For the 2014-2015 school year, D.C. piloted its first unified school application lottery, incorporating both traditional public schools and public charter schools into a single application process. While the new system is expected to reduce some of the chaos of multiple applications, the number of slots at the most coveted schools are still far below the number of applicants. As parents learn the results of their applications, we explore school choice in D.C.


  • Sam Chaltain Writer and education activist; author of "Our School: Searching for Community in the Era of Choice" (Spring 2014)
  • Abigail Smith Deputy Mayor for Education, District of Columbia
  • Scott Pearson Executive Director, DC Public Charter School Board


  • 13:06:40

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, three years after the disaster at Fukushima Power Plant in Japan, countries around the world are still grappling with a love/hate relationship with nuclear power. But first, parents in D.C. were eagerly awaiting the results of the public school lottery, which came out today. This is the first year of the unified school application lottery.

  • 13:07:18

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIWith a single application for both traditional public schools and for public charter schools. But this will not be the end of the weight lift shuffle as the number of slots at the most coveted schools are still far below the number of applicants. Joining us to discuss what this process means for D.C. parents, students and schools is Abigail Smith. She is the District's Deputy Mayor for Education. Abigail Smith, good to see you again.

  • 13:07:43

    MS. ABIGAIL SMITHGood to see you, Kojo.

  • 13:07:44

    NNAMDIAlso with us is Scott Pearson. He is the Executive Director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board. Scott Pearson, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:07:51

    MR. SCOTT PEARSONGood to be here.

  • 13:07:52

    NNAMDIAnd Sam Chaltain is a writer and education activist. He is the author of "Our School: Searching For Community In the Era of Choice," which comes out in mid-April. Sam Chaltain, good to see you again.

  • 13:08:03

    MR. SAM CHALTAINGood to be back.

  • 13:08:05

    NNAMDIAnd good to invite you to join this conversation. Call us at 800-433-8850. Did you enter the D.C. school application lottery this year? How was the process? How did it work for you? Was it an improvement on previous years? 800-433-8850. You can send email to Abi, this has been one of the more stressful things a D.C. parent has to deal with. The public school application process. Until last year, each Charter School had a separate application and the traditional public schools, a different process.

  • 13:08:37

    NNAMDISo remind us, what was the process this year, and how did you educate parents as to this new system?

  • 13:08:44

    SMITHSo, this year, for the first time, parents were able to go online to one website, myschooldc and enter the information for their child one at a time, choose up to 12 schools across both DCPS and public charter schools, that they were interested in sending their child to, and that was it. So, they didn't have to run around and do multiple applications. At the back end, and what we did is you ran one common lottery, which maximized the number of students who got placed in the seat and took into consideration what their parents' preferences were.

  • 13:09:15

    SMITHSo they were more likely to be matched at a school that they really wanted to go to.

  • 13:09:19

    NNAMDIPlease explain some of the results that I see here in the press release that comes from the Executive Office of the Mayor. It says there were 17,322 applications that were received. More than 12,200 students were matched at the time of the lottery. That is a 70 percent match rate. Exactly what does that mean?

  • 13:09:40

    SMITHSo that means that 71 percent of the kids who applied got a seat at the time of the lottery. If they didn't receive a seat, then they would have been wait listed at any school they applied to. And in addition, students who didn't get into their top choice school would have been wait listed at any schools that, excuse me, that ranked higher than the one that they got into.

  • 13:10:03

    NNAMDISo it's 85 percent of those who are offered a seat at one of the top three school choices. Pre-K three and ninth grades had the highest number of applications submitted, so that says that 85 percent of those people were basically pleased with what they got.

  • 13:10:19

    SMITHWell, we certainly hope so, and with the opportunity for additional families, who are on wait lists, to get seats off those wait lists over the course of the spring and summer, so, certainly people who did not get an initial seat don't have to -- shouldn't assume that they won't get a seat at some point during the spring and summer. One of the numbers that we're really excited about is 88 percent of applicants to pre-K 3, so for three-year-olds, got a seat at a school. And that is something that we think is really exciting, since that's the biggest entry grade for schools across the city.

  • 13:10:50

    NNAMDIScott Pearson, public charter schools were perhaps the most affected by this change. What's the perspective there? What kind of feedback have you been getting?

