Panel Paper: School Choice or Neighborhood Choice: Neighborhood Characteristics and Preference for in-Boundary Schools in D.C.

Friday, November 9, 2018
Tyler - Mezz Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Chelsea Coffin, D.C. Policy Center

D.C. families frequently take advantage of school options, with only about a quarter of public school students attending in-boundary District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) schools and the rest enrolling in out-of-boundary DCPS or public charter schools. In some areas of the city, however, extremely high levels of students choose their in-boundary school. This study examines the connections between neighborhood characteristics and public school enrollment patterns to identify characteristics of neighborhoods shared by schools with high boundary participation rates (the percentage of public school students living within each in-boundary school’s neighborhood who attend that school). To do so, we construct 109 neighborhoods around in-boundary schools based on school boundaries and compare demographic and other characteristics of these neighborhoods to their boundary participation rates.

Our key finding is that location within the feeder pattern for Wilson High School, D.C.’s top-performing in-boundary high school, outweighs other neighborhood aspects in explaining the tendency to enroll at in-boundary schools. Our analysis suggests that D.C. families prioritize a reliable feeder pattern for their children, as Wilson HS influences boundary participation as early as when families are enrolling children in pre-kindergarten and elementary school. This finding also reinforces the geographic division of public school enrollment patterns, which show that school choice is least important for families who choose to live in the Wilson HS area—which, for those who can afford it, means moving into high-priced neighborhoods that feed into this school. Smaller African American populations, growing African American populations, and higher poverty rates also play much smaller roles in boundary participation. The importance of neighborhood characteristics for school enrollment patterns is highest in elementary schools and disappears in middle and high school grades (including access to transit).

We find that, given the pull of Wilson HS, there is a need for more reliable feeder patterns through high school in D.C. This is an important finding as total public school enrollments tend to decline in D.C. beginning in the middle school years. Our findings also suggest that preference to enroll in one’s in-boundary school in large numbers is localized, with families concentrated in one part of the city unlikely to make use of options other than their in-boundary school, and families in the majority of the city primarily relying on these options.