As the population in our region explodes, overcrowded school districts are grappling with the controversial process of re-drawing school boundaries. School officials must weigh the wishes of parents with socioeconomic balance and unpredictable population growth. Some districts are even considering doing away with boundaries or year-round schedules to stagger student attendance. We explore how districts are taking on overcrowding.


  • Michael Petrilli Author, "Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent's Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools;" Vice President for National Programs and Policy, Thomas B. Fordham Institute
  • Abigail Smith Independent education reform consultant
  • Sam Adamo Executive Director of Planning and Legislative Services, Loudoun County Public Schools


  • 12:06:46

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. As the population in our region explodes, overcrowded school districts are grappling with the controversial process of redrawing school boundaries, sparking battles over new district lines and frustrating parents whose children have to change schools and many cases not for the first time.

  • 12:07:21

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt goes the other way too. The District's got both overcrowded and under-enrolled public schools, partly driven by a gap in quality among schools. Some suggests fresh thinking, such as year-round school schedules or doing away with school boundaries altogether. Joining us to discuss this by phone is Sam Adamo. He is the executive director of Loudoun County Public Schools' planning and legislative service. Sam Adamo, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:07:49

    MR. SAM ADAMOYou're most welcome. Thank you.

  • 12:07:50

    NNAMDISam, Loudoun County is experiencing tremendous growth. What was once a fairly rural area grew 84 percent in one decade. What has that meant for managing school districts?

  • 12:08:02

    ADAMOI think for this school division in particular it has meant that we have been growing for the last 20 years, and in that time, we have constructed over 50 schools. And I think we've had tremendous support from the community that's funded those schools, as well as great leadership from the school boards and our superintendent.

  • 12:08:28

    NNAMDIYou've been working on these issues for some 16 years now in Loudoun County. How many schools are facing overcrowding now?

  • 12:08:36

    ADAMORight now, we just completed a boundary examination of 13 existing elementary schools and in preparation for our opening of two brand-new elementary schools this coming fall. Right now, we have a -- we're getting ready to construct a new middle school, as well as two high schools and yet another elementary school.

  • 12:09:01

    NNAMDISchool boundary changes are obviously difficult. What are some of the issues the school district is trying to address beyond overcrowding that is?

  • 12:09:09

    ADAMOI think as we begin looking at school boundaries and because we have been in such a growth mode, I think one of the basic things that we try to provide our community is information and get them all of the information that they might need as they begin looking at the different options. And that same information is available to our school board, as well as the administrative leadership team.

  • 12:09:37

    ADAMOAnd as you begin looking at getting that information out, I think Loudoun has a very interesting process, and it's iterative, and that we provide the foundation. And we have public hearings where we give the communities that are affected by the boundaries an opportunity to share their thoughts and ideas about the upcoming boundary change not only with staff but the school board.

  • 12:10:03

    NNAMDIDo those ideas that they share include, oh, well, irritation from parents whose kids may have already been moved multiple times?

  • 12:10:11

    ADAMOYes, we have experienced that. I mean there have -- I recall one boundary change that we did. We had a community that was in an ideal geographic location to attend many different schools, and then a period of four years, they had been subject to three moves...

  • 12:10:32


  • 12:10:32

    ADAMO...and they were being considered for yet another.

  • 12:10:35

    NNAMDIWe're talking with Sam Adamo. He is the executive director of Loudoun County Public Schools' planning and legislative service and this conversation on shifting school boundaries in our region, a conversation you can join by calling 800-433-8850. Have school boundaries changed for your children? You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or go to our website,, and join the conversation there. Who is involved in deciding whether and how to draw new boundaries, Sam, and what's the process?

  • 12:11:07

    ADAMOWell, again, here in Loudoun, we have an iterative process. We as staff provide that base information to our school board, as well as the community members. It's all posted up on our website. We have two public hearings so that the community can share their thoughts and concerns about the upcoming changes. That is then followed by the introduction of a base plan or plans that staff puts out not only to the school board but to the community.

  • 12:11:41

    ADAMOThat gives the community members an opportunity to provide feedback to the school board. That meeting in turn is followed by a work session with the school board. They're all open to the public, but it gives the school board a chance to weigh what they have heard from the community, as well as their own thoughts as board members and talk to one another and exchange ideas.

  • 12:12:06

    ADAMOThey in turn provide additional nuances or suggested changes to the base plan. And so we then begin a new -- once we have school board feedback, we begin looking at those plans. They're subject to additional public hearings, and again, we get back to another work session. So as our school board is able to hear the thoughts and concerns of the communities, what we're able to do is eventually fine-tune a process.

  • 12:12:38

    ADAMOAnd I think using this last boundary change, I mean our board I think worked like yeomen in dealing not only with various concern to the communities because many of them will represent one community that will say we've been moved, don't move me, and you'll have others that will, you know, they're all saying that same thing.

  • 12:13:00

    NNAMDIPlus, you also deal, it's my understanding, with a lot of neighborhood associations. How do they fit into the conversation?

  • 12:13:06

    ADAMOThe neighborhood associations I think create an interesting dynamic for everybody in that some of our very large neighborhood associations have contributed profit schools. And so what they begin to look at is, well, if we profit this school, then our students should be able to go to school at a particular location.

