Finding a decent public school in the District has been a headache for a long time, but it at least used to be possible. As D.C. hemorrhaged middle-class residents in the ’80s and early ’90s, the school system settled into an odd kind of equilibrium: A handful of public schools remained competitive with those in the suburbs, despite limited resources, while the rest of the system bottomed out. Today, out of 104 public elementary schools in D.C., about a dozen rank well on standardized tests. Among middle and junior-high schools, the number is three out of 20.

Nine of those top elementary schools and one of the junior highs are in Ward 3, where the middle class hung on the longest. Most of the others are on Capitol Hill and in Georgetown. Until last year, though, folks who lived outside those few lucky neighborhoods were not entirely excluded from the better public schools. Those who wanted to send their kids to a specific school simply had to show up there on an appointed day and get in line. If the school had additional capacity after serving all the neighborhood kids, it would then dole out slots to parents on a first-come, first-served basis.

Those spots were highly coveted; a seat at a choice elementary school could purportedly save an out-of-bounds family $10,000 or $20,000 a year in private-school tuition. But usually, parents who lived in Mount Pleasant or Brookland or Anacostia could be assured of getting their kids a seat in the school they wanted.

It was a level of flexibility that many of the nation’s school districts don’t offer. In recent years, though, the system broke down. Attendance, both in-boundary and out-of-boundary, grew in the city’s better schools. The lines for enrollment expanded accordingly. Last January, the ritual turned into a spectacle, as 100 parents camped out in the cold, some for as long as a week, to secure spots for their children in the Oyster Bilingual Elementary School’s preschool. The other grades were already full up after Woodley Park parents decided that Oyster, their neighborhood school, with a brand-new building, was suddenly worthy of their kids. For the Montessori preschool at Watkins Elementary on Capitol Hill, some 200 parents applied for about 60 slots.

Stung, in part, by kvetching from shivering parents outside Oyster, the school system set about re-evaluating the out-of-boundary application process. The schools had always seen the rules as problematic, because they gave the parents who cared the most about education an incentive to abandon their struggling neighborhood schools, thereby making those schools even worse. Officials also suspected that the camp-out routine excluded less affluent families, who couldn’t necessarily skip work or swap places with a spouse to hold a space in line. So last month, the school board replaced it with a lottery, designed to make the process more equitable.

While the new system may open slots for the poor by basing their admission on something other than their camping abilities—that is, random lottery selection—it does nothing to solve the problem at the heart of the out-of-boundary debate. The real trouble is this: For the first time in years, the demand from the middle class for good D.C. schools is outstripping the supply.

The old arrangement, with a few good schools serving the whole District, couldn’t take the strain of the recent influx of yuppie homesteaders. While many of these new residents came to D.C. single or childless, there’s now an abundance of strollers traversing the sidewalks of Logan Circle, Mount Pleasant, and Capitol Hill. And many of the stroller-pushers would like to send their kids to public school.

The trend seems to have caught school officials flat-footed. It’s hard to blame them. Who would have thought that middle-class people, many of them white, would be clawing over each other to send their children to a school such as Oyster, where almost half the kids are eligible for subsidized lunch and don’t speak much English? Don’t these people like St. Albans?

While middle-class residents have been clamoring for school space, the District has been working on expanding its supply of charter schools, which tend to be targeted at the lowest-performing segment of the school system—the poorest of the poor and the kids with the most intractable problems. Six years, 36 schools, and $150 million or more into the experiment, the city has succeeded only in expanding its supply of crappy, mismanaged educational offerings: a burger-flipping academy, a failed international program, failed math and science programs, a principal who got a rap sheet for assaulting a reporter. And charter-school test scores are lower than those at regular schools.

Helping the least fortunate pupils, who are ill-served by the current system, is a noble goal. But the charter schools also have an ignoble appeal, offering big money ($6,000 per elementary-school student, $18,000 more for a special-ed kid) and limited accountability to the folks who run them. Parents of the poorest kids are generally too busy or too powerless to complain about schools inflating enrollment numbers or letting prison guards teach math. It’s the more affluent parents who traditionally have the resources, time, and know-how to demand accountability from the bureaucracy.

This, unfortunately, is why the long-dysfunctional school system regards those parents with such distaste. During the debates over out-of-boundary rules, several board members expressed a pair of beliefs common in D.C.: that well-to-do white people want special treatment from the system that’s not afforded to its poor black students and that they’re elitist to demand it.

Middle-class parents say they get the sense that the city doesn’t feel any obligation to educate their kids, either because it thinks they have the resources to go elsewhere or because the system should target its limited resources for the most needy first. “The political calculation is that [affluent] parents who move into D.C. assume that they’ll send their kids to private schools,” says Steve Pomper, a Cleveland Park lawyer who sends his kids to D.C. public schools.

But the conflict over enrollment rules isn’t a simple matter of rich vs. poor or black vs. white. If there aren’t enough middle-class public schools in the District to meet the demands of middle-class people, the solution is not to send the newcomers back to the suburbs. It’s to give them more places they’ll be willing to send their children.

The middle class isn’t the public school system’s enemy. It’s the schools’ best hope for improvement. Nearly 40 years of educational research says that the single best way of rescuing poor schools is to desegregate them economically.

