April 15, 2012

THE BENNING ROAD campus of KIPP DC, the network of high-performing college-preparatory charter schools, is home to three academies serving children from preschool to eighth grade. Interest in attending the schools is so high that more students had to be turned away in the recent lottery for the upcoming school year than will attend. So it’s maddening to look across the street from the filled­-to-capacity campus at the empty classrooms of a former school and wonder if there isn’t more the city should be doing to help its best-performing charters find facilities that will allow them to expand and meet the need for their services.

A step in the right direction was the recent announcement by the administration of Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) that it will consider offers from charters for leasing four former school buildings. Advocates for charter schools, which now enroll 41 percent of public school students, cautiously hailed the announcement as a signal that Mr. Gray would be more accommodating than his predecessors of charters’ need for public space, although they said the proof will be in the results. D.C. law requires that charter operators receive “right of first offer” to bid on surplus school properties, but practice under former Mayors Anthony Williams and Adrian Fenty saw many of the buildings used for condos or government offices — or even going to rot.

Interest in the four buildings is tempered by their deteriorated conditions, some of which will likely require the investment of millions of dollars. One of the schools, Langston Elementary, closed in the mid-1990s and is in such decrepit shape that there were no takers when it was put on the block a few years ago. J.F. Cook Elementary, which closed in 2008, has been so vandalized that it looks like a construction zone.

Deputy Mayor for Education De’Shawn Wright acknowledged there has been a problem of closed schools not being made available for timelier reuse; he said there are efforts to streamline the process. He also told us he is working with the city’s top-tier charter schools to help them expand into neighborhoods that — as grimly chronicled in a recentfacilities study — lack quality education.

But other cities — Atlanta and New York come to mind — are way ahead of the District in providing charters that have proven records of success with classroom-ready facilities. The District does provide a facilities allowance, but that amount, $3,000 per charter student, is less than the $7,992 that charter advocates calculate the city spends on capital costs for its public school students. What makes the discrepancy all the more glaring is the fact that so many schools in the public system are massively underenrolled.

High schools with enrollment equal to a third of building capacity and elementary schools with numbers like eight fifth-graders or 13 fourth-graders don’t make any sense. Why not share space with charters, which are currently operating out of cramped basements or ill-suited commercial space? And isn’t it time that the District started closing schools rather than just talking about the need to do so?

City officials who think there’s plenty of time for these decisions would do well to think of the children who next year will be on a waiting list rather than in a classroom where they have a chance of learning.