  • 12:13:27

    ADAMOBut again, I mean as public schools, we have to look at the interest of all of the students. And sometimes, the individual interest of a neighborhood or HOA might not necessarily be what is best for all of the students. And again, I think what our board and what we try to do is have a process that's fair and is equitable as possible.

  • 12:13:51

    NNAMDIYou even looked at year-round schedules as an alternative. How did that -- how was that received?

  • 12:13:57

    ADAMOI think that depending upon one's viewpoint, I think our school board did give it very, very serious consideration. I think it was seen by members of the community as a way not to experience boundary change by having year-round school. You can increase the capacity of that school by about 33 percent.

  • 12:14:22

    ADAMOIt requires some additional funding with transportation and staffing and things like that, but it was something that our board was willing to entertain. And as they met with the communities that were affected by that, heard additional input, when they actually voted on that plan, they elected not to conduct...

  • 12:14:47

    NNAMDII can imagine parents having to deal with different schedules for their kids that they have to pick up or drop off. It can get I guess pretty complicated for parents down to the nuts and bolts, Sam. What's the process? How do you actually decide which students might move?

  • 12:15:04

    ADAMOWell, when we first start our process, we geo-code, or we use the new GIS technology to address-match every student.

  • 12:15:13

    ADAMOAnd then with in an attendance area, we create smaller subplanning areas so that we're able to identify the number of students that live in a particular neighborhood, what their grades are and also what some of their needs might be as far as if they require some special education services or their English ELO or English language learning population so that as we're looking at these different subareas that when they are potentially subject to change, we're looking at it from not only where they're at but where they may be going and the impact that they're going to have on that new attendance zone.

  • 12:15:59

    NNAMDIDo you also look at things like socioeconomic factors, transportation times, that kind of thing?

  • 12:16:05

    ADAMOOh, that's integral to everything that we do. I mean in addition to our ELO, we also look at our free-reduced lunch population. Then I think some folks think that Loudoun is pretty homogenous that we have like the entire D.C. area have experienced a great deal of growth and an incredible amount of diversity. And so as we begin looking at the different populations, we try to balance as best as possible not only student numbers but, you know, our ELL, our -- and our free-reduced lunch population so that you don't have certain schools that might be misrepresented or overrepresented in any one category.

  • 12:16:52

    NNAMDISam Adamo is the executive director of Loudoun County Public Schools' planning and legislative service. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:16:59

    ADAMOOK. You're most welcome and thank you.

  • 12:17:01

    NNAMDIIt's a conversation on shifting school boundaries in our region. The number to call is 800-433-8850. Did you buy your house because it was zoned for a particular school? What do you think should be taken into account when school boundaries are redrawn regardless of whether you live in Maryland, the District or in Virginia?

  • 12:17:19

    NNAMDIYou can call us, 800-433-8850, or you can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or you can go to our website,, ask a question or make a comment there. Joining us in studio is Abigail Smith. She's an independent consultant in pre-k through 12 grade education reform. She was formerly chief of transformation management for the District of Columbia Public School System. Abigail Smith, good to see you again. Thank you for joining us.

  • 12:17:45

    MS. ABIGAIL SMITHThank you, Kojo.

  • 12:17:47

    NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Michael Petrilli, author of the book "Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent's Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public School." He's also executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Michael Petrilli, glad to have you back.

  • 12:18:01

    MR. MICHAEL PETRILLIThanks for having me.

  • 12:18:03

    NNAMDIAgain, you can join us at 800-433-8850. The District recently announced, Abby, that it's going to tackle redrawing its boundaries for the first time in decades. D.C.'s situation is unusual that it's got both under-enrolled and oversubscribed schools. Can you talk about what's happening in the District?

  • 12:18:22

    SMITHSure. So as you know, Kojo, there's been an immense amount of change in the District in terms of the dynamics both vis-à-vis enrollment in public schools but also the choice environments. So what opportunities parents have to choose where they go -- where they send their kids to school, whether it's in DCPS or charters and within both of those sectors. And all of those dynamics have led to some real imbalances in terms of enrolments across schools.

  • 12:18:50

    SMITHAnd with the advent of school closures, many of which have happened in the last number of years, that's meant that for a lot of kids, the school that they're assigned to no longer exists or is not -- is no longer a DCPS school, and so they need to be assigned elsewhere. All of that over time has made a situation in D.C. where boundaries are frankly kind of a mess, and where you have some schools that are very overenrolled have more kids than they have capacity for and then a lot of schools that are under-enrolled.

  • 12:19:22

    SMITHAnd at the same time, you have parents who are traveling in some cases across the city to go to schools that they've chosen for their kids whether it's other DCPS schools through the out-of-boundary process or charter schools. And the situation means that there's frankly a lot of confusion and frustration on the part of parents in terms of where even they're allowed to go and where they have the opportunity to go.

  • 12:19:42

    NNAMDIYou described a very complicated situation. Michael Petrilli, students in the District do have the possibility of attending a school other than the one they're zoned for a public school. How does that work?

