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D.C. Charter Leader Objects To Plan Setting Aside Seats For At-Risk Students

The leader of the D.C. Public Charter School Board is objecting to a provision in a broader plan to change the city's school boundaries that could affect what type of students charter schools admit.

In a series of tweets this morning, Scott Pearson, the executive director of the board, said he opposed setting aside seats for at-risk students at certain charter schools, arguing that the policy had not been properly studied.

Though the changes to school boundaries and feeder patterns primarily affect the city's traditional public schools, one provision adopted by Mayor Vincent Gray would require any school — traditional, selective admission or charter — with less than 25 percent at-risk students to give priority to at-risk students for 25 percent of seats in lottery admissions.

An at-risk student is defined as one who is homeless, in foster care, whose family is receiving welfare benefits or food stamps, or is in high school and a year behind their peers. Currently, 43 percent of all D.C. students are considered at-risk.

City officials say that the provision — along with requirements for a certain amount of seats for out-of-boundary students at all schools — would ensure that students facing difficult circumstances could attend the city's best-performing schools. There has been an increased emphasis on the needs of at-risk students; $116 million in additional funding is being directed to at-risk students in the school year beginning next week.

According to data compiled by the D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education, 511 at-risk students would be given preference at 18 public schools and 14 charter schools where average at-risk enrollment stands at 11 percent. Based on 2013 enrollment numbers, between two and 38 seats, depending on the school, would be set-aside for at-risk students.

In an interview, Pearson said that he could not support the recommendation because it had not been properly considered.

"This recommendation was formulated in the final weeks of an eight-month process, there were no consultations with affected schools or communities and there was no analysis of impact. So it really had nowhere near the level of thoughtfulness and consideration that the other recommendations in the report had," he said.

Pearson said one of his concerns was how the set-asides would affect students that are economically disadvantaged but not formally defined as at-risk.

"We don’t know whether giving those students preference might negatively impact other students who are economically disadvantaged but who do not, for example, receive welfare. There’s a whole category of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch but are not characterized as at-risk, and we don’t know what the impact will be on those students," he said.

Charter schools enroll 44 percent of the city's 83,000 public school students, and 72 percent of students at charter schools are low-income. Pearson said that all students — no matter their background or circumstances — has the same chance to get into a good charter school.

"There is a very strong appeal to a straight-forward lottery where everyone is treated the same. It’s fair, and it’s easy for everyone to understand," he said.

The fate of the overall school boundary proposal — and the at-risk set-asides — remains uncertain. While it would start taking effect for the 2015-16 school year and be phased in over a number of years, leading mayoral candidates Muriel Bowser and David Catania have said that the process should be slowed down.

City officials say that with Gray signing off on the plans, they will be harder to reverse. As for the set-asides at charter schools, they would require a change in city law by the D.C. Council, allowing charter schools to lobby against the proposal. Pearson did not say whether the board would lobby against any change, but would want a longer debate and analysis if it came to pass.

"Before we decide whether we'd actively lobby against it or for it, we would want to go through the thorough process that such a significant recommendation deserves," he said.

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