Behind the School Boundary Conversation

Last Thursday, Mayor Vincent Grey announced the city’s new school boundaries, ending a long, and at times impassioned, debate over how to structure public school enrollment in the city. The new regulations, the first significant re-organization of school boundaries in over forty years, assign each residential address to one neighborhood elementary, middle, and high school. The revised boundaries are an attempt to streamline and clarify the old enrollment system— where only 25 percent of students attended their neighborhood DCPS school— and to more evenly distribute students (and funding) between under- and over-enrolled district schools. The announced boundary changes were accompanied by a number of new, complementary school policies, several of which have important ramifications for the city’s children.

The debate over school boundaries, and which children can enroll in which public schools, is tied to issues of class and race and reflects some of the larger conversations in American public education over school choice. In the District, families who live in the (usually wealthier) neighborhoods that feed into the city’s top performing schools have sought to protect their access, which both benefits their child’s educational opportunities and also affects their property values (since buying a house in a certain neighborhood guarantees enrollment in the corresponding neighborhood school).

So are the new boundaries a positive for youth and children in the District, especially those living in impoverished neighborhoods?

Almost 70 percent of DCPS students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, and the city is struggling to meet the needs of this large population. If families choose to enroll their child in their neighborhood schools, rather than a charter alternative, the new boundaries would allow more resources to be invested into the city’s lower performing schools. However, quality schools require more than financial resources. Along with the boundary plan, city officials have introduced a new regulation requiring schools to give preference to children deemed at-risk for a quarter of the limited out–of-boundary slots at each DC public school. In an attempt to bolster educational opportunities for children living in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, the plan also guarantees that all children who are zoned to attend Title-1 elementary schools will be able to attend public preschool at that elementary school. Currently, all children enrolling in school must participate in a lottery for a slot.

While the new boundaries seem to cement the educational privileges of the wealthy families living in Northwest DC, the reality is more complex. As the city’s demographics continue to change, and young affluent residents are beginning to settle down and start families, District officials have an opportunity to integrate these new parents and their children into the public school system. Beyond the tax dollars and financial resources higher-income families provide the city and school system, socioeconomically and racially diverse classrooms can benefit all children, and are a more desirable alternative than a public school system that primarily serves low-income students. Research has generally shown that socioeconomically diverse classrooms improve the academic performance for low-income students, and schools with a high proportion of students living in poverty, or minority students, experience higher teacher turnover and have less qualified teachers. Fostering more diverse classrooms would likely help the city retain qualified teachers to serve children of all backgrounds. Finally, socioeconomically and racially diverse schools benefit students by giving them the opportunity to interact with others from different racial, ethnic, or class backgrounds.  

City officials must balance the desire to attract, and keep affluent families in the school system, with the need to ensure at-risk students have access to schools that give them the best chance to succeed. Finding the right balance between these two goals will not be easy. The District must ask itself if it’s doing enough to ensure that at-risk students have access to the city’s best schools. Increasing the supply of affordable housing in more affluent areas as well as the proportion of out of boundary slots dedicated to at-risk students would be a good start. At the same time, it is important to consider the benefits of racially and socioeconomically diverse schools. Sadly, adults in America largely self-segregate along racial, ethnic, and economic lines. At their core, schools can, and should be laboratories for social relations in a cohesive democratic society, exposing students to a diverse range of perspectives during their formative years. If we hope to build integrated community in this diverse city, public schools are a good place to start.      

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