  • 13:10:59

    PEARSONThe feedback has been good. Charter schools are all independently operated schools that serve all students. And so the option to participate in the common lottery was one that they had. And some chose to take that option and some chose not to, because they wanted to see whether the lottery would work out well for them. In the end, 90 percent of the schools participated in the lottery, and what we have heard from them so far is universally positive. They've gotten better data. They've gotten better data early.

  • 13:11:31

    PEARSONThe applications, which have always been high for charter schools, appear to be even higher. And with the better process, parents appear to be happier, and the schools are able to plan for the school year more effectively.

  • 13:11:45

    NNAMDIThere were a few notable charter schools that opted out of the unified application. You implied that they were trying to see what would happen before they made that decision. But will they all be required to participate in the future?

  • 13:11:58

    PEARSONI don't think that they will be required, because they are granted control over their operations under the law. But I do expect that more and more schools will participate until it's really just a small handful of schools that choose not to participate.

  • 13:12:14

    NNAMDISam Chaltain, the lobby applications were always something of a strategic endeavor. What has this new process meant for parents?

  • 13:12:21

    CHALTAINWell, it's amazing how much has changed so quickly. I mean, when I was doing the research for our school, that was the 2011/2012 school year, and not that long ago, it was still kind of like the wild, wild west, where every school had a different application submission date, a different lottery. And it was much more difficult for parents to negotiate it and sort it through, so I think it's a testament to the level of responsiveness of both DCPS and the charter school community that this much of a change has happened just in the span of time between I was doing the research and now when the book is coming out.

  • 13:12:57

    NNAMDIIf you're just joining us, Sam Chaltain is a writer and education activist. He's the author of "Our School: Searching for Community in the Era of Choice." It comes out in mid-April. He joins us in studio, along with Abigail Smith, the District's Deputy Mayor for Education. And Scott Pearson, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board. You can join the conversation. Call us at 800-433-8850. Did you get into any of your preferred choices? You can also send us a tweet @kojoshow. Go to our website, and join the conversation there.

  • 13:13:28

    NNAMDIAbi, as we mentioned, there are still many more applicants for every top school. It seems that there will still be the wait list shuffle, come enrollment time. Is there a solution for that?

  • 13:13:40

    SMITHWell, there are a couple of things that are gonna be different and we think much better this year, in terms of the wait list shuffle. So one is that all schools that participated in the lottery, only one -- students who entered the lottery could only get a seat at one school. So, you don't have a situation where one kid is sort of holding several seats at the same time, which has been in the past. So, that helped get more people into slots. And because the lottery took into account parent preferences, it means you're more likely to be matched at a school that you really want to go to, and you're also not then sitting on wait lists for any school that you rank lower than that.

  • 13:14:14

    SMITHSo, for that reason, the number of entries on the wait lists will be dramatically less than this past year, because they're better matched to what student preferences are.

  • 13:14:24

    NNAMDISo, what happens to folks who get into none of their requested schools?

  • 13:14:28

    SMITHSo, there are a couple of options for those families. So, one, again, is that wait lists will move, and we think they'll probably move a little bit less than in past years, for the reasons I just noted, but we certainly expected they'll move. There are also schools that have not filled all of their seats, or whose wait lists are relatively short. And families who did not get a match in round one of the lottery are invited to participate in round 2 and add some additional schools that they might want to get, either added to the wait list for, or where there are seats available.

  • 13:14:59

    SMITHAnd then, of course, every student in the city has a right to attend their DCPS neighborhood school that they're assigned to. So, all students continue to have that option.

  • 13:15:07

    NNAMDIWell, and this, I guess for all of you, I'll start with you, Scott Pearson. Seats at the top performing schools are still scarce, which is a larger issue that really can't be addressed by changing the process.

  • 13:15:18

    PEARSONWell, they are scarce. I spoke with some school leaders this morning, and there are some really extreme examples of that. Two Rivers have 2470 applications for 60 spaces. Kip had 6540 applications for 1100 spaces. Yale Hanes, excuse me, Friendship had 2290 applications for 1000 spaces. So, we do have a lot of demand, and the mission of the public charter school board was to try to create more high quality seats, so that more families can get into the schools that they want to. We have a greatly improved process with this lottery.

  • 13:15:58

    PEARSONBut even the world's perfect lottery will not solve the problem of more parents wanting to get into too few high quality school seats.

