Shallal’s Top-Down Plan for D.C. Schools Hurts Parent Choice

D.C. Mayoral candidate Andy Shallal’s white paper on education has created significant buzz.

Shallal accuses Mayor Vincent Gray, and former Mayor Adrian Fenty, of increasing mayoral control of schools and of not listening to Washington’s parents and students.

However, Shallal’s white paper makes it clear that Shallal himself thinks he knows what parents and students want, and would continue to increase centralized power over schools.

Shallal’s most presumptuous statement, perhaps, is that parents “don’t fundamentally want choices.” Instead, he claims they want schools within walking distance. To satisfy the desires of parents (according to Shallal) he is calling for a moratorium on charter schools locating near traditional public schools. Contradictory to his opposition of “centralization” under Fenty and Gray, Shallal is willing to assume that he knows what parents want even better than parents themselves do, and will speak for them.

Further, Shallal’s call to place a moratorium on charters conflicts with the paper’s praise for the Harlem Children’s Zone — an organization that provides community services and operates several charter schools in New York City. Ironically, a moratorium could prevent schools like the Harlem Children Zone charters from opening here in Washington.

The white paper also refers to the expansion of charter schools as the “drip-drip” of a destructive force. The waiting lists for D.C. charter schools prove that parents want choices. In 2003-04 there were 37 charter schools in Washington. In 2012-13 there were 57 charter schools operating 106 campuses. More charter schools open because parents want them to.

Some parents desire neighborhood schools, but there is demonstrable evidence that many others are proponents of school choice. Over 15,000 students appeared on D.C. charter school wait lists this school year. Shallal seems to assume that parents like charters just because they exist.

It is easy for politicians and bureaucrats to talk about beautiful visions of how schools should be. Parents and students are fed up with waiting for those visions to become real, and are choosing schools that offer a better education now.

He calls for a mayor that decides what the school system should look like and for a plan that locates feeder schools according to geography. His top-down approach is a one-size-fits-all model that will “help neighborhoods understand how to improve schools.” The diversity of charter schools proves that the same plan doesn’t work everywhere.

Shallal’s white paper does make some good points. It is correct that student progress, as an indicator of school achievement, is difficult to measure, and that some assessments are poorly designed. He should consider the possibility that parents are the best way to assess school performance. When parents choose a school they show that the school is doing better than others.

Most importantly, he is right that politicians should listen to parents, but he doesn’t see that demanding more charter school options is a way for parents to show what they want. Top-down policies, no matter who is making them, actually take autonomy away from local communities and parents.

It is unfortunate that Shallal would ignore parents and students, limit their choices, and put more power in the hands of bureaucrats. Despite his criticism of Mayors Gray and Fenty, Shallal’s white paper is a proof that he would force Washington schools to fit his plans, ignoring the fact that not all Washington parents and students agree with them.