As D.C. Public Schools reopen for this school year, the issue of redistricting public school boundaries has emerged as a hot-button topic for the D.C. mayoral candidates.

Last week, current mayor Vincent Gray approved a new D.C. Public Schools redistricting plan, intended for the 2015-2016 school year. By making the call to redraw the public school boundaries for the first time in 40 years, Gray spares the next mayor from having to make such a politically unpopular decision.

“I don’t have any political motives at the point, obviously,” he told The Washington Post. “The ball got punted down the field repeatedly. No more punting.”

In addition to redrawing the boundaries, Gray also included a provision in the plan that will give at-risk students preference in the lotteries for out-of-boundary spots.

Democratic mayoral nominee and D.C. Councilmember Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) voiced her opposition to the plan, 10 months in the making, on the grounds that there remains a high polarization in educational equality between D.C.’s public schools.

“The mayor’s plan on school boundary changes is not ready,” she said in a press statement. “His plan serves to exacerbate educational inequality and does little to move school reform forward faster.”

This position places Bowser at odds with the current mayor and with DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson (SFS ’92, GRD ’07), who has supported the redistricting plan.

D.C. Councilmember David Catania (I-At Large) (SFS ’90, LAW ’94) echoed Bowser’s sentiment.

“I have maintained all along that I cannot support a plan that moves students from higher-performing schools to lower-performing ones.  Yet the final recommendations do just that. In addition, the recommendations are silent as to how we intend to improve those lower-performing schools,” Catania said in a press release. “Asking parents and guardians to take this leap of faith without more is asking too much.”

Instead, he calls for a one-year delay on the redistricting to allow the city to improve some of the District’s lower-quality schools. Appointed chairman of the D.C. Council’s Education Committee 18 months ago, Catania has faced criticism from both Bowser and Henderson for his plan to delay reform.

Associate professor at the McCourt School of Public Policy Nora Gordon, who specializes in the economics of education, said that while that plan would be great in theory, she did not think that Catania could realistically make too much of a change in only a year.

“I think that would help that issue but I don’t think he’s going to do it in a year. I think that people have been trying to make those schools better for a long time,” she said.

Catania also stressed the importance of creating a sense of accountability within D.C. schools, specifically through the employment of objective evaluations of public schools, something Gordon said has already been happening over the past few years.

“I think a lot of the things that DCPS have been doing are moving in the right direction, trying to increase accountability,” Gordon said.

Bowser, however, has yet to provide specifics on her solution to D.C.’s long-standing overcrowding problem.

Two-term Board of Education member Carol Schwartz, also running as an independent, wrote in her Summary of Education Position Paper that she would “accept the need for new boundaries, but make modifications where necessary.”

In Gordon’s opinion, redistricting, while politically unpopular, is a necessary evil in order to solve the District’s overcrowding problem.

“Well some sort of redistricting is necessary because it’s my understanding that some of the schools are overcrowded, and I can see why no candidate wants to support any sort of redistricting plan because any redistricting plan is going to leave some voters unhappy,” she said.

She explained that redistricting can lead to devaluation of property, increasing such a plan’s unpopularity.

“You’re buying a house and you’re buying the right to go to the school, and if you change, basically you’re taking away property that somebody bought, somebody gets unhappy. Somebody has to lose with redistricting,” Gordon said.

Additionally, if students are redistricted into lower quality and less desirable schools, those who can afford it will seek other options, Gordon said.

“I guess the big question is whether those students would remain in DCPS or whether they would go to private school or move to Maryland,” she said.

Students living in most parts of Georgetown currently attend Hyde-Addison Elementary, Hardy Middle School and then Wilson High School. Under the new boundary plan, residents from the area around Burleith would also follow this path.

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