  • 13:16:08


  • 13:16:10

    CHALTAINIn terms of what to do about parents that don't get in?

  • 13:16:13

    NNAMDINot only parents that don't get in, but the top performing schools are still --trying to get into the top performing school is still difficult.

  • 13:16:21

    CHALTAINWell, I think that the biggest challenge we have, as a city, is figuring out how to both produce more high quality schools in the traditional District and the charter school community, and how to ensure more equitable distribution of families across those schools. I know that, soon, Abi's office will be releasing information about the process of, perhaps, rethinking school boundaries. I know there's a lot of work within the charter school community and with city based foundations like City Bridge to try to really proactively increase the number of quality schools.

  • 13:16:55

    CHALTAINBut the reality is, for an effort that we're undertaking, which is to try to be at the forefront of urban education reform, urgent patience is required by everybody. You can't immediately transform a system that has struggled for so long and ensure quality seats for everybody. And you need it to happen as soon as humanly possible.

  • 13:17:18

    NNAMDIIn many ways, D.C. is addressing the question of how charter and traditional public schools would coexist and cooperate. What kind of model might this be and I'll go around the table. I'll start this time with you, Sam.

  • 13:17:32

    CHALTAINWell, I was just saying there's some interesting models elsewhere. So, first of all, we have, I would say, greater collaboration between the District and the charter school communities than just about any place in the country. So, we really are in a position to be a model. One of the things that I observed when I was doing the research for "Our School" was, to some degree, the strengths of each sector is what the other sector most needs. So, District schools have the benefits of economies of scale. Charter Schools have the benefits of the ability to innovate on practically everything.

  • 13:18:06

    CHALTAINAnd both need what the other has. There's a -- sometimes, the District community can get a little stultified, because it's like a game of telephone, about anything from professional development to how schools are rated. And sometimes charter schools can be overwhelmed by having to, literally, invent everything on their own and on the fly. So, I'd like to think that as we continue to think about ways for these sectors to collaborate, that we think more intentionally about how each can benefit from the other's strength.

  • 13:18:33

    NNAMDIAbi Smith.

  • 13:18:34

    SMITHSo, Mayor Gray talks a lot about one city, and I know we've certainly heard lots of that, particularly with the current campaign, but I think what we've done to this lottery really is an example of one city where we know we have public charter schools and we have DCPS schools, and there's certainly been tension over the years. There are differences between how they operate, wanting to respect the autonomy of individual charter schools is something that's really critical to the whole charter school movement.

  • 13:19:00

    SMITHAnd yet, we've recognized that by coming together, voluntarily, we really can make the process easier for families and better for schools. So, as Sam talked about, that doesn't resolve the problem of not having enough schools to go around right now, that parents feel really, really good about sending their kids to. But it does mean that, in terms of how we can allocate those seats across families and really providing access, regardless of where you live and what your preferences are as a family. This allows you to do that.

  • 13:19:33

    SMITHAnd I think it's a really important step in the right direction of increasing the cooperation among DCPS and public charter schools.

  • 13:19:41

    NNAMDIScott Pearson?

  • 13:19:42

    PEARSONThe level of cooperation between DCPS and charter schools has increased tremendously over the last couple of years. The common lottery is one example of that. Another example is the collaboration we're doing around data, and the release of data. So, we work together to release the first ever equity reports that are available on all of our websites, that provide detailed information about each school and their performance, not only overall but with specific sub groups.

  • 13:20:09

    PEARSONAnd individual schools and groups of schools are collaborating. For example, E. L. Haynes and seven other charter schools are working with a group of D.C. public schools to collaboratively prepare for the introduction of the common core. So it's happening at the school level and it's also happening across the city.

  • 13:20:28

    NNAMDISam, tomorrow is the Democratic primary in the district. Abby made mention to the campaign. In a hopeful sign for those in the district who have kids or plan to send kids to public school, education is dominating this year's mayoral campaign. And as schools in D.C. improve, we're seeing another side of the gentrification debate. Some of the local public schools that had been struggling are now in rapidly changing neighborhoods. And that means the diversity in the classroom is shifting. Can you talk about that?

