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Both of the leading candidates in the DC mayoral race have come out against Mayor Gray’s new school assignment plan, saying school quality should be addressed first. But reassigning students may be the only real way to inspire parent confidence in less desirable schools.

Councilmember and mayoral candidate David Catania announced yesterday that he will “take action to delay” the new school assignment plan recently approved by Mayor Vincent Gray, saying that DC first needs to focus on improving school quality. And today his rival Muriel Bowser said that only the next mayor can address the “unanswered question” of “inherent inequalities across neighborhoods.”

Catania issued his statement as chair of the DC Council’s education committee, although it’s not yet clear what he can do in that capacity to delay implementation of the plan. Nor is it clear how Bowser could do that from her current seat on the Council. But obviously, if either is elected mayor he or she will have a lot more power in that regard, even if some of the planned changes will already be underway.

Catania also says he’s concerned there isn’t enough time to do the planning that’s necessary before the recommendations take effect a year from now, as scheduled. For that reason, he intends to take action to delay their implementation “until at least school year 2016-2017.”

Catania, Bowser, and others who insist that improvements in quality must come before reassignment have a point. Telling people they have to send their kids to a school they regard as inferior will not only make them angry, it risks driving them out of the system entirely.

But if the core issue is equalizing school quality across the District, it’s hard to see how the essence of the plan could be implemented as soon as 2016, as Catania suggested he might do. In fact, it’s impossible to predict when DC schools will be equal enough in quality that families will be happy to attend any school they’re assigned to.

The limits of improvement plans

Catania has called upon DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson to come up with a plan for school improvement. Catania spokesperson Brendan Williams-Kief elaborated on that by saying DCPS needs to be able to tell families who are being reassigned that “this is the new school leader, and this is the curriculum, and this is how it’s going to look.” The idea is that these plans will instill confidence in, for example, middle-class families who don’t want to leave the coveted Deal-Wilson feeder pattern for lesser schools.

But will they instill that confidence? Eastern High School, which sits on the eastern edge of largely middle-class Capitol Hill, was the target of just such a plan. The school, which had a troubled history and served an almost entirely low-income population from across the Anacostia River, was closed for a year and underwent a dazzling $77 million renovation.

It reopened 3 years ago with a dynamic new principal and an energetic new staff. Last year it began offering the rigorous International Baccalaureate Diploma program, just the kind of thing that should inspire confidence in nearby middle-class families and attract them to the school.

The school now has the second-highest test scores of all non-selective high schools in the District. But so far, it hasn’t attracted middle-class families from its neighborhood.  Eastern is still almost entirely low-income.

That’s partly because its boundaries largely extend to the east—all the way to the Prince George’s County border. Some Capitol Hill residents as close as 6 blocks from Eastern are zoned for Dunbar High School. Others in the neighborhood are actually zoned for Wilson, in Upper Northwest. But even those middle-class families who live within Eastern’s current catchment area aren’t sending their kids there.

The new assignment plan would extend Eastern’s boundaries all the way west instead of all the way east, giving some reality to its slogan, “The Pride of Capitol Hill.” But no doubt many Capitol Hill families who are now within Wilson’s boundaries are dismayed at the prospect of sending their kids to Eastern instead, despite the improvements there.

The importance of a critical mass

Maybe that’s because parents are looking for more than just a good plan, or even a good principal, faculty, and curriculum. They also want some assurance that there will be other kids like theirs at a school—and not just in terms of race and socioeconomic status, but in terms of academic preparation and achievement level.

And it’s a sad but undeniable fact that, at this point in our history, kids who are more affluent generally achieve at higher levels. Many people are working to change that fact, but there are no guarantees about when, or if, that will happen.

There are, of course, plans to improve DCPS schools. DCPS may not have formulated the plans in exactly the way Catania wants, but the fact is the school system is trying all sorts of things. Some of them are working better than others.

But if what middle-class parents want is a critical mass of middle-class kids at a school, the only way to get to that point may be through reassignment. Yes, some of the reassigned families may leave the system. But let’s hope that, given the lead time engineered into the plan, others will band together and commit to sticking around—and being, as the bumper sticker says, the change they wish to see.