New Mayor May Have Little Room to Change School-Assignment Policies
Yesterday, Mayor Vince Gray officially adopted a sweeping set of changes to the system that assigns D.C. students to public schools. But by the time the new school boundaries and policies go into effect in the 2015-2016 school year, Gray will no longer be mayor, raising the question of what other D.C. politicians and officials can do to alter the process.
The answer is not much, at least not without plenty of hassle. Most of the changes aren't subject to D.C. Council approval, with the exception of a provision that would that require charter schools to grant 25 percent of their available seats to at-risk students. (That policy would necessitate a change to D.C. law, which the Council would need to pass.) Otherwise, there probably isn't much room for Council interference.
The greater risk—or opportunity, depending on your perspective—comes from the next administration, likely to be led by either Democratic nominee Muriel Bowser or independent candidate David Catania. Bowser certainly has an incentive to try to make a change. The neighborhood perhaps most upset by the changes is Crestwood, which got moved from well-regarded Alice Deal Middle School and Woodrow Wilson High School to lower-performing schools east of Rock Creek Park, and it's in her home Ward 4. Catania was likewise critical of some of the changes when a version of them was proposed this summer. Spokesmen for both Bowser and Catania said they won't be commenting on the final set of changes until they've had a chance to review them.
But the lottery for students to apply for schools that they can't attend by right for the 2015-2016 school year opens this December, before the new mayor is sworn in. That means that in order to change the assignment policies, the new mayor would likely have to shut down the lottery after thousands of families had already signed up and then reopen it under the current assignment system, since there probably wouldn't be enough time to craft an entirely new system. It could be a logistical nightmare and a political challenge.
Alternatively, the new mayor might be able to tinker with the boundaries or policies without closing the lottery. But in this case, broad changes to the assignment system would likely be impossible, since they'd disrupt the calculus behind the lottery.
Several residents I've spoken with who were critical of the changes when they were proposed this summer said the impression they had from talking to Bowser and Catania was that both candidates might try to alter the proposed system.
But in an interview yesterday, Gray cautioned his successor against making changes without a good reason for doing so. "I think that they will have to make that decision for themselves, but if you’re going to do something different, you ought to have a strong rationale for it," he said. "If you don’t like this, then why do you want to do that? And hopefully that’s what the public will require of anybody who proposes any change to it."
Map from the office of the Deputy Mayor for Education