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In August, Mayor Vince Gray unveiled his plan for the first comprehensive redrawing in more than four decades of the boundaries that determine which public schools D.C.’s students have a right to attend. Residents fumed or sighed in relief as they learned whether they’d lose or retain access to the best-regarded schools, like Woodrow Wilson High School. Immediately, the plan became a campaign issue, with candidates David Catania and Muriel Bowser resolving, respectively, to delay and revamp the plan, and Carol Schwartz offering partial support.
Less clear was how, exactly, they wanted to change it. Last week, I sat down with the three candidates at venues of their choosing that reflect, in some way, the ethos of their campaigns—over tea at the Hay-Adams with Bowser; in Catania’s Dupont campaign headquarters as he wore red sneakers and purple socks stitched with cats; over carrot cake and a glass of milk at Kramerbooks with Schwartz—to ask them what they would do to bolster the city’s long-maligned public schools. Here’s what they had to say. (Responses have been edited for clarity and space—the garrulous Schwartz’s and the impassioned Catania’s more so than the pithy Bowser’s.)
What’s the single biggest problem facing D.C.’s public schools?
Bowser: I think equalizing educational quality across all eight wards of the city.
Catania: People’s interest in oversimplifying the subject with questions like, “What’s the single biggest problem?” Not to be snarky. But these are very serious complex problems, and we live in the age of Twitter where people want solutions in 140 characters. And the fact of the matter is, this is hard. We have failure steeped in a legacy of complacency. So the biggest problem, if I could, has been a lack of leadership. That’s not an attack on our previous superintendents or our present chancellor. It’s the lack of political leadership.
Schwartz: I think it is the disparity in the test scores. One of the first things I’d do is jump in and see what we can do about it. I’m not one of these, “Let’s get a committee together and start having endless meetings.” I’m much more a, “Get the job done.”
What would you change about Gray’s school-boundary proposal?
Bowser: I think it exacerbates inequality across the city, and so the boundaries themselves need to be looked at again.
How could they be drawn more fairly?
Bowser: Well I think we all should be concerned if we codify lines down the geographic boundaries that have historically divided our city and our neighborhoods.
Bowser: The boundaries that are on the table say if you live east of the river, you don’t have a right to schools west of the river.
Do you really think you can draw boundaries that would neither anger people nor further entrench geographic disparities?
Bowser: I am willing to have a team of experts taking a fresh look at it on Jan. 2 and coming back to me with some recommendations, and they will know what my priorities are. I don’t know that I have anything else to say about it.
Catania: I called for a one-year delay just so we could have a public discussion and digest the things upon which there is broad consensus and those things where there are not.
Specifically, what would you change?
Catania: I think we’re talking about half the equation. Why aren’t we talking about how to improve schools? Why is it that these things are happening in a mutually exclusive way?
But do you agree that the lines need to be redrawn?
Catania: I disagree with the notion that it’s an either/or proposition, that we have to do it all now or we’re not going to do it ever. I think we do need to strengthen our feeder systems, and there are opportunities to redraw lines on the map, but I just reject the notion that you have to do this because we’ve spent a lot of time doing it and we haven’t done it in 40 years.
The schools won’t be fixed in a year.
Catania: That is not what I’m saying. I’m saying that having meaningful school improvement plans, obviously it’s going to take more than a year to execute, but it’s time to begin the process. I’m not doing a dance. This is not a constituency dance. This is born out of: How do we thoughtfully improve our schools?
But at the end of that year, you do want to redraw the lines, right?
Catania: A path forward, yes. I do.
You’ve said you can’t support any plan that would move students from better to worse schools. Would you not support any plan that would move kids from Wilson?
Catania: Even the plan that is proposed has grandfathering. We all appreciate the grandfathering, and I might make it more than what is proposed. I might extend it a couple of years. But during that grandfathering period, that gives us a runway of a set number of years to have school improvement plans and resources, and use it to make them equal. Now what does equal mean? Does equal mean exactly the same? It doesn’t mean identical, it means equal. It’s about having schools that provide children with the same bandwidth of opportunity.
Schwartz: I asked for a delay because I wanted to have input. It seems like they are not going to delay. I like out-of-boundary placements, because I think we want an integrated school system. I’m afraid with some of the boundary changes, there’s not going to be much integration. Now I think they made room with the out-of-boundary placements. But at elementary school it’s only 10 percent, 15 for middle schools, and 20 for high schools. That’s not a lot. I would probably make them more. Instead of 10 percent, 15; 15, 20; 20, 25.