  • 12:19:54

    PETRILLIThat's right. And I think the last numbers I saw was something like only 25 percent of students in the District of Columbia are attending their neighborhood school. Many are going to charter schools, almost 50 percent, and then a whole lot of other ones are going to out-of-boundary schools. The way that it works is that every year, students can apply via a lottery to get into another D.C. public school if it's got space for out-of-boundary students.

  • 12:20:16

    PETRILLIFor many years, that was the case for lots of schools on Capitol Hill. Some schools west of the park had space and so kids were coming, say, from Anacostia, across the river to Capitol Hill or east of the park or west of the park schools. Well, that dynamic is changing because many of those schools in the more affluent parts of the District are filling up and have filled up and no longer have space for those out-of-boundary students.

  • 12:20:38

    PETRILLICharter schools are still an option. But those two are enrolled via lottery. So it leads to a lot of anxiety, as Abby said, in behalf of parents who don't know until the spring whether they're going to get their child into their preferred school.

  • 12:20:50

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on shifting school boundaries in our region. What do you think of the District's lottery system for charters and out-of-boundary schools? Like it or not? 800-433-8850. You can send email to or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:22:53

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking school boundaries in this region. There are a-shifting, and we're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. What do you think is the fairest way to decide who can attend a top public school? 800-433-8850. We're talking with Michael Petrilli. He is the author of "Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent's Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public School." He's also the executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

  • 12:23:20

    NNAMDIAnd Abigail Smith is an independent consultant in Pre-K through 12th grade education reform. She was formerly chief of Transformation Management at the District of Columbia Public School system. Mike, school choice is a way to create fairness across a system where schools vary in quality. What are the challenges as more families stay in the District when their kids hit school age?

  • 12:23:42

    PETRILLISure. I mean, the positives on school choice is the idea that you sever this link between a parent's zip code and their child's educational opportunities. We'd known for a long time in this country that there are greater opportunities for those children that are in affluent families and in affluent neighborhoods. And so school choice could be a chance to level the playing field. I think that there are some real possibilities in parts of D.C., particularly in parts where the demographics are just starting to shift.

  • 12:24:10

    PETRILLISo let's say in Columbia Heights, Petworth up to Tacoma, maybe in that part of the city, where you have some schools that are still under-enrolled that have served low-income populations for a long time. You start -- these neighborhoods are gentrifying. And I think you've got some middle-class parents looking at these schools. One thing you could do is create some choice options within DCPS in those neighborhoods and try to use choice both as a way to create fairness but also as a way to create schools that are nicely integrated by race and class.

  • 12:24:41

    NNAMDIAt the same time, Abby, overall, we have too many schools in the District. Twenty of them are under-enrolled and will be closing. Can you talk about how that has evolved and the ramifications of it?

  • 12:24:54

    SMITHSo one of the things that's happened in D.C. because of the advent of charter schools is every year, we have a number of new charter schools that come online. And these are schools that provide different kinds of interesting program options for parents and maybe schools that are close to where they live or close to where they work and provide, in some cases, really interesting opportunities.

  • 12:25:18

    SMITHBut it also means that we have more and more schools that are added to our overall school supply. And we don't have that many more and more kids each year to be able to sort of populate those schools. And as a result, we have lots of kids both in charter schools and in DCPS schools, kids in schools that aren't fully enrolled. We have lots of kids in school buildings that aren't actually school buildings. So many charter school students attend schools in storefronts and church, you know, church basements.

  • 12:25:51

    SMITHOthers are in former DCPS school buildings. But as we have so many schools and because of the placement of charter schools is not subject to anything other than what's available and what the new charter school's interested in terms of where they want to go, it means you don't necessarily have an elementary school and a middle school and a high school in a particular area that is available to all parents.

  • 12:26:16

    NNAMDIGo ahead.

  • 12:26:17

    SMITHAnother factor, just to throw out there, is that one of the things that happens when a new is in a neighborhood is that enrollment shifts around. So if a charter school opens right near a DCPS school that serves the same age population, so say a new middle school opens near a DCPS middle school, it is likely that many families in that area are going to check out that school.

  • 12:26:39

    SMITHAnd if they think it's a better option for them, then their DCPS school are going to go there. That's terrific for parents to be able to have that choice and to potentially send their kid to a school that may be better than their current option. It also makes it then very difficult for that neighborhood school to plan for who's going to be there.

  • 12:26:58

    SMITHAnd so you end up with these situations where you have schools that are very under-enrolled which makes it very difficult to operate a school effectively. We all know that Chancellor Henderson has talked about this a lot in terms of having schools that have so few kids that it's difficult to have efficient resources at all of those schools. So that's another factor that really comes up.

  • 12:27:16

    NNAMDIYou're also working on this issue, public charter schools, as you point out, enroll more than 40 percent of public school students. Can you talk about the enrollment process for charters and how it's different from traditional public schools?

  • 12:27:28

    SMITHSo as Mike said, every charter school holds a lottery. So anyone can apply to a charter school as long as the grade that your kid is in is offered at that school. And then the charter school takes all those applications and essentially pulls them out of a hat, and kids get in, regardless of where they live. There are preferences for -- if you're -- if you have a sibling at that school, but aside from that, you -- again, this go purely by lottery.