  • 13:20:57

    CHALTAINYeah well, so this is one of the interesting ways in which our city continues to change. And one -- there's a lot of research that suggests that the best environment for kids to learn in is not one that is at either extreme socioeconomically. So there's the obvious logic that kids that are living primarily in concentrated high-poverty schools are not going to be in the best possible environment to learn.

  • 13:21:22

    CHALTAINI think the same can be said for kids in high concentration affluent schools, that the best possible learning environment is one that reflects a real diversity of perspectives and opinions racially and socioeconomically. We are in a position right now in D.C. where I think we have some would say a once-in-a-generation opportunity to try to ensure a more equitable balance across our schools as a way to not only promote greater quality across school campuses but to give us another opportunity to deepen our commitment to a different sort of civic life and to one another.

  • 13:21:58

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones. We'll start with Michael in Washington, D.C. Michael, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:22:05

    MICHAELWell, I think in terms of whether this is better for parents or better for schools, it kind of feels like a way of wrangling parents from doing this mad waitlist dashing and changing. And it kind of limits our choices. We're really -- I'm not really articulating this very well but if you get a great lottery position or a great number in the lottery, you really have a lot of choices. But if you don't, you're kind of out of the dark. You're kind of -- because you get the same number for every single choice you -- every single school that you choose, if that makes any sense.

  • 13:22:48

    NNAMDIDoes it make sense to you, Abby Smith, what he's saying?

  • 13:22:50

    SMITHSo certainly one of the challenges of this system is that for some people who don’t get spots immediately in the lottery then they're not going to be so happy with how the process worked. And I understand that. I think at the end of the day we certainly recognize that although, you know, we can feel positive about the percentage of kids who were matched and at the ease of the process that if you didn't get a match up front, you're not going to be as happy about it.

  • 13:23:16

    SMITHWhat I will say is that the algorithm that the lottery is based on maximizes the number of kids who are placed in schools that they really want to go to. And so in the past you didn't have any better chance of getting into your first choice school than you did getting into your tenth choice school. And through this algorithm you actually do have a better chance of matching up those preferences to the schools that you end up placed in.

  • 13:23:41

    NNAMDIBack to the telephones. Michael, thank you very much for your call. We move on now to Rachel in Washington. Rachel, your turn.

  • 13:23:48

    RACHELYes. Hi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. I'm a parent of one of the three-year-olds who did not get a placement in the lottery results that just came out. And so my question is about round two of the lottery. If the idea is that we should be able to now look and see what schools have short of a waiting list so that we can then -- you know, that our chances and try to, you know, get our child into a school. Is the city going to put out some sort of resource that lets us know what schools have what waiting list? And will that be for public schools and charter schools?

  • 13:24:24

    NNAMDIAllow me to add this question from an email we got from Lee. "Please ask Ms. Smith about the plans to release full lottery data by grade for each school, as has been done by DCPS for the last many years. Today families only receive waitlist numbers or news that they were matched with a school. Without the full lottery data, those waitlist numbers are for limited insight. Having this data is important for helping families determining the likelihood that they will get called off the waitlist. Decisions like moving or paying hefty deposits and tuition for private schools hang in the balance. Plus with the second round of the lottery, which is new, having access to the data is very important." Abby Smith.

  • 13:25:01

    SMITHThose are great questions that Rachel and that the person who wrote in are asking. We will certainly be releasing more information over the coming weeks and months. I want to be honest that right now my school D.C. team is really focusing on trying that parents have access to their results, that they know how to understand them, that families and schools know what comes next.

  • 13:25:23

    SMITHWe will certainly be doing some more of the crunching of the data to be able to provide some of that information that Rachel talked about. Certainly the -- understanding whether schools have particularly long waitlists is helpful to families, particularly if you're thinking about entering round two and adding more schools to your list. For right now what I suggest you do is feel free to call schools directly and ask them for information, so schools that you're interested in. They can provide that information right now. They've got it.

  • 13:25:53

    SMITHAgain, centrally we will be putting more of the information together to be able to put out to everyone. But given this was the first time we did this across both sectors, we just have prioritized the key information to start with.

  • 13:26:06

    NNAMDIWhen does round two take place? What's involved?

  • 13:26:08

    SMITHSo you can go right now onto My School D.C. at and apply for round two. That's actually been opened since the day that the first round closed. And you're qualified to apply in round two if you didn't get a match in round one or if you didn't apply in round one. You can only apply to schools that you didn't apply to in round one because you're already on the waitlists for the round one schools. And that closes on May 15 and we're run the lottery for the second round after that.

