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The past few winters, D.C. residents have learned to take a few things for granted:

1. The Redskins’ season will not extend into the new year.

2. District officials and the news media will gear up for a big snowstorm that never arrives.

3. Hundreds of parents will line up outside J.F. Oyster Bilingual School, Peabody Early Childhood Center, and a few other schools, most of them in Ward 3, for days on end.

The hardy folks hope to enroll their children in high-performing D.C. public schools, even though they live outside the schools’ official boundaries. Pre-K slots are acquired much the way Bruce Springsteen tickets are: Parents bundle up in layers of clothing and camp out with sleeping bags and tents in a numbered queue. The first-come, first-served system has a tinge of D.C. Darwinism: In the end, most “out-of-boundary” slots go to children of parents who have the wherewithal to take days off work, coordinate child care, and switch off with spouses.

Not to mention the resources to arrange for crosstown transportation each school day.

Despite the hardships involved, the out-of-boundary system has become an internal voucher/school-choice program for yuppie D.C. parents. Anyone who threatens the system should be ready for a backlash.

That person would be D.C. Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz, who, along with her colleagues, seems determined to end this storied practice. November’s election results supply the requisite spine: Cafritz—controversial for a personal style above and beyond her choice of fire-engine-red cowboy boots—received 96 percent of the vote on Nov. 5. She ran unopposed.

Cafritz’s vision for her next term is noble: She wants to make every D.C. public school a high-performing institution that draws on high-achieving students from its surrounding neighborhood. Therein lies a very obvious conflict with out-of-boundary allotments, which encourage bright students designated in-boundary for underperforming schools to take their talents westward.

The out-of-boundary debate has followed a familiar D.C. pattern: Press coverage of the Oyster lines embarrassed the board and the superintendent. So the board commissioned a task force of parents and educators to examine the out-of-boundary policy. After months of discussion, the group hammered out guidelines that were largely merit-based: Students who performed adequately academically and had good attendance records would be eligible for an out-of-boundary transfer lottery.

In other words, let the underachievers try to inspire one another.

The task force recommendation only bolstered Cafritz’s argument.

Cafritz favors pumping up local schools with an infusion of dollars, competent teachers, and involved neighborhood families. “The looser the out-of-boundary policy, the less oomph you have in creating neighborhood schools,” Cafritz argued to her colleagues during a Nov. 22 confab on the topic.

So now board members have gone back to the drawing board. Two potential plans have emerged: In her draft proposal circulated to board members in mid-November, Cafritz dropped a now-characteristic bomb, suggesting that the superintendent redraw D.C. school boundaries to align with city wards—so Ward 1 children attend Ward 1 schools, Ward 8 children attend Ward 8 schools, and so on. “[T]here shall be no system-wide out-of-boundary transfer process in School Year 2005-2006 and subsequent school years,” Cafritz wrote.

Cafritz proposes a lottery system for the two-year interim.

Cafritz’s ally in the debate is the school-board member who would seem to have the most to gain from out-of-boundary transfers: District IV’s William Lockridge, who represents Wards 7 and 8. The east-of-the-river wards have the lowest-performing schools as measured by test scores. Lockridge aligns himself philosophically with Cafritz, even though many of his active parents are more than willing to commute across the river to bring their children to other wards’ schools.

Where other students come from is an educated guess: Thanks to the sprawling nature of the transfers, the schools administration hasn’t produced data on how many out-of-boundary students there are, where they come from, and where they’re going. “We are adopting the policy with little information about whether it will achieve our professed goals,” wrote appointed school-board member Charles Lawrence in a memo to his colleagues. “Our decisions are based on anecdotal evidence rather than hard data. (What schools are out of boundary applicants moving from and where are they going?)”

Cafritz and Lockridge are taking aim at a constituency that proves its mettle each January. Parents who are willing to endure the midwinter elements on a schoolhouse stoop will be happy to campaign against out-of-boundary opponents such as Cafritz and Lockridge. If they can’t get their kids into good schools, they face a choice among charter schools, expensive private options, and pulling stakes out of the District altogether.

