A new study commissioned by D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray recommends that the city turn around or close more than three dozen traditional public schools in its poorest neighborhoods and expand the number of high-performing charter schools.
The findings of the study by the Chicago-based IFF, to be made public Thursday, are likely to rekindle impassioned debate about possible school closures and the future of public education in the District. The study also signals the start of an unprecedented attempt to coordinate decision making between two school sectors that have operated independently and at times competed for funding and other resources.
More than 40 percent of the city’s 78,000 public students attend publicly funded, independently operated charter schools, the largest concentration in the nation outside of New Orleans. At current rates of growth, a majority of the city’s public enrollment could be in charters within three to four years.
Some advocates of traditional public schools have raised questions about possible bias in the study. IFF, which provides financial support and real estate consulting to nonprofit organizations, has made more than $57 million in loans to charter schools, according to information it provided the District. The study was underwritten by a $100,000 grant from the Walton Family Foundation, one of the nation’s leading benefactors of charter schools. Walton is also a major private donor to D.C. Public Schools. Company officials have said that their work looks at both school sectors objectively.
The study could also eventually serve as the basis for another major round of traditional public school closures, a politically and emotionally bruising process last undertaken by then-Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee during Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s administration. Although traditional public school enrollment has leveled off at about 46,000 after decades of decline, the system still has an excess of capacity. More than 40 schools have 300 or fewer students, many of them struggling academically.
City officials said that decisions about any major restructuring will not be made for at least a year and only after close consultation with affected communities.
Gray (D) said Wednesday that there is no basis for concerns that he will hand the city school system over to charter schools, especially given the hundreds of millions of dollars the District has invested in renovating and rebuilding traditional school campuses.
“It’s ludicrous,” he said. “I believe very strongly in both sectors, and I’m looking for the best education solutions.”
De’Shawn Wright, the deputy mayor for education, said the plan is to meet with Chancellor Kaya Henderson, who heads the school system, and charter school leaders to map out a scenario for meeting the needs of underserved neighborhoods.
The report is organized as a supply-and-demand analysis that divided the city into 39 groups of neighborhoods.