Five education issues to watch in D.C. this school year

September 8, 2013

1. Will the Gray administration overhaul school boundaries? If so, when? And how?

Parents and prospective home buyers have been asking these questions for nearly a year, but answers have been slow to come.

D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced last fall that by June, she would overhaul school boundaries for the first time in decades, with changes effective in the 2014-15 school year. The prospect triggered panic and pushback in some quarters , especially among residents who feared being cut out of two overcrowded and desirable Northwest schools, Deal Middle and Wilson High.

Schools officials said in January that they would convene a task force to gather input and make recommendations. But a task force has yet to be named. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) promised in June that the politically delicate boundary changes are still on the way, but he offered no time frame. The council — aiming to give parents time to adjust — has passed a law that would put off any changes until a year after new boundaries are finalized.

2. How will the combined charter/DCPS enrollment lottery work?

Gray administration officials are working with D.C. Public Schools and charter schools to come up with a combined enrollment lottery for the 2014-15 school year, an effort to streamline the choice process for families and schools.

Details about how such a lottery would work haven’t been made public yet, and it’s not clear how many charters — which are not required to participate — will embrace the cooperative lottery instead of continuing to go it alone.

No matter what, families are still going to have to be pretty lucky to get into the most sought-after schools.

3. Can DCPS hold onto its students?

When Henderson decided to close 13 under-enrolled schools in June, she said the success of that effort would be judged in part by whether officials could persuade the students from those closing schools to enroll in another DCPS school instead of moving to charters.

Activists who protested the closures argued that they would accelerate a “downward spiral” for the school system, driving students out of the system, leaving more buildings half-empty and vulnerable to closure, and accelerating the tilt toward fast-growing charters.

Henderson set a goal of retaining 80 percent of students from closed schools; as of the first week of September, 71 percent had enrolled in DCPS schools. The final number won’t be known until after the official October school census.

4. What will become of empty school buildings?

Gray administration officials announced in May that 16 surplus DCPS buildings would be released for short- or long-term lease by charter schools. That was welcome news for the charter advocates who have long criticized D.C. government officials for holding onto empty buildings or handing them over to private developers. But others were less pleased, arguing that the buildings should be put to use in other ways, including as community centers or magnet DCPS schools.

At least four buildings are out for bid to charters. D.C. officials confirmed that three charters have applied for the old Winston Education Campus, east of the Anacostia River in Ward 7: D.C. Prep, Eagle Academy and a partnership between Rocketship, an elementary school, and AppleTree, which focuses on early childhood education. Also in the mix are three schools in Northeast: Young, Shaed and Hamilton.

5. What will the D.C. Council do?

The D.C. Council faces a stack of school-related legislation thanks to education chairman David A. Catania (I-At Large), who introduced seven bills in June, and Gray, who is pushing a controversial measure that would give Henderson the power to create her own charter schools.

The bills have given Catania and Gray — both potential 2014 mayoral candidates — a high-profile battleground for political sparring. But they also have the potential to make sweeping changes to how public education works in the District. Debate will intensify after the council returns from its summer recess in mid-September.

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