And these parents have a determined ally in District III school-board member Tommy Wells. “If you can only exercise choice [within the neighborhood], doesn’t that become self-defeating to a city that’s trying to improve itself?” asks Wells, whose district encompasses Wards 5 and 6 and loads of subpar schools. “I don’t think the answer is to prevent parents from getting into those schools.”

Wells has been lobbying colleagues on his proposal, which suggests that out-of-boundary slots be doled out in a lottery system and that priority would go, in turn, to sibling preference, feeder-school considerations, and proximity to the school in question. After two years, the board would re-examine the policy.

Schools officials will reserve a certain number of out-of-boundary slots to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act and other federal requirements.

On Monday, school-board members took up the out-of-boundary debate again. Those in attendance seemed to agree on a two-year lottery system with built-in preferences, but they had trouble nailing down the practicalities. At one point, Lockridge proposed distributing the remaining slots evenly across the four school-board districts. “William—aren’t you arguing against yourself a bit?” Cafritz said with a smile.

Wells disagreed with the apportionment plan. “The reason I have to oppose this is it disadvantages my students, and I believe it disadvantages Mr. Lockridge’s,” Wells argued.

“You speak for yourself,” Lockridge blurted out. “Don’t speak for me.”

“This is just torture,” Wells commented after the meeting. “Pure torture.”

Kind of like camping out at Oyster. The whole point of the board’s current review is to end the January parent lines, which have earned the school system an annual spate of bad press. Before year’s end, Cafritz and her colleagues hope to iron out a set of rules that would establish nonqueue parameters for determining any and all out-of-boundary slots in key schools. If they do not reach an agreement, the old system will remain in place.

D.C. parents might want to air out their sleeping bags and tents now.


* In his 16 years in office, Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. caught a lot of heat for spending too much time outside the District. There were a trip or two to Africa, a Southern California Super Bowl in 1988 while the city was pummeled by snow, and the spiritual retreat in 1996, not to mention various poorly explained absences.

Over the past few months, Mayor Anthony A. Williams has also racked up quite a few frequent-flier miles. Yet his destinations have been considerably less exotic: In October, Williams skipped out of town to Wichita, Kan.

Then, during the height of the Greater Southeast Community Hospital collapse two weeks ago, Williams jetted off to Owensboro. That’s in Kentucky, just off the Ohio River.

It’s all part of the mayor’s election strategy—to become second vice president of the National League of Cities, which has held events in Wichita and Owensboro in recent months.

The electoral showdown takes place this week in Salt Lake City, and Williams is headed to the Mormon capital to press the flesh. If he wins the second-veep post, he’ll be on track to become president in two years.

Williams advisers say the mayor has focused a lot of his energies on the League of Cities post. No word yet on whether the mayor will need to circulate petitions for his campaign.

* Monday night’s community forum at Greater Southeast Community Hospital featured Williams, Greater Southeast CEO Karen Dale, and a whole lot of speechifying by pro-D.C. General advocates.

Then Michael Johnson and his 10-year-old daughter Fatima approached the microphone. Fatima asked the mayor for the name of his personal health plan.

“I accept the sincerity with which you asked the question,” the mayor responded. He then went on to defend his administration’s D.C. Healthcare Alliance.

“What health-care plan do you have?” Fatima asked again.

The mayor again obfuscated. Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin P. Chavous then bugged Williams about the question, as well. “I’m answering it,” the mayor said. “The goal of the Healthcare Alliance is to give a real health-care plan….That means that they have hassles with their HMO like I do.”

This time, Michael Johnson pressed the mayor: “She asked you what is the health-care plan you have?”

For the record, says Williams spokesperson Tony Bullock, “the mayor and his wife are not eligible to receive benefits in the D.C. Healthcare Alliance.” CP

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