Staff Editorial: School lottery reform blocks special VIP access

Antwan Wilson became the D.C. schools chancellor in 2017. (Brian Kapur/The Current/January 2017)

Every year, many D.C. parents wait anxiously for the results of the school lottery, determining whether their children have secured spots in coveted out-of-boundary D.C. public schools or public charter schools.

Now, we’re happy to say, D.C. public officials must go through the exact same process for their children, thanks to a decision by Antwan Wilson, the new schools chancellor.

There was a justifiable outcry when it was revealed that several high-ranking current and former officials secured “discretionary transfers” during the tenure of then-Chancellor Kaya Henderson. Ms. Henderson said she exercised her broad latitude to make any school-placement change that would “promote the overall interests of the school system” — in these cases, she said, by keeping prominent families in the District’s public schools.

As we’ve said before, we can’t agree with either Ms. Henderson’s decision or her rationale. First of all, it’s unquestionably poor optics to allow someone with political clout to receive preferential treatment over families who won waiting-list spots through the legitimate lottery process. The defense that any parent can request a discretionary transfer doesn’t ring true to us, because few parents can so easily catch the chancellor’s ear.

Furthermore, it hardly promotes the notion of public schools as a great option if officials refuse to accept their lottery result. Quite the opposite ­— it shows a lack of confidence in the school system.

Chancellor Wilson announced last week that past and present D.C. public officials are now banned from the discretionary transfer process. Now, officials’ children can still apply for transfers due to extraordinary circumstances such as special needs or a serious bullying issue, which we think is appropriate — provided that the official doesn’t demand a seat in a highly sought school as an alternative.

We further encourage Mr. Wilson to avoid other such conflicts of interest. Ms. Henderson, for instance, transferred children of families she knew outside of the D.C. government from her personal and professional life. That was inappropriate — all parents should be considered equally.

The whole issue also points to the greater need for continuing to improve D.C.’s schools — so that city officials and ordinary parents alike can accept their lottery result with confidence.