Education Becoming Top Issue For D.C.

After some difficulty, Denise Woods, with daughter Zoe, and David Arthur have placed daughter Maya, 4, in a bilingual charter school in the District.
After some difficulty, Denise Woods, with daughter Zoe, and David Arthur have placed daughter Maya, 4, in a bilingual charter school in the District. (By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)
By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Homeowners, business leaders and newcomers with a financial stake in the District's economic revival are pushing the troubled D.C. school system to the top of the city's political agenda in a landmark election year when voters will choose a mayor and council chairman.

Polls show education surpassing taxes, crime and affordable housing as the top concern among voters across the city. In a survey late last year for mayoral candidate and D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), almost 60 percent of those polled said education is the city's biggest problem, followed by housing at a distant second.

Mayoral contenders are hearing the same message on the campaign trail from childless couples worried about property values, business executives struggling to find qualified workers, and parents frustrated by the poor condition and academic performance of public schools.

Knocking on doors one afternoon in Capitol View, east of the Anacostia River, Fenty met Michael Shaw, who said he is unemployed. But Shaw isn't looking for the next mayor to find him a job. "I'm interested in whoever will build our school system back up so kids at least want to go to school," he said.

On the other side of town, Louise Brodnitz, an urban planner from Georgetown with two children in private school, attended a hearing last month to protest the potential closure of Hyde Elementary, the remaining public school in a neighborhood of wealthy, private-school families. Brodnitz said losing Hyde would deter home buyers with children and erode property values in one of the city's most affluent communities.

"This is not an issue for people with kids in public schools only," she said. "Everyone should be interested in this. Anyone who cares about the vibrancy of the city."

Pollsters say long-standing concern about schools has gained fresh urgency because of the contrast with other aspects of city life. Crime is down, municipal services are better, the once-destitute government is flush with cash and the median home price tops $400,000. But the D.C. school system still ranks among the worst in the nation.

Average test scores are lower than in every other district participating in a federal assessment of urban schools. Last month, the U.S. Department of Education labeled the D.C. system a "high risk" recipient of federal grants, calling its fiscal management, in effect, the worst in the country. With enrollment dropping, officials last week announced plans to close six underused schools. Program cuts mean art, music and Spanish are unavailable in some schools. At others, parent groups pay for libraries, nurses and teachers' aides.

There are bright spots. Woodrow Wilson Senior High School in Tenleytown and Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Columbia Heights consistently rank in the top 1 percent of public high schools in the country and among the top 30 schools in the Washington region. But the overall picture is grim: Nearly half -- 44 percent -- of District residents don't have a high school diploma.

To a growing number of voters, the schools represent an abdication of responsibility to nearly 60,000 students, the majority of them black and poor.

"All of a sudden, that matters way more than we thought it would," said Erica Swanson, a civil-rights worker who bought a house with her boyfriend last year off H Street NE. While she worries about her neighbors' children, Swanson also wonders what she will do when she starts a family. The school system "is really the big question mark about whether I want to stay in D.C.," she said.

This spring, parents and education activists rebelled against an outlay of more than $600 million for a new baseball stadium and persuaded the D.C. Council to spend an extra $1 billion over 10 years to repair dilapidated schools, the largest funding increase in city history.

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