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Letter: “Don’t Try to Redistribute School Quality, Create More of It”

Letter to the Editor
Dear Editors,

As discussed in these pages, the Deputy Mayor of Education (DME) has proposed combining Maury Elementary School (1250 Constitution Ave. NE) with Miner Elementary School (601 15 St. NE), much to the consternation of many parents and teachers who largely rejected a similar proposal in 2017.

Considering their satisfaction with their own schools, many parents are skeptical of potentially sweeping changes to leadership, staff, teachers, facilities and student body.

Nonetheless, the DME is empowered to do this through District law that requires the mayor to conduct a comprehensive review of school assignment policies and attendance boundaries every 10 years.

This seems reasonable enough. Over 10 years, neighborhoods could change considerably in terms of the number of school-age children or the convenience of travel to and from specific schools. These fall under the DME’s stated priorities to maintain neighborhood by-right schools as well as continuity and predictability to parents.

Maury and Miner performance, socio-economic status of students. Courtesy: J. Rothwell

Yet, the DME goes much further than considering these practical issues. The DME also prioritizes re-arranging the population of students based on the demographics of parents, whenever the proportionality is not to their liking. As a result, no parent can be confident that their children or future children will continue to have access to the by-right school they chose to live near, nor, in many cases, that their substantial real estate investment in a desirable boundary will not be arbitrarily devalued by a boundary change.

The message to DC parents—many of whom moved their family into a neighborhood based on its school—amounts to this: be prepared to leave, and if a school distinguishes itself academically, expect dramatic changes to the school or who gets to attend it. Your plans—however carefully laid—are subject to bureaucratic whims.

Maury, for example, was an entirely Black school from 1988 to 2004, just like Miner, and might have stayed that way if not for the creation of a pre-kindergarten program there in 2005, which attracted its first non-Black students. From 2005 to 2012, Maury rapidly went from being majority Black—as late as 2012—to only 21% Black in 2023. Families of all racial and ethnic groups have moved into the neighborhood in the last decade, purchasing and renting homes from mostly Black owners, many of whom had children who finished school. No bureaucratic mandate changed Maury from being imbalanced to balanced to somewhat imbalanced. It came down to the decisions of parents, which are now at risk of being undermined.

Courtesy J. Rothwell.

Many parents get the message that their decisions are of little value to the District’s leaders, and so they depart to the suburbs in large numbers as their children age. DC is home to just under 11% of the metropolitan area’s total population and 11.2% of its births.

Yet, as children age, DC loses larger and larger shares to the suburbs; DC is home to just 5.9% of 16-year-olds living in the metropolitan area. Parents want schools where most children are learning math and reading at grade level, as one can clearly see by comparing the number of lottery applications received by a school with proficiency rates. For every 10 percentage-point increase in its English Language Arts (ELA) proficiency rate, a school receives an additional 57 applications per year for preK3 enrollment.

Having failed to provide an environment of proficiency in the majority of its schools, DCPS’s strategy is to reallocate children from poor-performing schools to high-performing schools or combine the two, as with the Maury-Miner proposal.

Even setting aside its disregard for family choices, the limits of this approach are clear from the achievement data. On the PARCC exam, Maury’s economically disadvantaged students score similarly to Miner’s economically disadvantaged students in math and only somewhat higher in English. This pattern can be seen across the District.

The District’s strategy does nothing to enhance the inputs that affect learning: school and classroom management, learning resources, the skill of the teachers, access to tutoring for children who are falling behind, and the degree of engagement by parents in and out of school. Decades of groundbreaking research by Harvard University economist Roland Fryer shows when these things are created, they have powerful effects on student achievement, but they have not been tried at scale by DCPS and are not being considered by the DME.

High-performance and school-quality are not limited zero-sum resources to be redistributed whenever they get too high.

Instead of shuffling students across schools in accordance with parent demographics, the DME should focus on improving educational outcomes for the students who are not on track to acquire the skills needed to fully participate in society, using evidence-based approaches. This includes students at Maury, Miner, and every school in the District.

Jonathan Rothwell is a parent of children enrolled at Maury Elementary. He is the author of the 2019 book A Republic of Equals: A Manifesto for a Just Society, published by Princeton University Press. Contact him at jonathantrothwell@yahoo.com.

This letter reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the position of the Hill Rag. Do you have thoughts? Write editor@hillrag.com

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