D.C. school facilities plan considers charters for the first time

March 27, 2013

Neighborhoods in Southeast Washington, on Capitol Hill and along the eastern border of Rock Creek Park are among those most in need of school renovations, according to a school facilities plan the Gray administration released Wednesday.

While previous facilities plans outlined projected timelines for individual school construction projects, the new document offers few specifics and no estimate for how much taxpayer money will be needed to meet the projected demand for improved schools.

Instead, the report suggests broad strategies based on expected population growth and current buildings’ capacity and physical condition.

Along with investing in certain high-need neighborhoods, the plan recommends upgrading the main entrance of every school and sharing half-empty District facilities with charters and community organizations. It also recommends an overhaul of middle schools, as the city’s schools tend to lose enrollment at those grade levels.

The decision to avoid specifics is a sign that city officials are grappling with unanswered questions about how to plan for the coexistence of traditional and charter schools. The 2013 facilities plan is the first in the city’s history to consider charters, the taxpayer-funded, independently run public schools that have grown quickly in recent years and now enroll more than 40 percent of the city’s students.

See the D.C. schools report on boundary locations.

“We want to take the time to think about how we invest in public education facilities,” said Jennifer Leonard, interim deputy mayor for education, whose office produced the study. She said the data compiled in the plan should inform further discussion. “Some of our policies still need to be fleshed out.”

Some details about specific school construction projects should become available Thursday, when Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) is scheduled to release his fiscal 2014 budget, which will include his spending plan for next year’s school renovations.

The master facilities plan, meanwhile, covers the next five years, a period in which the Office of Planning forecasts an annual growth of about 2,850 school-age children across the city. Focusing only on physical buildings, the plan does not address school quality or programs and does not discuss the affects of the school system’s plan to redraw school boundaries and feeder patterns for the first time in three decades.

The deputy mayor's office produced the plan in consultation with a working group of government and charter-school employees. Scott Pearson, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, said in a statement that he is “pleased to have a seat at the table” in discussions about improving school facilities.

Modernization of the city’s crumbling schools was a cornerstone of efforts by Gray’s predecessor, Adrian M. Fenty, to improve public education. Since 2008, the District has been on a school-construction blitz, spending nearly $1.5 billion on more than 60 schools.

Despite the investment, enrollment in traditional schools has been stagnant in recent years, and Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson is planning to close 15 under­enrolled schools in the next two years.

Charters, on the other hand, are growing quickly. They receive a $3,000-per-student facilities allowance, money they often use to rent real estate wherever they can find it — including in non-traditional space such as church basements and storefronts.

Students in traditional schools enjoy more space than students in charters, according to the master facilities plan. The contrast is especially striking in the middle schools: The traditional system has 436 gross square feet per student, while charters have 121 gross square feet per student. The difference demonstrates both that traditional middle schools are underenrolled and that charters often lack space for art, music, science and sports.

Robert Cane, executive director of the pro-charter Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, criticized the plan for failing to address that inequity. Cane has long argued that the city should more often transfer empty traditional school buildings to charters.

“It doesn’t deal with some of the most fundamental issues, such as, if DCPS is shrinking every year or occasionally staying flat, why are we spending all this money?” Cane said. “And how are we going to spend it more wisely?”

Ten traditional school buildings are vacant, according to the facilities plan, and several more will become vacant as the chancellor closes schools in June. The plan doesn’t address what should happen to those schools.

The plan now goes to the D.C. Council for approval.

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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