D.C. mayoral hopefuls weigh in on proposals for school boundaries and access

Days after Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) released proposals to overhaul the District’s school boundaries and student-assignment policies, the two mayoral hopefuls in the November election said they would not support any plan that eliminates neighborhood high schools.

D.C. Council member and Democratic nominee for mayor Muriel Bowser said Gray’s proposals contain some “intriguing ideas” that deserve further exploration, such as replacing traditional neighborhood elementary schools with clusters, called “choice sets,” that would admit students via lottery.

But Bowser (Ward 4) said she would not support cutting neighborhoods east of Rock Creek Park out of the feeder patterns for schools west of the park, namely Alice Deal Middle School and Woodrow Wilson High School. Nor would she support converting high schools that serve specific neighborhoods into schools that would build their student body through citywide lotteries.

“Parents want predictability,” Bowser said.

D.C. Council member and mayoral hopeful David A. Catania went a step further, and saying that if elected he would “press pause” on the whole effort to redraw school boundaries and revise assignment policies, arguing that the city must first focus on improving schools.

Areas that could be affected by proposed changes to D.C.’s elementary school zone boundary

Catania (I-At Large) said he would not support any plan that would reassign parents into lower-quality schools or that would leave parents with less certainty about which schools their children have a right to attend.

“Over the last seven years, we’ve been on a journey with school reform here. We’ve asked parents to take a leap of faith, to reinvest in public schools,” Catania said. “Anything we do to shock that fragile confidence sends people over the top. We have to be very careful.”

The Gray administration’s proposals would not only overhaul school boundaries for the first time in 40 years, but they also could fundamentally change how children are placed in schools, possibly using lottery admissions instead of giving students the right to attend their neighborhood schools.

While Gray is slated to announce a final plan in September, it would not become effective until 2015, after his term ends, leaving the real decisions about how to proceed in the hands of whoever is elected mayor in November.

The proposals already have triggered fierce debate among parents, who are sure to study the mayoral aspirants’ views closely as they decide how to vote. Some whose children are assigned to low-performing schools have welcomed proposals that expand chances to win admission to stronger schools.

Others, including those who are happy with their assigned schools, have vehemently rejected any proposals that would leave enrollment to chance. They say moving children around via lottery-based admissions would create transportation headaches and would not improve the city’s schools.

“I’m uncomfortable with all of this because it feels like a Band-Aid,” said Shannon Winters, who was one of hundreds of parents — many of them from Upper Northwest neighborhoods with thriving schools — who attended a community meeting on the proposals Tuesday night at Calvin Coolidge High.

“I would be much more comfortable if I looked through the packet and saw a plan for improving low-performing schools,” Winters said, triggering applause from the crowd. “I think it would be better for the city.”

Abigail Smith, the deputy mayor for education, says the city must address boundaries and student-assignment policies now. Decades of demographic shifts and charter-school growth have rendered boundaries increasingly unworkable, she argues, leaving some schools overcrowded and others half-empty. As neighborhood schools remain the ideal for many families, only 25 percent of the city’s children actually attend their assigned schools.

Asked whether the mayoral hopefuls’ reactions would change the timeline or direction of her work, Smith said she and her team “welcome feedback from all sources,” pointing out that at three community meetings across the city in recent days, parents have voiced support for elements of all three of the proposals. “There are also concerns with the proposals,” Smith said. “We are grateful for the high level of participation and interest in this work and look forward to continuing to engage the broader community to help us refine these options.”Catania said two of Gray’s policy proposals — “A” and “C,” both of which would replace neighborhood high schools with citywide lottery admissions — are “red herrings” that he cannot support.

“By transitioning to a lottery system, we’re not adding high-quality lottery spaces; we’re simply scattering students across the city,” he said. “Putting a student on the bus and sending them across town to an option that is no better than the one in their neighborhood is not the answer.” Policy option “B” retains much of the current system, with each student having one by-right elementary, middle and high school. But some families would lose access to Deal Middle and Wilson High schools, two of the most sought-after schools in the city. And the plan depends on building or reopening four middle schools and perhaps a new high school.

Catania said that, if elected, he would not move forward with that plan but would like to continue discussing some of its elements, including a provision requiring all schools to set aside a percentage of seats for students from low-performing schools or for students from low-income families.

He said that the number of crowded schools is relatively small and that the city can find ways to address that crowding without making far-reaching policy changes.“What I want to do is hit the pause button on all of this and say ‘let’s continue to talk about it,’ but while we talk about it, let’s advance ideas about how we’re going to improve quality across the city,” he said.

Bowser said she is encouraged by certain elements of the proposals, such as the elementary school “choice sets” and the building of four new middle schools, which she said would require much-needed investments in the middle grades.

“In order to live up to what’s in those scenarios, certainly funding and program commitments have to be made,” Bowser said. “Part of what we need to focus on is what the timeline is for making these changes. As I read it, none of this can happen until those investments are made.”

But she also expressed concerns about limiting access to Deal and Wilson and said she would not stand for new boundaries that eliminate “cross-park boundary and feeder patterns,” including current proposals that would strip swaths of Bowser’s Ward 4 — such as Crestwood and 16th Street Heights — of the right to attend schools west of Rock Creek Park.

“I don’t think any of the scenarios put forth get it exactly right, but I think there are some intriguing ideas in them,” Bowser said.

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