  • 12:27:56

    SMITHOne of the things that is changing this year, which I think is an exciting step forward for parents in terms of this somewhat confusing market, is most charter schools this year will share one application deadline. So about 90 schools this year will share the application deadline of March 15 which means that rather than having to keep track of 10 or 15 different deadlines for when you need to apply to schools, you just need to remember March 15.

  • 12:28:23

    SMITHI hope parents will check out if they want to see the list of schools that are participating, and you can also link to all of those schools' applications. You still then have to apply to all those schools separately, and we can maybe talk a little bit later about some ideas about how to make that process even better.

  • 12:28:39

    NNAMDIYou're working your group to streamline that application process.

  • 12:28:42

    SMITHIndeed. We're -- they're a group of about 20 charter schools now that have formed a working group, and we're wrestling with this question of, how can we streamline on this process further for parents.

  • 12:28:53

    SMITHSo is there a way that we could have a common lottery that would allow parents to go and apply once to put their information in for their child one time and then say, these are the four or five or eight schools that I want to apply to and then have a common lottery process which would streamline all of that so that parents -- you don't have a situation where some parents have gotten into three schools, and some parents haven't got into any school. And then everyone scrambling come the beginning of school to figure out where they're going to be.

  • 12:29:21

    NNAMDIHave school boundaries changed for your children? Give us a call. Send us an email. The number is 800-433-8850. You can send email to Here is Celine in Fairfax, Va. Celine, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Celine. Are you there? Well, if Celine is there, either she can't hear me, or I can't hear her.

  • 12:29:43

    NNAMDII'll put you back on hold, Celine, to see if we can catch up with you. If you'd like to join the conversation, maybe you can shoot us an email to Abby, there are, however, issues with the common applications that concern some charter schools. What are their concerns?

  • 12:29:58

    SMITHSo there are few things. One concern from some charter schools is because charter schools have these very particular characters that they're built around. So some schools may have a language immersion program where they offer Chinese language, for example, Mandarin for half the day. Other schools have year-round calendars or other programs that are very particular to their school, and those schools want to ensure that parents really know what they getting into when they're applying to that school.

  • 12:30:27

    SMITHSo if there's a common application in common lottery, there is a concern of how do you make sure that a parent isn't just checking all the boxes for anywhere that offers kindergarten and, in fact, is really thinking about what's the right fit and right match for, you know, for my kid? There are obviously ways to address that and really support parents in helping them learn about schools and figure out what the right fits for their kids are earlier in the process, but that is one thing that schools have been concerned about.

  • 12:30:54

    NNAMDIWe're talking with Abigail Smith. She's an independent consultant in pre-K-through 12th grade Education Reform. She was formerly chief of transformation management for the District of Columbia Public School system. And Michael Petrilli, author of "Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent's Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public School." You can call us at 800-433-8850.

  • 12:31:15

    NNAMDIWe got an email from Sarah in D.C., who says, "There are lots of new charter schools, but they're doing what many were afraid they'd do, siphoning off students from neighborhood schools that might be improving as neighborhoods attract new families and involve parents. And then, those charter schools aren't stable. They might just move -- many do -- or even fail. It makes planning for parents impossible." Mike Petrilli, if not impossible, certainly challenging.

  • 12:31:40

    PETRILLINow, you know, Sarah's right, that there has been a lot of upheaval. This is happening, for example, on Capitol Hill where there's quite a few middle class, upper-middle class parents trying to get a critical mass of middle class students to go to some of the middle school options on the Hill. As they were making some progress there, some new charter schools opened up, and a lot of those parents went to those charters, and so it is a chaotic environment.

  • 12:32:04

    PETRILLII would say though, Kojo, for all the chaos and frustration of a system like this in D.C., I would argue it's perhaps better than what you've gone in a place like Loudoun County where all parents can do is try to petition the school board and try to get the school board and the District officials to make a decision that they want.

  • 12:32:21

    PETRILLIAnd if they don't, they're basically out of luck, and they still have to go to their school that the school board tells them to go to. So it's messy in D.C., but I think there are some pros to it. And that's, to some degree, some more parental agency than you've got in a system where the bureaucrats decide.

  • 12:32:36

    NNAMDIAllow me to try Celine in Fairfax, Va. Again, see if we can hear Celine this time. Celine, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:32:43

    CELINEYes. Can you hear me now?

  • 12:32:44

    NNAMDIYes, we can.

  • 12:32:45

    CELINEOK. Great. Thank you for taking my call. So I just wanted to share that we were affected by the redistricting. So, currently, my baby just started kindergarten this year, and we are going to a school that is in between my work and my house, and that's half a mile away, and it only takes like eight minutes to get to.

  • 12:33:09


  • 12:33:09

    CELINEAnd then next year, we're being redistricted to another school that that is away from my work, six miles away, and it will take more than 30 minutes to get to. And I know the reason because around the school -- the current school, there has been, like, tons of new townhouses, and the population has just soared. So the current -- cannot take them. And, you know, it's just unfortunate that we are one of the wards that have to go away six miles, suffering from the inconvenience.