Poverty is bad for education, but concentrated poverty is worse. The worst schools in the nation are those whose student bodies are almost 100 percent poor—a pattern that holds true in the District. If you take a handful of poor, minority kids out of such a school and put them in a school that’s predominantly middle-class, they will consistently outperform the kids still stuck in high-poverty schools. They will also outperform a handful of middle-class kids sent to high-poverty schools.

Students perform the way their fellow students do. Peer influence is a big factor in test-score improvement—bigger even than spending more money. The phenomenon is already at work in D.C.: Deal Junior High has an ethnic mix that almost mirrors that of the District— 31 percent white, 46 percent black, 17 percent Hispanic—but it is much less poor than most of the city’s junior highs. Only 30 percent of its students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (an indicator of poverty), compared with nearly 80 percent for the system as a whole.

And while poverty usually correlates with test scores, Deal students do better than that 30 percent lunch-benefit rate would suggest. In 2001, only 3 percent of them scored Below Basic in reading on the Stanford 9 achievement tests, and 14 percent were Below Basic in math. More than 15 percent scored as Advanced in reading—almost unheard of in D.C., where more than 54 percent of students score Below Basic in math, and 25 percent are Below Basic in reading. That means the poor kids at Deal are doing as well as the better-off ones, and a lot better than their counterparts anywhere else in the city.

Economic desegregation on a bigger scale has been impossible for lack of a critical mass of middle-class families willing to commit to public schools. The city has never had the option of sending some of its poor students to more-affluent suburban schools (for both political and jurisdictional reasons). But those parents camped out at the Oyster School represent a tremendous opportunity for the city to bring a better economic balance to its schools and create more political support for its schools budget.

Several members of the school board, although apparently recognizing this opportunity, seem to believe the best way of maximizing this resource is to force all those parents to go to horrible neighborhood schools in the hope that they’ll fix them. District 1 school-board member Julie Mikuta, who voted in favor of the lottery, says, “I would rather see parents keep their kids in the neighborhood school and work to make it better.” Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz and Vice President William Lockridge would, in fact, like to abolish the out-of-boundary system altogether and force all kids to attend their neighborhood schools.

This is a nice idea in theory, but in practice it amounts to a strategy along the lines of forced busing, with similar results. Requiring middle-class parents to send their kids to failing schools is what helped bring down inner-city school systems in the first place. The lottery system won’t help anyone if there aren’t enough prize destinations to go around.

Victoria Van Dyke has lived in Columbia Heights since 1994. Her two children attend preschool and first grade at Hearst Elementary School in Ward 3. They are among the 80 percent of the school’s students who are out-of-boundary. When told that because of the lottery, the kids might have to attend Harriet Tubman Elementary in their neighborhood, Van Dyke and her husband began thinking about moving to Maryland. “We’re giving it very serious consideration,” she says, adding that she’ll make a decision after seeing how the new system works out.

It’s hard to blame her. Eighty percent of Tubman students receive free or reduced-price lunch, and 75 percent perform at Basic or Below Basic on standardized tests. “I’m not going to do that to my children. We’re not going to use our children as guinea pigs for the D.C. school system,” says Van Dyke.

If the lottery works as many parents believe it will, there will be a sizable number of middle-class residents of transitional neighborhoods whose children will be shut out of middle-class schools, which are already bursting at the seams. It’s not a small group. There are waiting lists for high-performing schools such as Lafayette Elementary. The one charter school aimed at middle-class parents has enormous waiting lists, as does Oyster. The “Capitol Hill Cluster”—Peabody Early Childhood Center, Watkins Elementary, and Stuart-Hobson Middle School—has reached capacity, and the lines to get in seem to be getting longer. A group called Mothers on the Hill, whose kids are not yet school-age, is already organizing a lobbying force to pressure the schools to meet their needs. It has 350 members.

Rather than force those parents to choose between bad schools and moving, the school board ought to enlist those left out by the lottery to begin something new. Oddly enough, the system already has a model in place for how it might do so. It’s called a magnet school.

Over the past few years, the city has started a handful of Montessori schools within existing elementary schools. They have proved wildly popular. Admission to these schools isn’t dictated by boundaries, but works on a first-come, first-served basis, with certain criteria to ensure a healthy racial and gender mix. The city should use the lottery losers to start a few more such programs—or a bilingual magnet program at say, mostly Hispanic Ross Elementary School in Dupont Circle—and it should expand the admission criteria to ensure a reasonable balance of rich and poor students. The good thing about motivated parents—of all backgrounds—is that they are usually willing to travel, so it’s not inconceivable that these new good schools could eventually replace some bad neighborhood schools outside Ward 3.

For the upper grades, which are the most problematic, the city should solicit some new blood to create high-achieving junior highs and high schools. Enough with the existing charter-school operators. Rather than having Marriott run yet another school here, why not invite St. Albans and Sidwell Friends to open charter schools?

Or, rather than dealing with the headaches of more charter schools, the city might consider simply blowing up one of its existing high schools and starting over. The new school could be modeled after Stuyvesant High School in New York, requiring entrance exams to guarantee a baseline of academic excellence. None of this should replace the city’s efforts to lift the performance of all the city’s schools, only supplement and accelerate it. If that happens, the school system could do more than just placate those cranky homesteaders. It could bring in more of them. CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Wesley Bedrosian.