  • 13:26:36

    NNAMDISam, your new book focuses on school choice. As parents scramble to find spots in schools across the system, one challenge when it comes to comparing schools is that math and reading scores are not, well, everything. You point out that there are other aspects of a school that are not related to test results. Can you talk about that?

  • 13:26:54

    CHALTAINYeah, well, I mean, if we want -- if we think that 21st century schools should spend 80 percent of their time on math and reading, then we're in good shape. And if we don't then we have work to do. The good news is there's lots of existing things that schools already collect by ways of data that could be more usefully repurposed for strategic thinking. Faculty absenteeism is one. Healthy schools have high-- I'm sorry, healthy schools have low faculty absenteeism rates. Unhealthy schools have high.

  • 13:27:26

    CHALTAINScott and the charter school community are already focusing on reenrollment rates. But the main thing is just thinking about the fact that schools aren't just about academic skills. They're about fostering the holistic development and growth of children. So that means not only cognitive but social, emotional, ethical, physical, dare I say, and linguistic. And so the sooner we have evaluation systems that are aligned to incentivize educators to meet the full holistic needs of kids, the more likely we are to have high-quality schools in a really virtuous cycle.

  • 13:27:57

    NNAMDIScott, it's more than reading, writing and arithmetic?

  • 13:28:00

    PEARSONIt is more than reading, writing and arithmetic. At the charter board we try to limit the use of data to those things that can be fairly measured across schools. And some of the softer areas are more difficult to measure. But that doesn't make them less important, And it makes it even more critical that parents do their research and visit these schools before applying and certainly before deciding to enroll in them because the school is much more than the collection of their test results.

  • 13:28:31

    NNAMDIRunning out of time very quickly but there's another school reform initiative that treats the D.C. area that touches on both traditional and public charter schools, disturbing to some. A nonprofit educational organization is paying cash to students and teachers for better test scores. Apparently this is coming to several D.C. schools including Wilson High and the charter schools E. L. Haynes and Kipp Charter Prep. What are your thoughts on this approach, Scott?

  • 13:28:54

    PEARSONI believe you're referring to a group called the National Math Science Initiative...

  • 13:28:58


  • 13:28:58

    PEARSON...which has had a very impressive track record of improving not only the participation rates but the passage rates of AP tests by low income and minority students. And they have a comprehensive program where they come into schools and provide extensive training and curriculum support to the teachers to provide a lot of support to the students. But it is true that they also have a cash incentive, I think it's $100 per passing grade on an AP test, to the students, as well as $100 per passing grade to the teacher who taught that student.

  • 13:29:35

    PEARSONThe results are quite extraordinary in terms of the passage rate of low income students on these AP tests. And it's -- because each charter is autonomous, it's up to them whether to do it. But based on the results that I've seen, it seems an experiment that is certainly worth trying. And I think Jay Matthews had a column this week that also supported that.

  • 13:29:59

    NNAMDISam Chaltain, you get the last word.

  • 13:30:01

    CHALTAINI think it's a parlor trick that distracts us from the more serious work of investing and solutions that will help us create more joyful, vigorous challenging hands-on learning environments. And it's the kind of thing that's designed to get lots of short term attention that will do nothing in the long term.

  • 13:30:17

    NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. Sam Chaltain is a writer and education activist, author of "Our School: Searching For Community in the Era of Choice." Scott Pearson is the executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board. And Abigail Smith is the district's deputy mayor for education. Thank you all for joining us.

  • 13:30:34

    PEARSONThank you.

  • 13:30:35

    CHALTAINThank you.

  • 13:30:35

    SMITHThank you.

  • 13:30:36

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, three years after the disaster at the Fukushima power plant in Japan, countries around the world still grappling with a love hate relationship with nuclear power. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

Related Links

Topics + Tags


comments powered by Disqus
Most Recent Shows

The Politics Hour: February 14, 2020

Friday, Feb 14 2020Virginia is halfway through a whirlwind legislative session. How are new laws going to change the lives of Virginians? And Montgomery County Public Schools are taking the first steps toward redistricting, making some parents and students hopeful and others angry. How might the process end?