Educational consultant E.V. Downey organizes handout papers for her Feb.… (Craig Hudson/For The Washington…)
When Capitol Hill mom E.V. Downey went into business as an education consultant, she thought she’d cater to parents angling for advice on admission to private schools.
Instead, almost all of her clients are clamoring for help getting their children into a good D.C. public school.
It’s a sign of the times in the District, where a thriving charter-school movement and a commitment to public pre-kindergarten have given rise to more education options — and more parental angst and competition — than ever before.
“It’s just totally overwhelming,” said Margot Hodges, the single mother of a 4-year-old boy, who recently moved to Washington and discovered that she was already behind in the hunt for a school for next fall. She heard about Downey on a neighborhood listserv and signed up for one of her how-it-all-works lectures.
“It was just stunning to find out what was involved,” Hodges said. “I had no idea.”
The District takes pride in offering its residents one of the widest varieties of school choice in the country. Only about one-quarter of students attend their assigned neighborhood school; the rest choose out-of-boundary schools, magnets or charters.
Parents say they are grateful for the choice, but choice means choosing. And choosing is work: attending open houses, comparing curricula, trading gossip and trying to divine — from test scores and demographic data and other numbers — which schools might work.
In Washington, choice also means gambling. The most sought-after schools don’t have enough space to meet demand, and winning a seat in one often comes down to winning the lottery. Literally.
One lottery, for admission to out-of-boundary traditional schools, closes Monday night. Then there are separate lotteries for each of the dozens of charter schools that attract more applicants — often thousands more applicants — than they can accommodate.
All that responsibility and all that uncertainty makes for plenty of stress — and, for Downey, plenty of potential customers.
“It’s kind of like a counseling session,” Downey said, kicking off a lecture this month, one of more than a dozen she has done since September. “You can tell me anything. If you cry, it’s okay.”
She was only half-kidding.
Downey appears to be a rare breed, the product of a marriage between the city’s complex school landscape and a D.C. middle class with more money than time to figure it all out. More than 40 percent of the District’s 80,000 students attend charter schools, but students in the traditional system also make deliberate choices, as more than half do not attend their assigned neighborhood school.
Experts said they weren’t aware of similar public-school consultants in other parts of the country.
Jeanne Allen, president of the pro-charter Center for Education Reform, called Downey’s business “a sign of what we might see” in other cities as the school-choice movement continues to accelerate.
Most D.C. families don’t have the wherewithal to pay for school advice, raising questions about whether school choice highlights a divide between parents who have the information they need to navigate the system — and the ability to transport their kids across town to a better school — and parents who don’t.
That divide is increasingly visible as the city gentrifies, attracting middle-class families who often don’t see struggling neighborhood schools as viable options.
Allen said she’s not convinced that paying someone for school advice — which she likened to paying someone to organize your closet — gives affluent families an advantage. Low-income families have access to reams of free school data as well as word-of-mouth networks that serve much the same purpose as a paid consultant.
“Poor parents get that information from the people they go to church with, the people they work with,” Allen said.
In the know
Downey used to work as the admissions director for a private boys’ school in Washington until, seeking more flexible hours, she started her own business in 2011. (Her husband, Charles T. Downey, is a high school teacher who writes freelance music reviews for The Washington Post.)
A longtime Hill dweller with two kids in an out-of-boundary school, Downey has weathered the world of lotteries herself.
Just as important, Downey is an admitted gossip who knows what people are saying about schools: which principals are creative and energetic and which are slow and stubborn; which parent-teacher associations are well-established vs. fragile or nonexistent; and which schools have unimpressive test scores but are turning around and gaining momentum.
It’s the sort of scuttlebutt that matters to many families but doesn’t appear on official school report cards or ratings. Parents — including, sometimes, moms and dads of infants with years to go before they enter public school — pay $25 each for one of Downey’s two-hour group lectures. A personal consultation runs $150.