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Controversial 'Choice Sets' Removed From Revised D.C. School Boundary Proposals

A committee is currently debating making changes to D.C.'s four-decade-old school boundaries and feeder patterns.
A committee is currently debating making changes to D.C.'s four-decade-old school boundaries and feeder patterns.

A proposal to replace by-right access to neighborhood elementary schools with a "choice set" of a few nearby schools accessible by lottery has been excised from a revised set of proposed changes to D.C. school boundary and feeder patterns set to be released today.

The choice sets were included as one of three proposals for changes to the city's four-decade-old school boundaries and feeder patterns released in April by the D.C. Advisory Committee on Student Assignment. With the choice sets, students would lose access to a single neighborhood elementary school and instead be given a number of options in a specific geographic area that they could apply to using a lottery.

Proponents argued that the choice sets would give parents in areas with weak elementary schools a menu of options to work with, increase access to schools with specialty programs and help maintain socioeconomic diversity as D.C. neighborhoods change.

Choice sets are used in San Francisco and Boston, though some parents and officials in San Francisco have debated making changes to assignment policies to allow parents to send their children to their closest neighborhood school.

But critics of the choice say they would throw areas with good schools into disarray as parents face the prospect of losing by-right access to their neighborhood school. Strong opposition came from areas with popular elementary schools, such as Ward 3, where Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) ruled out choice sets.

Council member David Catania (I-At Large), who chairs the Council's education committee and is running for mayor, dismissed the idea as unworkable. "There’s nothing good about creating more uncertainty for parents about which schools their children can attend. Choice sets are a bad idea that would eliminate matter-of-right neighborhood schools," he said.

Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), who is also vying for the city's top office, originally said she supported choice sets, but changed her mind and said she would only support keeping by-right access to neighborhood elementary schools.

“Let me be clear about my position: I will only support neighborhood school assignment. This means that students must have by-right, as opposed to lottery, an assignment to a school at the elementary, middle and high school levels in their area," she said in a revised statement released in April.

The strident opposition weighed on the committee debating the changes to the boundaries and feeder patterns, and its members opted to leave the choice sets out of a second round of proposals that will be made public later today.

According to individuals close to the process, the new round of proposals will call for specialty programs to be distributed more evenly across the city, suggest that certain shuttered schools be reopened, encourage more collaboration with the charter school sector, and promote a predictable path for students from preschool to high school.

Though the proposed changes won't be finalized until the fall and wouldn't go into effect until the 2015-16 school year, both Catania and Bowser have already said the process should be stopped until a new mayor is elected. Both Mayor Vincent Gray and Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith have defended the process, saying that the city's current boundaries and feeder patterns — which date back to the late 1960s — do not accurately reflect the changes that have taken place in the city.

Currently, only one-quarter of students attend their in-boundary school and 43 percent attend charter schools.

"I don't have any reason to push the pause button. We're going to continue on with this. We'll continue to get feedback," said Gray earlier this month.

"We thought it was an important project... we continue to feel strongly about that. If we see along the way that there continues to be legitimate unrest — I don't think there will be complete comfort about this, because it's change, and people just simply don't like change. Even some of the most modest change is resisted, and something of this enormity, there's going to be resistance of one kind or another," he added.

Three community meetings on the new proposals have been scheduled for next week.

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