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D.C. Mayoral Contenders Respond To Proposed School Boundary Changes

D.C. is debating changes to the city's school boundaries and feeder patterns.
D.C. is debating changes to the city's school boundaries and feeder patterns.

A number of D.C. legislators — including two running for mayor — have started weighing in on controversial proposals to change the city's school boundaries and feeder patterns.

Over the weekend, D.C. education officials unveiled three proposals for changing the four-decade-old boundaries and feeder patterns that define where students go to school. Speaking on The Kojo Nnamdi Show last October, Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith explained that the changes in the city required corresponding changes in how school seats are assigned. (Current boundaries are here.)

"So we've had... many families have moved out of the city over that time. We're now shifting that trend. And during that time dozens of schools have closed and dozens of new schools have opened in other places in the city. So it's a totally different picture than the last time school boundaries were revised. And it's a bit of a mess now for families," she said.

The three proposals developed by an advisory committee offer varying degrees of reform ranging from elementary to high school. One proposal would offer families in-boundary rights to a group of elementary schools nearest to them, while another would call for the creation of new stand-alone middle schools and a third would divide up all high school seats by lottery.

Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), who defeated Mayor Vincent Gray in the April 1 Democratic primary, said in a statement that while she largely supported the process, she wanted to maintain the current system that allows some Ward 4 families living east of Rock Creek Park access to sought-after schools in Ward 3.

"From the outset, I’ve approached this discussion guided by the following principles: A new school assignment plan must maintain diversity with current, cross-park boundary and feeder patterns; establish predictable, by-right school choices at every level; and accelerate citywide middle school improvements," she said. "To gain my support, a student assignment plan must align with these principles."

Council member David Catania (I-At Large), who presides over the Council's education committee and is running for mayor as an Independent, was more skeptical of the proposals, saying that he would rather see school-by-school improvements.

"In order to truly address the issue at hand, overcrowding at some schools and massive under enrollment at others, our energies would be better spent directed and devoted to improving schools across the District," he said. "Rather than simply redrawing lines on a map and cutting children out of high quality schools, the real solution is to double down on efforts to raise the academic quality of schools in every neighborhood."

Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), whose ward is home to many of the city's best public schools, also weighed in, saying that by-right access to neighborhood schools should be maintained and that students currently in school should not be moved after any changes are implemented.

"Forcing children out of neighborhood schools will shatter this confidence — especially if families are forced to participate in a lottery that will send children far away from their homes," she said.

"I am also disappointed that the recommendations do not discuss any grandfathering provisions. No matter what changes may be made, it is essential that the students and their families currently in the public school system be held harmless and not be forced to change schools," she added.

Final proposals are expected in the fall, and any changes will take effect in 2015.

Abigail Smith will be on The Politics Hour on Friday at noon.

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