A case against closing 20 D.C. schools

D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson has released her plan to close 20 schools,

Kaya Henderson and Michelle Rhee (Ricky Carioti/WASHINGTON POST)

prompting a hailstorm of criticism from parents (though the Washington Post editorial board approved it, here). The following post, written by Peter MacPherson, a DCPS parent and schools activist, explains why many people oppose the move.

By Peter MacPherson

The Gray administration has proposed closing 20  D.C. public schools. Chancellor Kaya Henderson said the closings are necessary because these schools are under-enrolled, inefficient and costly to operate. The Washington Post editorial page has endorsed this proposal and the District of Columbia City Council seems prepared to give its imprimatur. This was easily discernible during two days of council testimony on the subject. But as many who testified against the proposals explained, there are good reasons to believe that these closings will cause bigger problems than they are meant to solve.

First, the initial research used to inform the parameters of the closing strategy was compromised. The Washington Post editorial cites as the basis for the school closings a study that was done by the Illinois Facilities Fund for the District’s deputy mayor for education and published early this year. This report was billed as a comprehensive examination of school utilization and performance in the city. However, the results have been widely criticized by such groups as the non-partisan 21st Century School Fund, a school facilities think tank based here in the District. A critique of the IFF study on this blog said, “The study’s methodology, analysis, and recommendations are so seriously flawed, they fail to provide a valid basis for any actionable policies, or for guiding public investment or for school facilities planning.” The IFF is a group with close ties to charter schools, and even the chancellor has been careful in her recent conversations about the closing proposals to omit reference to the IFF report.

Henderson, in making her case for the closings before the D.C. Council, said that there are too many under-enrolled schools that drain resources which could be more effectively deployed on campuses with more students.  The Washington Post’s editorial page, which has supported Henderson and her predecessor former chancellor Michelle Rhee, wrote,  “Under-enrolled schools do not allow for the best and most efficient use of resources. Schools with larger enrollments have more robust staffing, including librarians and art teachers, and encourage collaboration that is difficult to achieve in small schools.” But two very long days of hearings on the issue tell a different story and show how fraught this school closing strategy is likely to be.

One of the key underpinnings of the current school closing plan is that savings from the closures will result in more funds for expanded offerings at consolidated schools.  That was the same rationale Rhee gave when she closed 23 schools and consolidated others in 2008. At one point she estimated that $23 million might be saved. In fact, the savings from Rhee’s school closings have not yet materialized, and a report released in September by the D.C. auditor concluded that the closings actually cost nearly $40 million. Furthermore, those consolidated facilities often saw significant enrollment declines, and that loss of enrollment resulted in less funding to DCPS from the city.

Meanwhile, communities were promised that consolidated schools would have additional resources to allow for instruction that had been lacking in many, namely art and music, as well as school librarians. But some combined schools–like Francis-Steven Educational Campus on Georgetown’s periphery — still have no librarian. Neither does Eliot-Hine Middle School. These consolidated facilities are not meaningfully richer programmatically than the individual schools they replaced. 

Nowhere in Henderson’s school closing presentation before the council was there an estimate about how much money will be saved — and it is clear that DCPS is again looking at significant costs from closings that will have to be absorbed on the front end. Does that mean that the inducements to families for staying with a combined facility will not be in place until savings are produced? And while cash is going out the door to fund closings, what happens if enrollment takes a precipitous decline? In that event, DCPS could find itself in a deep financial hole.

For many parents, a key fact that has not been addressed is the reality that the under-enrollment and under-utilization of many of these facilities is a situation of the school system’s own making. That criticism was implicit in some of the council’s questions for the chancellor. What steps, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson asked, has DCPS ttaken to market these under-enrolled schools? The chancellor’s answer was that marketing had taken place, enrollment had briefly grown but then declined. She made no effort to articulate a reason why enrollment  declined and which schools had had the benefit of marketing.

When the closings proposal was first announced last week the chancellor pointed out that 20,000 DCPS students attend schools that have yet to be modernized. It’s hard to grow a school that is aging, threadbare and bereft of technology. I’ve had several conversations with the sales representatives of educational software companies who have remarked on the paucity of computers in many of the schools the chancellor has proposed for closure. Parents who visit schools are unhappy about the pre-modern state of the facilities (as well as the absence of any librarian and only part-time music, art and physical education instruction). The Master Facilities Plan, the document that governs school modernization, left the poorest students in schools that were scheduled to be the last to be modernized in the  first round of building rehabilitations. The chancellor indicated last week that the closings she is planning would allow a mere 1,700 additional students to attend school in modernized buildings.

What remains deeply contentious is the fact that the chancellor has not put forward  a vision of shared sacrifice. She is not sacrificing any of her unproven reform initiatives and the lavishly funded, controversial teacher evaluation program IMPACT remains untouched. The program’s head, Jason Kamras, has 127 people reporting to him. That includes 42 master educators who don’t teach a single student but rather evaluate teachers.

Henderson seems not to have a plan to deal with competition from charter schools. The chancellor has not asked for a moratorium on the approval  of new charters and is not recommending that a single one be shuttered. She has publicly stated that she wants the power to commission charters under her own authority.

So only one group is being asked to sacrifice: the families and communities served by the schools targeted for closing. What this latest situation shows is that the people whose tax dollars fund the school system actually have very little impact in how it is run.



Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.



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Valerie Strauss · November 21, 2012

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