that trend for a few more years and say goodbye to our once-in-a-lifetime shot at integrated schools.

It’s not just the district schools.  Middle-class, mostly white students are entering the lottery for admission to the high-performing E.L. Haynes Public Charter School, reducing the odds for low-income students. (The pre-K-7 school is now 24 percent white and Asian and 40 percent non-poor.)

D.C. could eliminate school boundaries, then admit students “based on a mix of a lottery, geographic proximity, and the goal of socio-economic balance.” Or the boundaries could be redrawn to combine gentrified and poor neighborhoods. Finally, the District could “create magnet schools in strategic locations to draw middle class and poor students alike.”

For instance, DCPS officials could take an under-enrolled “poor” school on Capitol Hill and turn it into Montessori program, or an accelerated math and science academy—something attractive to affluent parents on the hill. Or they could put a bilingual Spanish-immersion magnet school in Columbia Heights (perhaps a replication of the Oyster School in Woodley Park).

Charter schools could play this “magnet” role, too — but they would need to be able to manage their lotteries to ensure a balance of middle class and low-income students — something not allowed today.

The magnet option is the most viable politically, but would affect only a few schools, Petrilli writes.

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  1. The cities I know that have tried “controlled choice” tend to wind up driving out middle-class white & Asian families unless the families luck out and get a slot at one of their choices.

  2. Being from Boston and having kids in the BPS I can attest to how fantastically this all works. Wait until kids don’t get into any of their choices for schools. Wait until the school populations resist integration in all directions. Wait until the school boards decide that they need to ‘fix’ whatever formulas. In Boston there was an approved change to the assignment plans in 2003? 2004? that has never been implemented because it expands the walk zones and is a baby step towards neighborhood schools which os too controversial. Let the good times roll.

  3. My question is where are all the black families going? Are these all renters who are being forced out by their landlords?

  4. I’ll bet those teachers will look like miracle workers on the bubble tests in a few years.

  5. J. Remarque says:

    SuperSub asks where all the black D.C. families are going. I don’t have hard data, only anecdotes, but when I was shopping for houses in gentrifying D.C. neighborhoods, the story was almost always this: The house, long paid off by a parent or grandparent, was being sold by their children or grandchildren so they could move out to the Maryland suburbs and buy a bigger house with a yard and access to somewhat better schools. (And the black family often couldn’t believe that white people wanted to pay so much for a small, run-down row house.)

    I’m troubled by the fact that the guy who wrote that article never seriously doubts whether integrated schools can be “created” by government fiat, nor does he pause to wonder how it is that most of the D.C. suburban school systems became diverse all by themselves, without local governments actively engineering them to be that way.

  6. In response to the comment about the DC suburbs becoming diverse without government interference, Prince George’s County (MD) became the first majority minority suburban county in the country, as blacks moved there from DC; without government interference (as far as I know). Montgomery County (MD), however, has had for several decades a socioeconomic integration program, which places/requires “affordable/subsidized” housing in significantly more affluent areas. They also had a county-wide school transfer policy that labelled each school as open/closed to transfers in/out, based on race/ethnicity. That policy has been changed, at least officially, as a result of a (successful) lawsuit challenging it. I am not advocating government intervention, just saying that it has existed.