D.C. Council to hold hearings on school boundaries

D.C. Council Education Committee Chairman David A. Catania (I-At Large) said he plans to hold hearings in June on the city’s controversial proposals to overhaul school boundaries and student-assignment policies, giving parents and others another public venue to air opinions and concerns.

Catania announced the plans during an oversight hearing for Abigail Smith, the deputy mayor for education, whose office produced the proposals. No hearing dates have been set, according to Catania’s staff.

The proposals range from tweaking the city’s current system to fundamentally changing the way students are assigned to schools, replacing matter-of-right neighborhood schools with lottery-based admissions.

The council has no direct control over boundary redrawings or changes to student-assignment proposals; those policies are, by law, up to the mayor alone. But that doesn’t mean that council members are completely without influence.

“Boundary adjustments are very political,” D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) said at Friday’s hearing. “It’s political among parents, it’s political among us council members. It’s just political.”

At community meetings over the past month, parents overwhelmingly rejected the notion of losing guaranteed access to the school down the block, according to feedback published by Smith.

But most of that feedback came from residents of relatively affluent Wards 3 and 4, where parents tend to be happy with their schools. There has been far less input from residents of more-impoverished wards 7 and 8, where many students opt out of their neighborhood schools in favor of out-of-boundary or charter schools.

Smith said the community advisory committee leading the boundary overhaul will consider that feedback before releasing a refined proposal in June for another round of community input.

The city needs to revisit its student-assignment policies and boundaries, she says, because decades of demographic change and charter-school growth have left some schools overcrowded and others half-empty, some schools thriving and others struggling.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) is expected to announce final changes in September. But they wouldn’t go into effect until fall 2015, which means that decisions about how and whether to proceed would really be up to whoever is elected mayor in November.

Catania, who is running for mayor, has rejected the proposals, vowing to adopt none of them if he wins. His opponent, Democratic nominee and Ward 4 Council member Muriel Bowser, initially said she was intrigued by “choice sets,” or mini-lotteries at the elementary level, but later clarified that she would not support any proposal that does away with neighborhood schools.

D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) also said Friday that she would not support any plan to move toward lottery-based admissions.

“We’ll shuffle kids around, perhaps, but what we will have, I believe, is a dismantling of the schools that have become very good schools,” Cheh said. “We will shatter the confidence that parents have developed in these schools.”

Barry declined to comment specifically on the proposals, but pointed out that many students in his ward, east of the Anacostia River, are already leaving their neighborhoods in search of better schools.

“Let me be clear: I believe in choice,” Barry said. “I don’t think parents should be stuck” in low-performing schools.

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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