First day of school puts D.C. mayoral race, education debates into focus


Mayoral candidate and D.C. Council member Muriel E. Bowser (D-Ward 4), right, holds up signs in the Tenleytown neighborhood Monday morning that asks drivers to slow down on the first day of school. (Mike DeBonis/Mike DeBonis)

For D.C. students, the first day of school is a chance to put on a new outfit, catch up with old friends, and — in an election year, anyway — meet a candidate or two.

A throng of children came off the 30N Metrobus shortly before 8 a.m. Monday to find mayoral hopeful Muriel Bowser greeting them in Tenleytown, steps from Woodrow Wilson High School and Alice Deal Middle School.

“Good luck at school today!” Bowser, the Democratic D.C. Council member from Ward 4, told students as they walked past. Meanwhile, her campaign was tweeting about the legislation she authored last year giving students free Metro rides during the school year.

And the dozen volunteers gathered with Bowser represented only one of several groups that fanned out across the city waving signs reading “Slow down! School is back in session!”

The return to school marked the end of a languid summer for the mayoral campaign, heralding a 10-week sprint toward the Nov. 4 general election. Monday’s campaign activities were not only a recognition of Election Day’s approach but also of the key role that education issues will continue to play in the contest.

A half-hour later, mayoral rival David A. Catania greeted parents outside Lafayette Elementary School, a mile up Nebraska Avenue in Chevy Chase. There, in several long and detailed discussions, the topic of the day was the proposal to redraw school boundaries and feeder patterns for D.C. public schools — a process that has generated a great deal of questions and anxiety among parents.

“That’s the perception, that it’s a threat, not an opportunity,” said John Duncan, 44, parent of a Lafayette fourth-grader who spoke with Catania after dropping his son off. “People, to be honest, are still confused on where it stands.”

On Thursday, outgoing Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) moved to accept and adopt the proposals developed by a blue-ribbon committee of parents, educators and administrators.

The plan is meant to address overcrowding in some schools and under-enrollment at others, and to rationalize feeder patterns made increasingly complicated by rounds of school closures.

The plan has been met with skepticism in some corners (particularly early plans, since discarded, to make wider use of lotteries) — and with outright hostility in others (particularly where access to high-performing Deal and Wilson is threatened).

In Chevy Chase, parents will see few changes under the Gray plan, but the prospect of having to enter a lottery rather than enjoy guaranteed access to nearby Lafayette riled many parents — and gave Catania an early wedge issue against Bowser, who briefly expressed measured support for an expanded lottery system.

While the next mayor might be able to halt or reverse some of the plans, the citywide lottery for next school year will take place under the assumption that the new system goes into effect.

As parents were preparing their children for class, Catania’s Twitter feed was highlighting his Fair Funding Act, a bill that puts more resources into schools serving more at-risk children.

Outside Lafayette, Catania discussed taking a more deliberate approach to recalibrating the boundaries, telling parents he wanted “robust” individualized school improvement plans first. “I don’t know if we’re going to get this done in a year,” he said.

Around lunchtime, Catania’s council office issued a statement, saying he supported some aspects of the boundary plan but is “not persuaded that the final recommendations can be effectively executed” by next year, as Gray has proposed.

The statement said Catania would not seek to make any changes until 2016 at the earliest, saying hasty action could “undermine the fragile confidence” parents have in DCPS.

“I cannot support a plan that moves students from higher-performing schools to lower performing ones,” he said. “Yet the final recommendations do just that.”

Bowser has not yet offered a full-throated response to the Gray boundary proposal. She said Monday that her campaign will issue a more complete position soon. She said she was dismayed that the new boundaries’ reinforced geographic divisions such as the Anacostia River and Rock Creek Park.

“All of the cross-river pathways have been shut off,” she said. “That’s problematic.”

Independent candidate Carol Schwartz issued a measured response Friday to Gray’s move to accept the final proposals, calling them “much better than the first proposed changes and somewhat better than the last ones.”

Schwartz praised provisions that would help keep many families in the same schools and the continued availability of out-of-boundary seats at every DCPS school.

While Schwartz did not visit any schools in the morning, her campaign said she is scheduled to visit three schools around dismissal time Monday — all of them east of the Anacostia.

Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.

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