  • 12:33:45

    CELINEAnd I was told that there is actually a way that I can apply for a special consideration so that I can stay with the current school, but I'm not doing that because if everybody just do that for their convenience, then, you know, the current schools will still have the same overpopulation issues. So I just feel like I can't do it because that's kind of out of selfishness. But I really -- are not looking forward to drive, you know, over 30 miles for this new school.

  • 12:34:17

    NNAMDIWell, Celine, it appears that you are going to tough it out, so to speak. But is that one of the reasons you moved to that area in the first place because of those schools?

  • 12:34:26

    CELINENo, it was -- no, not for the school.

  • 12:34:29


  • 12:34:30

    CELINEI moved to where I am for my work because I'm actually two miles from my office.

  • 12:34:34

    NNAMDIOK. Ok. But thank you very much for your call and good luck to you.

  • 12:34:39

    CELINEAll right. Thank you.

  • 12:34:40

    NNAMDIWe move on to Dale in Greenbelt, Md. Dale, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:34:45

    DALESure, Kojo. Well, thank you and great show. One of the, well, questions/comment I have about public school, charter school is the fact that it seems like a division of collective resources. You have an environment where people are going to start to be -- the ones that aren't able to get to the charter schools are going to be getting less of the -- and the one that are in charter schools, I think, the speaker -- your guest was saying that they get to kind of specialize in the education that they get.

  • 12:35:18

    DALEAnd, unfortunately, I think for the people who can't get to these schools, they're going to be at a disadvantage, and it's not going to be to any fault of their own. So I just think that there should one collective education resource and everybody should have access to it.

  • 12:35:34

    NNAMDIAbby Smith, that flies in the face of some people's feelings about choice, doesn't it?

  • 12:35:39

    SMITHSo I think that the issue that Dale's bringing up of how do we ensure that all kids are getting high-quality education is at the core of all of this, and I think it's the goal of both DCPS and the traditional school district to ensure that happens, and it's the goal of charter schools to ensure that happens. Figuring out how make sure that parents have lots of choices because I do think that in D.C. -- to Mike's point earlier -- there really is an advantage of being able to find something that is a really good fit for your kid and might have certain interesting and different programs.

  • 12:36:18

    SMITHAnd that goes for D.C. public schools as well as charter schools that offer particular things. I think that that is something that a lot of parents really want. The question is how do you maintain that choice of environment while at the same time maintaining or improving the quality of schools and increasing both the predictability for parents, which is something that we're hearing from some of the callers already today, of how do I know where I'm going to end up, and making the process not so onerous and confusing for parents. And I think that there are a lot of ideas on the table now for how to do all of that.

  • 12:36:52

    NNAMDIDale, thank you very much for your call. I'd like to hear some -- from some more listeners. The number is 800-433-8850. What do you think should be taken into account when school boundaries are redrawn or do you think there are other solutions to overcrowded schools? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Mike Petrilli, you were going to say?

  • 12:37:12

    PETRILLIWell, I understand Dale's point but, you know, most public schools today are not truly open to the public. They're open to people who can afford a house within their boundary system, which is why we're talking about these boundary systems in the first place. So, you know, if you live in an affluent area, you know, your children can go to that affluent public school. Low-income children cannot because they cannot afford to live there. So school choice has that potential of leveling the playing field once you take away that connection between real estate and schools.

  • 12:37:40

    NNAMDIThis question for both of you: What do you think is needed to address the issues of school quality and fairness across the whole city? Abby.

  • 12:37:49

    SMITHWell, I think one think for the city to really think about and wrestle with and I think a lot of these conversations are under way, is what is this question of how many schools do we actually need to serve the number of kids that we have in D.C. And because of the way that charters have expanded, there hasn't been that sort of overall strategy that's established across the city in terms of DCPS schools and charter schools.

  • 12:38:20

    SMITHSo I do think there are some conversation to be had around what is the right school supply for a city the size of D.C., how many seats do we need in elementary, middle and high school, and then from there, figure out how do we want to ensure that all kids have access to these high-quality schools. When we're talking about boundaries, some of the things that I think are really going to come up in this upcoming discussion of redrawing boundaries in DCPS is, how do we think about both DCPS and charters when we think about boundaries?

  • 12:38:53

    SMITHAre there ways to think about sort of choice sets for kids where you might have some preference both at a charter school and at a DCPS school? These are really difficult questions, and a lot of people have real concerns about moving in that direction. I think it's the kind of thing that probably needs to be part of the discussion for us to wrestle with.

  • 12:39:14

    SMITHThere are many people whose -- who live closer to a charter school than they do to a DCPS school right now, and yet they aren't able to get into that charter school because it's entirely lottery. Now, these question of whether charter schools should have a neighborhood preference is a very touchy one, and there are some people who feel very strongly that they shouldn't and some who feel very strongly that they should. And I think they're probably good arguments on both sides. But I think those are the kinds of discussions that really need to be out in the open and we've really got to think about.

  • 12:39:42

    NNAMDIMike Petrilli, same question to you.

