Photo by Darrow Montgomery.


A little over a month ago, the Washington Post ran a map of how proposed boundary reforms would adjust various D.C. public schools’ feeder patterns, and my neighborhood erupted. The Petworth Parents email list was suddenly afire with messages from parents trying to kickstart coalitions and campaigns to keep their kids and homes in-boundary for in-demand schools like Powell Elementary, rather than Bruce-Monroe at Park View or Barnard or Truesdell or Raymond or fill-in-the-blank. Mothers on the playground literally wrung their hands while worrying over how the proposals could “change the character of our [strong, relatively gentrified elementary] school.” In most cases, these folks’ kids were already admitted and enrolled at the higher-performing schools. They were just concerned that the schools could weaken if the boundary shifts increased the percentage of less-wealthy students who had in-boundary rights to attend.

I’ve been watching it all with equal parts amusement and shock. My wife and I played the pre-K lottery because we can’t afford an apartment (let alone house) large enough for us and our two kids within the existing boundaries of any of D.C.’s handful of strong elementary schools. Since our in-boundary school is relatively weak, changes in the school boundaries don’t matter much for us. (The revised map DCPS put out last week in response to the reaction to the original proposal won’t do much to make weak schools stronger, either.)

My (nearly) 3-year-old son was admitted to our 11th choice in the lottery (which lets you rank up to 12)—a Ward 4 DCPS elementary school segregated by race and class. Nearly 100 percent of the students’ families qualify for free and reduced lunch. Nearly 100 percent of the students are African-American or Latino. While it wasn’t our first choice, we weren’t especially troubled—we included the school on our lottery list because we decided it was somewhere we would feel comfortable sending our (white, middle-class) kid. It wasn’t our optimal outcome, in other words, but perfectly fine.

So I was relatively satisfied with our school—until I had a few conversations with folks with kids going to more popular elementary schools in the neighborhood. Turns out they have really strong feelings about how important it is that we enroll at our assigned school. I thought this was weird, and I chafed a bit at the form the argument took: “Oh hey, we’re having a great DCPS experience over at Powell, so you’ll love this DCPS school that is not Powell. Also, charters are horrible and tools of the Koch brothers.”

Then one day, during a conversation with a smug, satisfied DCPS elementary school parent, it all clicked. MacFarland Middle School closed last year, and there’s been a concerted effort to pressure DCPS to renovate and replace it (and in fact, the new DCPS boundary proposal would do just that). Upper-middle-class Ward 4 parents with relatively strong DCPS elementary school assignments, either purchased via in-boundary property or won through the lottery, have this in mind when they’re begging parents assigned to relatively weak DCPS elementary schools to tough it out. Otherwise, their bargaining position is much weaker vis-a-vis the new middle school. They want an International Baccalaureate program and glitzy facilities and etc…but if there’s only one strong Ward 4 elementary school feeding the new middle school, it’s going to be harder to get DCPS to provide all that.

Demand for DCPS elementary schools varies considerably—and the lottery results roughly track student achievement. After this year’s lottery, Powell had 148 students on its 3-year-old pre-K waitlist. The data on nearby schools is telling: Bruce-Monroe Elementary had 47, West Education Campus had 41, Barnard Elementary had 23, Raymond Education Campus had 11, and Truesdell Education Campus had zero (with 11 unfilled seats). There’s a reason that President Barack Obama announced this year’s budget proposal at Powell and not Truesdell.

If middle-class families like mine stay ambivalent about our low-performing DCPS elementary schools while eyeing Ward 4’s top-notch charters, our fellow yuppies at Powell won’t have the critical mass to push the district into building a hot new middle school. They need lottery losers and relatively less affluent middle-class families to put up with DCPS’ weaker options in order to keep their relatively stronger position. They need families who look to be served relatively poorly by our elementary school option to stay in so that their families can retain their advantage. That way, their strong elementary school becomes a higher value commodity because it feeds into a strong middle school.

And, hoo boy, debates over this as-yet unformed middle school suffer from the same “separate but equal” dog whistle problem as the “change the character of our elementary school” line. Ward 4’s playgrounds are awash with proposals to set up a “multitrack” school with the aforementioned International Baccalaureate program and a “more vocationally oriented option.” Can you guess which track the white, wealthy parents want for their children? Can you guess which of these tracks would get more attention and resources from DCPS?

Their outreach continued through May. A few weeks ago, a group calling itself the Ward 4 Educational Alliance tweeted me (and three others): “#Ward4 parents: what would it take for families to invest in a new MS at MacFarland?”

“Strong elementary schools throughout Ward 4,” I replied.

https://twitter.com/ConorPWilliams/status/466334626039214080

And that about covers the disconnect (by the way, they didn’t respond). For parents like me, who struck out in the lottery and can’t afford the high mortgage hurdle of buying access to a great DCPS elementary school west of Rock Creek Park, a quality middle school is a second-order problem. My son would have to navigate eight years in a chronically low-performing elementary school before he’d benefit from any glitzy middle school programming. I don’t care if the middle school offers internationally themed dual-immersion Spanish-English curricula and locally sourced, homemade food in the cafeteria. I don’t care if it has a helipad, solar panels, a holistic wellness center, and a college placement office: We’ll worry about middle schools once we’re sure we’re staying through, say, kindergarten. The charter lottery and Montgomery County are ever-present temptations. Plenty of Ward 4 parents are interested in leaving DCPS—Ward 4’s Latin American Montessori Bilingual Public Charter School had 533 3-year-olds on its pre-K waitlist this year (note: LAMB also has a campus in Ward 5).

Ward 4’s middle school coordination problem offers some lessons for the school boundary fight, as well as the broader project of improving education in D.C. It’s going to be tough to get young families to unite around protecting existing in-boundary school privileges. After all, many middle- and low-income parents see boundaries as barriers: They prevent us from sending our kids to good schools nearby. By contrast, many parents with fewer resources see citywide lotteries and open enrollment as ways to access a quality education even if we can’t purchase a high-quality public education by means of a half-million dollar (or more!) mortgage. Yes, lotteries are frustrating—only about 60 percent of lottery participants wound up in one of their top three choices this year. Still, they offer more hope than an ironclad link between my paycheck and my children’s public schools. Whatever else these lotteries do, they give families of all classes a chance at enrolling at a school of their choice.

I research and write about public education for a living, and I’m far from confident that I know what parents like me—and my neighbors satisfied with their DCPS schools—should do about their various education situations. The ethics are complicated. But the empirics aren’t. My family’s educational needs and priorities scarcely overlap with these luckier parents. They’re concerned with building a new middle school—we’re worried about our elementary school situation.

That’s why the coming fights over neighborhood boundaries, access to quality schools, and elementary to secondary feeder patterns look as likely as anything to realign political coalitions throughout our ward—and the District.

While I understand these lucky parents’ anxieties, I’m still astonished to hear what so many ostensibly liberal folks have to say on these topics. It’s perhaps a bit tin-eared that they’re pressuring middle-class families like mine to push through our ineffective DCPS elementary schools to help them preserve their advantages. But when it comes to my kid, an ineffective school is a manageable frustration. While his parents can’t afford to purchase him a better public education in D.C., he’s still awash in privilege. When it comes to children from low-income families, an ineffective school is often an unavoidable catastrophe. That’s why it’s offensive that these exceptionally fortunate families are so concerned with insulating their children as much as possible from D.C.’s neediest students.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery