Planning for Schools AND Saving Them, Part 2: The MFP And Boundaries Process

By the end of 2023, DC will likely have both a proposal for new DCPS boundaries as well as a new iteration of its master facilities plan (MFP). As both are integral to the future of DCPS, it’s useful to look at how we got here—and where we might be going. This is the second of a series of blog posts exploring that topic—here, by way of looking at the MFP and boundaries process. The first post examined DCPS closures. The other posts will discuss charter school expansion grants and changing zoning rules for charter schools.

The MFP and Boundaries Process

This year, the deputy mayor for education (DME) has contracted for both a study of boundaries for schools of right in DC as well as a new iteration of the master facilities plan (MFP).

The last boundary study was completed about 10 years ago and, per legislation passed last year, is required to be updated henceforth every 10 years, while the last MFP was completed in 2018. Changes as a result of either are slated to start in fall 2025, per the DME’s press release here.

Boundaries determine what school your child has a right to attend. DCPS is the school system of right in DC, providing seats for all students in particular boundaries. While all students thusly have assigned schools they have a right to attend, they may choose to attend other publicly funded schools via the school lottery, whether for out of bounds seats for other schools of right or for seats at schools of choice, whether DCPS or charters. Each year, a subset of DC students participates in the lottery; the lottery for SY22-23, for instance, had about 10,000 participants (per p. 16 of the slide deck here). [CORRECTION 3/31/23: The lottery had about 22,000 participants; the graph here was for the participants only as of the end of January–not the total, which is on p. 14 here. That said, it is still a (relatively small) subset of DC’s total student population.]

The idea of re-doing boundaries every decade is to ensure that facilities and feeder systems of right (from elementary to middle to high school) are not oversubscribed or underutilized, such that every student’s seats of right are secured.

And the idea of having the MFP and boundary study done together is to ensure that one informs the other. The goals of both are related, as articulated by their authorizing legislation (here for boundaries and here for the MFP).

In that vein, the DME awarded both contracts (for the boundaries study and MFP) to one group consisting of Perkins Eastman as leader, along with WXY Studio, LINK Strategic Partners, and The D.C. Policy Center.

Tomorrow, March 30, from 6-7:30 pm, the volunteer advisory committee on boundaries will begin meeting at the Martin Luther King Jr. library downtown at 901 G Street NW.

Comprised of 27 parents, community members, and DC officials from across DC selected by the deputy mayor for education (DME), the committee will meet for an unspecified number of times to discuss recommendations for revising DCPS boundaries. While it is possible to attend in person, a livestream is also apparently available (I confirmed with DME staff that meetings will be recorded and thus made available to the public).

Here is the roster of the committee; here is the general information page about the boundaries process; and here is a link to join the advisory committee meeting.

While both the MFP and boundary study are deeply consequential, their consequences have been thus far only indirectly stated to the public. That is by design. For one, no recent capital decisions have been informed by the MFP, because nearly all have been done in private by way of private conversations among public servants. For another, DCPS appears to be written out of the boundary process the DME has outlined, despite its central role in securing education rights. And for yet another, most of the private organizations selected to work on both the MFP and boundary study have vested interests in the outcomes—as do the DC politicians and officials who depend on the political power of school privatizing money.

Editing Out DCPS Schools Of Right

Last year, the DC Council passed legislation to codify decadal review of DCPS boundaries. The law outlines the following:

“In calendar year 2023 and every 10 years thereafter, the Mayor shall complete a comprehensive review of District of Columbia Public Schools (“DCPS”) student assignment policies. The review shall include and examination of and recommendations regarding the following:

(1) Student assignments to schools by right based on DCPS attendance zones and feeder pathways, including:
(A) Attendance zone boundaries;
(B) School feeder patterns; and
(C) By right admission to a zoned school for preK-3 and preK-4 students;
(2) Whether there is adequate capacity in zoned DCPS facilities, including whether there is adequate capacity at each of the following grade levels:
(A) Early childhood;
(B) Elementary school;
(C) Middle school; and
(D) High school; and
(3) Whether there is equitable access among District students to high-quality DCPS schools, including:
(A) Standards for out-of-boundary minimums;
(B) Placement priorities for students designated at-risk;
(C) Specialized and selective programs and schools;
(D) Modes of transportation by which students travel to school; and
(E) Other factors related to equitable access as considered appropriate by the Deputy Mayor for Education.”

Now look at what the goals of the boundary study and MFP are, per that press release on both:

Boundary goals:

–Students have clear assignments to schools of right based on DCPS attendance zones and feeder pathways;
–There is adequate capacity in the geographically zoned DCPS facilities at each grade level (Pre-Kindergarten, Elementary, Middle, and High), including feeder pathways, taking current and future population and enrollment trends into account; and
–There is equitable access among District students to high-quality public schools.

MFP goals:

–Ensure school facilities are efficiently utilized.
–Ensure every student is enrolled in a modern state of the art facility.
–Ensure every student’s daily experience is in a well-maintained facility.

Let us look at this more closely:

–There is nothing in the first item of the DME’s boundary list above that says that “schools of right” are only DCPS schools, as they are now. In fact, the law itself doesn’t specify that “schools of right” are DCPS schools, either! This opens the door to charter schools of right and charters with neighborhood preference—which as you may recall was actually bandied about 7 years ago, by way of then-DME Jennifer Niles with her merry band of privatizers on the cross sector task force (yes, really—read about it here).

That by right charters and charters with neighborhood preference went nowhere then doesn’t mean those ideas will still go nowhere: One of the DME staffers who created materials for, and helped lead, that discussion 7 years ago, Jennifer Comey, is still in the DME’s office and will have a big role in both the boundary process as well as the MFP.

–Underscoring this possible sleight of hand, the second goal articulated by the DME mentions “geographically zoned DCPS facilities.”

This is odd language to describe our by right schools as they currently exist, because these are currently only DCPS schools for which geography is one part of their existence. Their defining feature is education rights.

But it is not odd language if the DME is contemplating other by right schools or other geographic preferences. In that case, referencing geography, not rights, makes sense.

–The third goal articulated by the DME—”equitable access among District students to high-quality public schools”—is actually not in DC law. What IS mentioned in DC law is this (boldface mine): “equitable access among District students to high-quality DCPS schools.”

Now, the dropping of “DCPS” from the DME’s articulation of this goal of the boundary process might have been an editorial oversight.

But all three of these together are not oversights, but world views.

And the world view of this DME, like his predecessor, is very much aligned with school privatization, away from municipal control and education rights. It is in fact why our DME was hired—and why he was confirmed in 2018 by the DC council despite his horrible track record in privatizing schools in Philadelphia and his anti-public actions here in DC. That world view also comports with the DME sending his own children to private school.

Given such anti-public sentiments, it is not surprising that the role of the public in both the MFP and boundary process appears tenuous, limited, and unclear.

For instance, the press release linked above says the following for the boundaries work:

“There will be three rounds of District-wide townhalls, an Advisory Committee, engagement with school-specific communities, a Boundaries-specific website for information sharing and collecting feedback, and ongoing participation at stakeholder meetings and local events. These processes are modeled on similar engagements conducted during the 2013-14 review process.”

Here’s what that press release says for public involvement in the MFP: 

“Similar to the Boundary Study, the MFP 2023 will reflect community input through extensive feedback opportunities, including town halls, direct school engagement, and ongoing public feedback.”

The press release goes on to note that the DME “will hold three rounds of District-wide town hall for both the Boundary Study and MFP 2023 over the course of the year (spring, early summer, and fall). School communities and residents will be encouraged to attend.”

(So: Are the townhalls for the boundaries study the same as the ones for the MFP? Who knows?)

The DME’s website on the boundary process itself has slightly more detailed information:

“The DME will hold three rounds of citywide townhalls during the project. The townhalls will be open to the public and information regarding the townhalls will be posted on this site.

–Launch (spring 2023): DME will solicit feedback about vision, goals, and principles for public school assignment and choice policies, build public awareness, and share timelines and processes.
–Early summer 2023: DME will share and solicit feedback on drafted student assignment policies and DCPS boundary and feeder scenarios.
–Fall 2023: DME will share and solicit feedback on revised student assignment policies and DCPS boundary and feeder scenarios.”

It also says this for “specific school communities” (boldface mine): 

“DME will engage with school communities that may be significantly affected by any boundary or feeder pattern revision scenario. These will be determined as the scenarios are developed and information becomes available from the Master Facilities Plan 2023. Additionally, DME will provide a web-based planning tool that will allow community members to explore the potential impacts of various boundary and feeder scenarios.”

Whether this means school communities will have meaningful engagement and input before those “revision scenarios” occur, or whether this is just an exercise in after-the-fact damage control, remains unclear.

But one thing is very clear: facilities will inform boundaries.

Unsurprisingly, the public has no way to directly ask questions at advisory committee meetings for the boundaries work.

Instead, the public is encouraged to ask questions and give comments to the advisory committee and others via this form. Interestingly, of the two places I can see on that form where one can write one’s thoughts (one solicits questions for the committee), one is in response to the following question (boldface mine): 

“The 2023 Boundary and Student Assignment study will examine DCPS attendance zones and feeder pathways and student assignment policies. What opportunities do you think there are with this study for the District to improve students’ access to high quality public schools?”

As with the prior dropping of the “DCPS” from the goal of the boundaries work, this signals a push to erase the very idea of rights in education, pivoting instead to a focus on so-called “high quality schools” that are, importantly, not specifically identified as DCPS schools as DC code calls for.

Again, any one of these things could be attributed to an editorial oversight.

But together, they paint a very different view of school planning than what DC code, an adherence to education rights, OR DC taxpayers deserve. Namely, they erase the very idea of DCPS schools of right entirely in favor of a privatizing agenda where all schools are interchangeable widgets.

While this is hardly a new view, here in DC it is based almost entirely on one premise:

DCPS Facilities Lead Planning—For Private Profit

While sadly legendary every year, age and decrepitude of DCPS facilities have often been used as a pretext for closure—sometimes without regard to school enrollment.

For example, Peabody has always been fully enrolled—but nonetheless found itself on a closure list due to its age and condition (yes, really). Similarly aged schools Chamberlain and Armstrong were closed despite enrollments of 400 and 1400 (!), respectively, while Old Hardy was closed despite being at 101% of capacity (yes, really).

More recently, underenrollment has been a bellwether for closure, such that for schools with persistently low enrollments that have also been passed over for renovations (hey there, Hart, Moten, Plummer, Kramer, Malcolm X!), the danger is now much more direct.


Who will invest in renovating a DCPS neighborhood school with a declining or low enrollment while city coffers and student population don’t grow even as seats and schools of choice do?

While charter co-locations have been floated or actually tried, they have not been an unmitigated success story for the traditional public schools they take space from. Perhaps unsurprisingly, DC’s comprehensive plan has called not only for charter co-location in underenrolled DCPS neighborhood schools, but also developers having a piece of the action, too.

There is also the baleful effect of inequity, as neighborhoods east of the Anacostia have the most DCPS buildings without comprehensive renovations. And despite having the largest populations of kids in DC, those neighborhoods also have had extensive closures of schools.

The upshot is not only that many existing DCPS schools of right in swathes of the city do not have enough seats to accommodate all students in bounds for them, but that there is essentially no swing space for anything. That in turn makes any renovations more complicated. (Just ask Garfield how its mid-year move to what seems to be DCPS’s only swing space in SE, Davis, went after Bard vacated it; Davis is more than 2 miles and a ward away from Garfield.)

And that’s not even mentioning downward pressure on enrollments due to expanding capacity in Ward 3 for the sake of the diversity of those schools (yes, really)—all without any mention in any MFP.

So, now one must also ask:

Who is going to redo boundaries in Ward 3 after DC has invested more than $100 MILLION to expand capacity there?

Recall that in the last boundary effort, our mayor intervened to ensure that schools outside Ward 3 would be part of the feeder system into (the former) Wilson HS (yes, really). That change ensured that nearly half the land area of DC feeds into ONE DCPS high school—which is, uh, crazy.

But now DC is building not one but TWO new schools and expanding TWO existing ones for that same area, without changing feeders, boundaries, or out of bounds slots, even while most of the schools would not be overcrowded if out of bounds slots were limited.

All of that means that facilities will indeed inform boundaries, as the DME makes clear.

Outside Ward 3, however, the facilities that will inform boundaries are not new and/or expanded buildings, but decrepit, underenrolled DCPS schools of right.

That is because those buildings represent two beautiful things to education reform advocates who have outsize influence on DC education policy:

–Ready-made, purpose-built facilities that are both ripe for closure and would cost nonprofits more money to build from scratch than they would be willing to spend and
–A captured school-age population, with the school buildings strategically located where large populations of families with children live.

So it is that for charter schools and school privatizers, DCPS schools of right in any condition are literal gold mines.

In addition to those two important points above, those decrepit facilities come with the added benefit of no imperative to renovate them well (or at all) or to fill them to capacity as there is with DCPS. If, say, your charter school rents a huge DCPS building and fills it less than halfway, it need only sublet the rest to other charters and make a nice bundle (yes, really). And since there is no standard for DC charter facilities, decrepitude, shoddy renovations, or nonfunctional spaces in the DCPS facilities charters rent can be overlooked by every single DC official charged with oversight of school facilities.

And that’s not even getting into lease terms from DC that often provide an outsize benefit to those private charter entities–not to mention no tracking of DC’s facilities fees such that renovations to the schools by charter leaseholders are not simply undone by the next charter coming in, whenever that is.

Such waste is literally all on DC taxpayers, since it is done largely with facilities fees and sometimes enabled by low-cost loans to charters through the issuance of DC revenue bonds as well as grants through DC’s office of the state superintendent of education (OSSE). And, because there is no planning, no one knows where these optional schools will be at any given moment since it’s all on their time (but, importantly, not on their dime).

Yet more waste of DC taxpayer dollars is in the one-way nature of DCPS school re-use. That is, legislation clearly outlines how DCPS schools go from closure to charters. But the path BACK to DCPS is not outlined anywhere—though it actually does happen. And when it does, it seems to involve profit to the private entities involved.

Burdick, for example, was a DCPS school that was closed, given over to a charter, then given back to DCPS as Dorothy Height—while the charter entity involved simply left after a fiscal scandal.

So tell me: Why was Burdick closed *at all*?

Birney also was a former DCPS school that was closed and given over to charters, only to be turned back into a DCPS school (Excel)—but not before at least one private nonprofit was paid off millions for its lease, which AFAIK is not accounted for anywhere.

So tell me: Why was Birney closed *at all*?

Military Road school was also a former DCPS school that was actually sold to a charter (LAMB), which then sold it back to DC.

So tell me: Why was the Military Road school closed *at all*?

The most obvious answer to those questions appears to be this:

Because the public, and the education rights of DC children, have not been the focus or the purpose of DC school planning.

Instead, the purpose of DC school planning appears to be two-fold:

–to provide fully renovated, well-resourced, and expanded schools of right for the one area of the city where test scores are highest (Ward 3), which allows more students to attend schools with high test scores and thereby appears to improve DCPS’s “performance” (or “quality”) overall while also appearing to provide “equity” and “diversity” and

–to secure profit for private entities through the use of old DCPS facilities outside Ward 3, by way of promoting school choice and schools of choice.

Now, given that the supply of former DCPS buildings has been dwindling, the pressure to close more DCPS schools and turn them over to charters is immense.

So it appears we have some answers to these questions:

1. Who will invest in renovating a DCPS neighborhood school with a declining or low enrollment while city coffers and student population don’t grow even as seats and schools do?

Only charters, because it’s not their money they’re investing, but ours, while they get to set the terms of that investment as schools entirely of their own option, control, AND condition. DC politicians will not invest directly because they have almost never robustly supported DCPS schools of right, especially east of Rock Creek Park, and with current budgets tightening, that is even less likely now.

2. Who is going to redo boundaries in Ward 3 after DC has invested more than $100 MILLION to expand capacity there?

No one, because leaving Ward 3 boundaries (and feeders and out of bounds slots) as they are will justify the capital investment in Ward 3 schools as “access to high quality public schools,” as the DME puts it, while justifying closures elsewhere.

Diversity, Quality, And Choice

As we have seen, both the boundaries process as well as the MFP are tied to the notion of “quality”—which itself is inevitably tied to the idea of “diversity” and school choice. Nowhere are rights mentioned—despite the central role of education rights in the boundaries process.

One problem is that the sources of these discussions are not neutral. The MFP could be done by a neutral body, like the state board of education, rather than by a mayor whose interests are aligned with school privatizing and developers.

Instead, the DME has contracted for both the MFP and boundaries process with a host of private organizations that have vested interests in the outcome. The leader of this effort, Perkins Eastman, has been the recipient of contracts for DCPS school renovations (and currently employs a top deputy from DCPS), while WXY Studio appears to have a lot of business with charter school builds and the largest funders of the DC Policy Center are school privatizing organizations and promoters.

Another problem is that nearly all school planning decisions under mayoral control have been made without any public input by actors who appear not to care much, if at all, about education rights.

Consider that in 2018, the MFP brought forth by this same mayor and DME was rejected by the DC council for not being, in fact, the plan it is supposed to be, but a collection of data.

In fact, nearly all school planning under mayoral control has almost always taken place behind closed doors, well out of public sight, much less any published plan. For instance, just in the last 5 years we have had

Washington Met’s closure;
the creation of Bard;
the expansion of Banneker;
the fast track of one charter LEA for Ferebee-Hope;
the speedy spiriting away of Wilkinson, Old Hardy, Gibbs, and Shaed from the public;
the denial of a Shaw middle school;
the quashing of the Winston community’s desires for that school; and
the massive capital expansion of Ward 3 schools.

All of these occurred not because they were outlined in the MFP or approved by elected officials or called for in any citywide public process—but because someone somewhere in the mayor’s circle decided it would be so and did it.

The animating factor behind such machinations (and their attendant propaganda) is school choice, based on the idea that the market—as expressed through the free will of the people choosing where to send their children to school–will decide what schools stay and what schools go.

But no one says the quiet part, which is that schools of right are a public good, securing education rights for all, so we the people ARE the market, and when we “win” in that market with endless seats and schools of choice, we also lose–especially if student population does not grow commensurately (and it hasn’t).

We can see this by how two related numbers for DCPS schools of right are used by DC education leaders in school planning: in boundary participation and in boundary percentage of enrollment.

Years ago, the DME went out of his way to dismiss the entire idea of a Shaw middle school on the basis of a potential low in boundary participation rate—while ignoring the fact that in boundary percentage of enrollment at potential feeder schools was not low at all.

This was entirely on purpose.

Most if not all DCPS schools of right with relatively high in boundary percentages of enrollment, but low boundary participation rates, have a few salient things in common:

–poorly supported budgets
–locations east of Rock Creek Park
–largely poor student bodies

And these are the very schools that DC education leaders do not support habitually (or in some cases at all), while a fair number struggle with persistently declining enrollment.

In fact, both the current DME and chancellor have stated that DC can afford schools of right only when in boundary participation is high. In DC there is only one place where that is true: Ward 3.

So it is that DC education leaders say that they support school choice—but not the choice of most people choosing their schools of right outside Ward 3.

In other words, school choice is great!

(As long as you choose our way.)

As any adult American with a uterus now knows personally, this is no choice at all.

That “quality” is baked into the MFP and boundary process by these same education leaders makes their stewardship of both uniquely terrible.

That is, what is “quality” to me is not “quality” to the DME necessarily or even ever—and that goes for the rest of DCPS parents. Given tremendous, ongoing, and unacknowledged inequity in facilities, resourcing, and programming in DCPS, how is one to judge that, say, Kramer is a “quality” school? On the basis of test scores correlated with household income? On the basis of renovation? On the basis of support by DCPS? Or waitlists?

What we CAN say of Kramer (and frankly of nearly all DCPS schools of right outside Ward 3) is that it is a school chronically stressed by the actions of the very people who are now defining whether it should exist based on things the school has no control over.

If this seems like a cruel game for DCPS schools of right, rest assured it is—a $1 billion annual game, on which education rights outside Ward 3 are literally being gambled away by people paid off by, and paying off, privatizing interests whose main concern has always been the lucrative business of DCPS school facilities. 

A key component of this $1 billion game is that diversity, better school experiences, and even equity can be secured by—wait for it–school choice.

This constitutes such an amazing lie that it deserves a quick graph:

This graph uses at risk percentages from audited enrollment for SY21-22 here and percent in boundary from SY21-22 data promulgated by the DME here.

To be sure, the DC auditor did a much more thorough job outlining how school choice at all levels of schools in DC increases segregation—with all its attendant ills.

This graph shows that regardless of their location, how they are run, or how their students access them, publicly funded high schools in DC have either low at risk or high at risk populations—period.

There is no getting around this by tweaking boundaries or lottery preferences.

That said, one way to get real diversity in our schools is to simply eliminate boundaries altogether, make all schools follow the same rules and guarantee education rights, then put every student’s name in a hat, assign students randomly, and institute bussing. (Alternatively, to not create more bus headaches, you could do all of this but simply make the assignments applicable only for the smallest demographic group—white students.)

That this has never been considered says a lot about what we are committed to—and one of those things DC appears committed to is not treating DCPS schools of right as the primary focus of our school planning, despite their necessary and central role in securing educational equity for all DC students.

Indeed, instead of being held in trust as a public good to be nurtured and cherished for the future, DCPS schools of right have been repeatedly defunded, depopulated, and diminished in a race for any number of things that have nothing to do with securing education rights equitably. As a result, countless DCPS schools of right in the poorest areas of the city have been closed on the basis of things completely out of their control—and then profitably monetized for private gain at the direct expense of DC taxpayers and the educational equity all our children deserve.

While the buying of our DC politicians by education reform and school privatizers may be lucrative and far-reaching, it is well worth remembering that it cannot ever undo a basic fact:

Equity does not come from school choice OR diversity—it only ever comes from equity. And while diversity is a good goal, and school choice seems freeing, you will never get to either without equity first.

And if you never have equity, diversity becomes something only for a few under particular circumstances (i.e., some schools’ racial, but not economic, diversity), while school choice remains pure luck of the draw (literally), aided and abetted by personal resourcing.

Right now, we have a chance through the MFP and boundary process to secure education rights for all DC’s kids, right in their own neighborhoods, in buildings that are modernized and well-resourced and equitable across the city.

In other words, we have a real chance at equity by making our DCPS schools of right the primary focus of all school planning in DC.

The question now is: Will that happen?

One thought on “Planning for Schools AND Saving Them, Part 2: The MFP And Boundaries Process

  1. Thank you for once again providing an excellent compilation and synthesis of important information about public schools in D.C. The fact that no one else is subjecting officials to such scrutiny accounts for the impunity with which they engage in corrupt practices, such as the profiteering that you describe off of facilities trading and facilities funds.

    I think you are right to focus on the D.C. law that promises “equitable access among District students to high-quality DCPS schools.” As you suggest, it is no accident that education officials consistently drop “DCPS” from the promise. They know that no one is going to enforce that law.

    The law doesn’t define “high-quality,” and so you ask, “how is one to judge [what] is a ‘quality’ school? On the basis of test scores correlated with household income? On the basis of renovation? On the basis of support by DCPS? Or waitlists?”

    I think I can answer that question: A high-quality public school is one where the classroom instruction is at grade level.

    Such schools are currently concentrated in Ward 3. Most instruction in D.C. public schools is below grade level. This is proven by the simple, sad fact that students get passing grades (and diplomas) but badly fail externally written grade-level tests.

    So I am opposed to excluding out-of-boundary (that is, black) students from Ward 3 schools and forcing them to attend their neighborhood schools where the instruction is below grade level. They jump at the opportunity to attend a school where grade-level instruction is available even if it involves the inconvenience of traveling across town, because their schools of right are schools of wrong.

    The people who want to cut back on out-of-boundary seats in Ward 3 schools should FIRST establish grade-level instruction in schools of right in black neighborhoods. Once they do that, they won’t have to cut out-of-boundary seats in Ward 3, because demand for those seats will plummet as black families choose schools of right, which are more convenient.

    — Jeff Schmidt


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