  • 12:39:44

    PETRILLIWell, first of all, let's just acknowledge what a great conversation this is compared to where we were 10 or 15 years ago in the District. I mean, we have a whole variety of very good options that are blossoming in the District of Columbia, mostly charter schools but also some in the DC public school system. So this is good news.

  • 12:40:00

    PETRILLII think when you look at equity and quality, first you've got to look at results. You've got to say, are students learning the basics and other key subjects so they're going to be ready to go on to college or get a good job? And we got to make sure that all public schools are measured the same way. That is happening.

  • 12:40:15

    PETRILLIAnd we've got to be willing -- as the chancellor has been able to do, and as the D.C. charter school board has been willing to do -- to close down those schools that are not making the grade. We also have to look at funding. You know, charter schools are still woefully underfunded compared to the DCPS schools, and I think that's something that needs to change as well.

  • 12:40:31

    NNAMDIYou also, it is my understanding, have considered the idea of moving away from school zones entirely.

  • 12:40:37

    PETRILLISure. I mean, I think that it's hard to do in some places where those zones are entrenched. So it may be hard, say, in Chevy Chase, D.C., to ever convince parents to move away from those school zones. But I think when you're talking about parts of the city where there's right now a lot of flux and changes going on, I think you could move to some kind of school choice system that would consider both parental preferences and also socioeconomics.

  • 12:41:03

    PETRILLII mean, if we want to create a school system in D.C. where we do have some integrated schools -- integrated by race, by class -- it's going to take some nudging, I think, to make it happen. Otherwise, when a neighborhood gentrifies, we could see schools that go very quickly from being basically serving all low-income kids to serving all affluent kids. I don't think we want that.

  • 12:41:23

    NNAMDI800-433-8850. Do you think charters should have preference based on proximity? 800-433-8850. Let's listen to Diane in Laurel, Md., who has another idea. Diane, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:41:38

    DIANEHi, Kojo. My question to everyone there is is home schooling still a viable or possible option there, or has that been taken out altogether?

  • 12:41:52

    NNAMDIActually, there was a piece in the paper yesterday or today about homeschoolers wanting to get involved in organized sports that school systems are already involved in. It's a choice that people make, Abby, Mike, to homeschool. But I don't know it's something that a school system as such can really take into account, can it?

  • 12:42:10

    SMITHWell, certainly there are families in D.C. that homeschool for sure, and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education works with those families to ensure that kids are, in fact, getting homeschooled and not just sitting at home. I actually don't know what percentage of kids in D.C. take advantage of that option.

  • 12:42:29

    PETRILLIYou know, it's -- and it is -- I think it's growing in the region, and what's at stake in Virginia, what the paper was talking about were the so-called Tebow bills, named after the football player, to give access to homeschooling students, give access to extracurricular activity sports and that sort of thing. So, you know, school systems do have a role to play if they want to try to have open arms and bring those students in for some of their programming, which I think is a really good idea.

  • 12:42:52

    NNAMDIWe got to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation. We're talking about school boundaries. They're shifting in our region. We'd like to know how they affect you or how you feel they should be -- they could be better accomplished. Call us at 800-433-8850. What do you think should be taken into account when school boundaries are redrawn? You can shoot us an email to, a tweet @kojoshow, or go to our website,, and ask a question or make a comment there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:44:57

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Abigail Smith. She's an independent consultant in pre-K through 12th grade education reform. She was formerly chief of transformation management for the District of Columbia Public School System. Michael Petrilli is the author of the book "Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent's Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public School." He's also executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

  • 12:45:19

    NNAMDIWe'd like to hear from you. Call us at 800-433-8850. Did you buy your house because it was zoned for a particular school? What do you think of the District's lottery system for charters and out-of-boundary schools? We got a fairly long email from Sarah, so please bear with me, but it does refer to neighborhoods that you were talking about earlier, Mike. "I live in the Park View neighborhood of Washington, D.C., just north of Columbia Heights and south of Petworth, two of the gentrifying neighborhoods your caller just spoke about.

  • 12:45:47

    NNAMDI"In spite of the demographic mix coming into the neighborhood, my local school remains 100 percent minority -- about 60 percent English language learner and 40 percent black -- and has an extremely high poverty level. Meanwhile, houses just a block away are selling to families of much more diverse racial backgrounds -- white, Asian, black, Hispanic or mixed race -- for $600,000 or more.

  • 12:46:09

    NNAMDI"I am very concerned that new families moving into the neighborhood are ignoring the local school in favor of nearby charters, and this, in turn, means the school is not benefiting from the diversity and resources the new families are bringing in. To me, the presence of charter schools means less diversity and less opportunity for the families that choose or wind up stuck in our neighborhood school." To which you say, Mike?

  • 12:46:33

    PETRILLISure. You know, I wrote about this a lot in my book, the "Diverse Schools Dilemma," to get a plug in there for it again. You know, this happened a few years ago in Capitol Hill, and what tended to happen was you would see the middle-class or upper-middle-class parents get together on a Listserv or maybe in a preschool and say, hey, if we all hold hands and start sending our kids to one of these schools, we can start to change the dynamics at that school.