Did you have concerns about the boundaries themselves?
Schwartz: I was most concerned about the west-of-Rock-Creek-Park boundaries. I also was kind of worried about the Eastern [High School] boundary not taking students from Anacostia.
The lottery for out-of-boundary school placements next year begins in December, before the new mayor takes office. How, procedurally, would you make these changes?
Bowser: I don’t know that we can stop it if the mayor is bent on doing it, so I have to focus on what my actions will be on day one.
Catania: There are legislative remedies between now and then. I definitely don’t want to do it this month. I want us to wait until after we’ve had an election and then we can hit the pause button.
So if you’re elected in November, you’d take legislative action in November?
Which would require…
Catania: Emergency legislation.
…a supermajority to override Gray’s veto.
Are you confident your colleagues would support that?
Catania: Oh, I think so.
Schwartz: I really haven’t thought about that. I’m running a campaign, and I’m literally running a campaign. I don’t have 100 different hired people, ’cause I’m not taking all that corporate LLC money.
What would be your message to parents who would lose access to their preferred schools under the plan—say, Crestwood residents who would get shifted from Wilson to lower-performing Roosevelt High School?
Bowser: I’ve told the people in Crestwood the same thing I’ve told the people in Ward 7: that I don’t support the plan that’s on the table. They know that I’m very committed to Roosevelt. They know too that I’m very committed to opening a new middle school on that campus as well. And that’s where we are.
Catania: Well, that may be part of the line drawing that I don’t support. Again, when we’re taking our year, we’re going to sit down with the community and reason through [the proposals], and it may be something that for a good many reasons we don’t support, and they’re reasons that are sensible and based in law. When you’re trying to maintain the diversity of Wilson, keeping the community east of the park in the Wilson boundary has a social good. It promotes diversity. At this point, I am not supportive of removing that community from Wilson.
So would you consider moving west-of-the-park neighborhoods out of Wilson to relieve crowding?
Catania: We may need another west-of-the-park high school. If you look at the Wilson boundary, it’s enormous. Over the long term, it is unsustainable. But we need a more measured execution that doesn’t spook parents.
Schwartz: I don’t know, and maybe I’ll tweak it so that at least some of those kids get accommodated. I think they’re trying to accommodate overcrowding at some of these schools. But if there is some room after doing the percentages and all that, why not accommodate some of those children, at least for a period of time until we get the high-quality schools in every neighborhood?
What’s the role of charter schools as you try to make traditional public schools more appealing?
Bowser: Charters are fully half of our system. They have almost half of our kids. That requires coordination. It can’t be unfettered. In some areas, and I think it’s approaching that in the area that I represent, where there are so many great quality public charter schools, it may put such a pressure on the by-right school that it doesn’t exist. And maybe that’s a good case. But it’s not a good case if you live across the street from it and you can’t go there. So I would never say that you draw a boundary for a charter school, but I do think there’s a way to look at the lottery and weight preferences for nearby neighbors for a portion of the seats.
Catania: How do you create trust? You don’t do it by putting your thumb on the scale. More planning, coordination, and win-wins, I support.
Schwartz: Parents can go to the charter schools, they can go to the private schools, they can go to the suburbs. I don’t want any of the above. I want them to stay with us. And I’m going to make it appealing to stay with us.
There’s been a snowball effect as low-performing schools, particularly in the eastern part of the city, lose students and thereby lose resources and appeal, and sometimes eventually close. How do you stop that?
Bowser: This is why I’m committed to appointing a deputy mayor that’s going to focus on underserved areas. I think I’m going to call it the Deputy Mayor for Greater Economic Opportunity. Because there are communities that advocate for themselves just fine. There are other communities that don’t have that capacity. Are we better served as a city if the well-heeled win the day every day? No, we’re not.
Catania: There’s a motivation [for families to turn to charters or the out-of-boundary lottery] as long as we don’t improve schools. The efforts to improve schools in east Washington have been nibbling around the edges. How do you improve schools in east Washington unless you properly resource, unless you have a greater emphasis on being at grade level, unless you tackle special education? It’s not a paint job. It’s not a new roof. I am confident if you offer parents an equal to or greater opportunity at a traditional public school, they are not eager to walk past the traditional public school into the charter school.
Schwartz: I intend to make each of these [struggling traditional public] schools so appealing that people will want to attend. I think those schools may have to have a magnet portion of them, where they have special programs. I would work very hard to make each and every one of them, as quickly as possible, appealing.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery