The future of D.C. public schools

D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s plan to close 20 traditional public schools in

the nation’s capital is nothing if not an acknowledgement that the system over which she presides is inexorably dwindling and being transformed into a collection of independently run public charter schools.

The numbers tell a big part of this story: Henderson wants to close 20 under-enrolled schools in the system that now has about 45,000 students in 117 buildings. There are now about 35,000 students in 57 public charter schools, and three big charter-school operators have just applied for fast-track approval to run a total of 10 new campuses serving thousands of students. (You can read about that here.) Among them are the controversial Virginia-based K12 Inc., which is applying to open a 550-student school, and Rocketship Education, a California-based charter chain which wants to open eight campuses between 2015 and 2020 that would enroll more than 5,000 students.

The plan, naturally, has met with outrage from the community (as all school closing plans have in the District for decades). But the dissenters make some good points. Henderson argues that she must close under-enrolled schools to save money, and on it’s face, that logic makes sense.  But here’s the problem: Henderson has said that the closings will free up money that can be used to improve surviving schools, but that isn’t what happened when her predecessor and ideological mentor, former chancellor Michelle Rhee, closed 23 schools in 2008. Though Rhee said that up to $23 million could be saved, it turned out that the closings actually cost the system $40 million, according to a D.C. Auditor’s report.

Beyond the money issue, the plan shows no real strategic vision of how the traditional schools can compete with charter schools. Charters were originally approved in the District in the 1990s by supporters who insisted that they would provide healthy competition to the traditional public schools and force them to improve. They got that wrong.

Henderson has asked for authority to license charter schools; currently there is one unelected body in the city that approves and oversees the charters. She even has discussed turning some of the traditional public schools she runs into charters. And she said in the closure plan that she would put charter schools in some of the buildings that are vacated.

What gives her closure plan a somewhat tragic Shakespearean cast is the fact that it is likely to send more students to charter schools, causing further erosion of the traditional system. You don’t need to be a cynic to argue that the plan is a sign of surrender to inevitable charter dominance. She could be working her way out of a job.

It is an irony of the “school choice movement” that parents are likely to get far less “choice” than charter proponents promise, and many will struggle to find a school for their children. But that’s fodder for another post.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · November 21, 2012