  • 12:46:57

    PETRILLIAnd so I suspect that is going to happen in this neighborhood. Eventually, it's going to take some collective action, and once that process gets going, suddenly it'll be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Few parents want their child to be the only child who is not minority or the only child who is not low income.

  • 12:47:14

    PETRILLIBut once you get those early brave souls who are willing to go in there and start to basically integrate the school, it can then happen over time, and you can create a very nicely integrated school with some collective action and with some effort. And I think that we are going to see exactly that in those neighborhoods that Sarah talks about.

  • 12:47:33

    NNAMDIHere is Mart in Washington, D.C. Mart, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:47:37

    MARTHey, Kojo. I'm actually just going to make -- one of the persons up there said that the charter schools are woefully underfunded. That is not true for all of them. Like KIPP Academy, they have lots of outside funding...

  • 12:47:53


  • 12:47:53

    MART...just like some of the D.C. schools like up in Ward 3. I live in Brightwood, if you know where that is.

  • 12:47:59

    NNAMDII live in Brightwood myself...

  • 12:48:00

    MARTI know.

  • 12:48:00 I know where that is. But, Mart, some of the schools like KIPP Academy, of course, are well funded, but, Mike, you were talking about others that are not.

  • 12:48:10

    PETRILLIThat's right. You know, D.C.'s better than a lot of places, but still, the charter schools in D.C. get several thousand dollars per student less than the public schools, than the DCPS schools. A lot of that's around facilities where, you know, the DCPS schools have just gotten -- are still working through getting these great renovations, which I think I certainly support, rebuilding schools. But the charter schools haven't benefited from that as much. They do go out and have to raise money. Some have been successful at that, but it doesn't make up the difference most of the time.

  • 12:48:40

    NNAMDICare to comment, Abby Smith?

  • 12:48:42

    SMITHI think that the question of equitable funding across DCPS and charter schools is a really, really complicated one and perhaps worth an entire show, Kojo, at some point. The facilities issue that Mike talked about is real. Now charter schools do get a facilities allowance, which is given to them on a per-pupil basis. And that is not something that happens in many states, so I think D.C. is lucky in that way.

  • 12:49:05

    SMITHAt the same time, having access to the kind of capital improvement dollars that Mike just talked about is something that charter schools don't have and that DCPS schools do. So that is one example. It's a place where I think it's important to look and figure out what we are going to do with all of these empty school buildings.

  • 12:49:22

    SMITHAt the same time, I think it's important to note that there are some responsibilities the DCPS has that charters don't have, and that some of that does cost money. In fact, when we talk about boundaries, it's one issue that comes up related to that, which is that a DCPS school is required to serve any kid who lives in its boundary, who walks in its doors any day of the year.

  • 12:49:45

    NNAMDICharter school doesn't have to do that.

  • 12:49:46

    SMITHCharter school doesn't have to do that. So a charter school will set an enrollment project or an enrollment goal, and when they hit it, then they can stop accepting students. And that means that they can plan around those numbers in a way that DCPS can't. So come October when a family moves to D.C., the DCPS school needs to welcome that family with open arms.

  • 12:50:07

    SMITHSo it does -- there is a particular challenge there that I think is connected to resources as well that we just need to consider in all of this. But there certainly is a big question on equity, and I think that we need to really dig into it. And there are places where I think charters are not getting what they deserve, and there are places where I think DCPS understandably needs some additional resources.

  • 12:50:28

    NNAMDIMart, thank you very much for your call. We move on to Ralph in Washington, D.C. Ralph, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:50:35

    RALPHHi, Kojo. I've had a rather long history with the District of Columbia's school system. My daughter from my first marriage, when she moved in, it was unbelievable. They were going to force her to Shaw, which has got just about a grunt and click on the SAT scores. So I had to move out of the District of Columbia to get my daughter into a decent school. I mean, there's a whole story behind that. My second marriage, with my son, we were able to get him, thank God, into a public charter school on the second year.

  • 12:51:06

    RALPHRight now, there is around five or 600 applicants for six positions in the Lamb Public Charter School. The best thing I can say is, given we had to share space at one point 'cause we didn't have facilities, we couldn't afford them, and we got a huge debt as a result. The best thing I can say is that the District of Columbia school system is the most nepotistic, incompetent bunch of morons I've ever ran into in my life, after sharing facilities with them.

  • 12:51:31

    RALPHWith that said, there is no way I want the District of Columbia to get its nasty, incompetent hands on the charter school system because I'll tell you, if I couldn't send my kids to a charter school, it would be -- it'll be a private school or it'd be the suburbs. Thank you.

  • 12:51:46

    NNAMDIWell, Ralph, don't go as yet, because I think you and others know that there are some very good public schools in the District of Columbia. You seem to be saying there are none.

  • 12:51:56

    RALPHWhat I'm saying, Kojo, is that you're fortunate enough to live in that boundary system, you know, you can thank God. But if you're not fortunate enough to live in that boundary system, then you've got to either move and get into the boundary system and get within there.

