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At precisely 1:01 p.m. on Aug. 21, thousands of Washingtonians saw a portion of their wealth vanish, or at least thought they did. There wasn’t a stock-market crash or a tax hike. Instead, Mayor Vince Gray announced that he was adopting a plan to redraw the attendance boundaries for the city’s public schools.
“Well, that sucks,” a Crestwood resident posted to the DC Urban Moms and Dads forum. “Just lost Deal Middle School access, which was a prime reason for buying our house two years ago. Wondering what this does to our property value.” Some residents, fearful of lost property value after being cut off from desirable schools, debated whether to sue the city.
Of course, the city never made any promises to homebuyers that their school assignments were eternal, and the boundary overhaul, the first in more than 40 years, was long overdue. None of that preempted a freakout. It was fiercest in April, when a committee led by Gray’s education deputy released three preliminary proposals for school-assignment changes, one of which featured a citywide lottery for high-school placement, raising the specter of complete unpredictability and transportation nightmares. Some parents speculated that the two more radical proposals were included to make the third one more palatable—and parents were relieved when the committee’s single draft proposal in June hewed most closely to that more moderate option. The plan Gray adopted was very similar.
Then came the mayoral election. Candidates David Catania and Muriel Bowser both promised to re-redraw the boundaries if elected, even though a majority of respondents to a poll said they supported Gray’s plan. Bowser prevailed, but even though the lottery for out-of-boundary placement opened on Monday, she still hasn’t clarified exactly what changes she wants. Her top priority, she says, is to make sure the boundaries don’t isolate sections of the city, so that students living east of the Anacostia River still have access to west-of-the-river schools. But she hopes to “have a team of experts taking a fresh look at it on Jan. 2 and coming back to me with some recommendations.”
There’s no way to please everyone when redrawing school boundaries. Unless Bowser allows the entire city to attend the small handful of sought-after schools, some residents will be upset. But Deal and Wilson High School, the high-demand Tenleytown schools, are overcrowded already, while some schools farther east have been closed due to underenrollment.
What the city needs in the long run is a plan that makes a larger number of schools attractive and shrinks the expansive boundaries for Deal and Wilson. But it’s much easier to keep people happy by maintaining these boundaries than it would be to actually improve all the schools in the city. D.C. had an opportunity to enact a relatively ambitious boundary reform under a lame-duck mayor. Instead, Bowser had chosen to take ownership of the eventual plan. Let’s hope public pressure doesn’t mean it’s another 40 years until the city gets meaningful reform of its school policies.