  • 12:52:08


  • 12:52:10

    RALPHAnd I -- on my first daughter, I tried to move in there, and I -- and they said I needed five pieces of ID. I had to move -- I was supposed to move in an apartment, so I had no utility bill then. You know what the solution for me was? After it took two months to get the boundary, their solution for me was, well, you're just gonna have to keep your kid out of school for two months until you get the ID saying that you live within the boundaries.

  • 12:52:29

    NNAMDIWell, Abby, DCPS Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson floated one other possibility, at least, including eliminating boundaries at the high school level. Both in response to Ralph, what are -- and sharing your own thoughts, what are some other hybrid solutions that might work? Because despite Ralph's denunciation of everything D.C. public school, it is clear that there are schools in certain areas of the city that are better than schools in some other areas of the city.

  • 12:53:02

    NNAMDIAnd people like Ralph and others, fight to get access to them and then find out that they can't get into those schools at all. Would eliminating boundaries at any level assist with that?

  • 12:53:13

    SMITHWell, I think that notion of, for example, eliminating boundaries at the high school level and having a citywide high school choice process, which is, of course, what we have for charter schools at the high school level. So if you want to apply to Thurgood Marshall Academy or to Washington Latin, those are all city -- those are both -- and every other charter school is a citywide school. So it doesn't matter where you live. You have the same chance of getting into any of those schools.

  • 12:53:38

    SMITHThe same is the case already for the application schools in DCPS. So School Without Walls and McKinley and Banneker, those are schools that you can apply to citywide, and everyone has the same shot of getting in. Now, those also have admissions requirement, so you have to demonstrate that you've been performing at a certain level, but it doesn't matter where you live.

  • 12:54:00

    SMITHSo the question is, at the high school level where kids have a lot more independence and getting across the city to a different school is an easier prospect than for a little kid, is there a discussion to be had around having citywide high school boundaries for all DCPS schools? Now, obviously -- and we know where some of the next calls might come up -- if you are going to a high school that you right now feel really good about and you bought a house in that area, specifically for that purpose...

  • 12:54:28

    NNAMDIAnd all of a sudden, everybody can come there.

  • 12:54:30

    SMITHThat's right. So for those folks, this idea is probably not so attractive and understandably. So if you made decisions around where you thought your kids were going to go to school and bought a house to align with that, this idea might not feel so good. But as we think about ways to really provide access for high-quality schools across the board and to really increase the diversity of all our schools in the city, it is one thing that I think should probably be on the tables of discussion.

  • 12:55:02

    NNAMDIWhat do you say, Mike?

  • 12:55:03

    PETRILLIYou know, these are typical conversations if you suddenly decide that the public schools aren't going to work for you and so you're going to go private. In this area, you've got two kids. You're talking, what, five, $600,000 over the course of their careers. This is big money people are talking about, and that's why these conversations are so fraught.

  • 12:55:23

    PETRILLII think that we should be pushing for those kinds of choice opportunities but probably have to start with the low-hanging fruit which are in some parts of the city where the shifts are still happening, where the schools are under enrolled. Start there.

  • 12:55:35

    NNAMDIWe got -- let's go to Lorraine in Anne Arundel County, Md. Lorraine, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:55:42

    LORRAINEHi. I have been listening to your conversation and hear about the people that are against charter schools and for. I was raised in England, and I was also a military brat. And a lot of times, the -- in an English school, it's tied -- the money is tied to the child. Where the child attends school, that school will get more money.

  • 12:56:05

    LORRAINESo if that school is a bad school, they'll lose students and then the child will go to a different school. And I don't understand the animosity because to me, a charter school means choice, so I'm totally for it. And I think, you know, as parents, we want our children to get the, you know, especially if they can.

  • 12:56:27

    NNAMDIOK. Thank you very much for your call. Care to comment on that all, Abby Smith?

  • 12:56:32

    SMITHI would agree with Lorraine's comment. I think that having the idea that parents can choose where their kids can go to school and having that money follow the kid is a way to allow more people access to higher quality.

  • 12:56:48

    NNAMDIWe got an email from Magaly (sp?) in Burke, Va., who writes, "Some parents appear to see high-quality education as an entitlement that their children are do regardless of where and how much their parents are paying in taxes. Even people who vehemently oppose socializing other services like, for example, medicine seem to think of public education as coming free. Could you please comment on this mentality?" I won't, but I'll ask Mike Petrilli if he like to.

  • 12:57:15

    PETRILLISure, sure. Look, you know, we've had a tradition of free public education in this country for a long time. We were the first country to do it at scale, and I think a lot of us agree that that gave us a huge edge once upon a time. Now, other countries have caught up and, in fact, are passing us by in terms of getting all of their population to high levels of learning. So I don't think you're going to see free public schools go away any time soon. The question is whether individual schools should be kept out of limits for the people who can't afford to live near them.

  • 12:57:44

    NNAMDIMichael Petrilli, he is the author of "Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent's Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public School." He's also executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Mike, thank you very much for joining us.

  • 12:57:55

    PETRILLIThank you, Kojo.

  • 12:57:56

    NNAMDIAbigail Smith is an independent consultant in Pre-K through 12th grade education reform. She was formerly chief of transformation management for the District of Columbia Public School system. Abby Smith, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:58:08

    SMITHThank you.

  • 12:58:09

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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