February 6, 2012

ANEW STUDY of the District’s public schools has the teachers union bristling about jobs, defenders of traditional schools fearing further gains for charter schools and some neighborhoods worrying their schools will close. Getting short shrift are the 14,236 children in the 46 schools where learning is judged so abysmal that projections show little or no improvement over the next five years. At the current rate of improvement, it will be 2045 before 75 percent of D.C. students are at grade level in math and 2075 before they are at grade level in reading. That’s unacceptable, and it is why we hope the information gleaned from this analysis will lead to new solutions.

The independent study, commissioned by Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s administration, takes a supply-and-demand approach to public education. The Chicago-based nonprofit IFF examined traditional public and charter schools in each of the city’s 39 neighborhood clusters and identified 10 communities with the greatest gap between student demand and supply of high-quality education. Not surprisingly, the greatest need for high-performing schools is in poor neighborhoods in Ward 7 and 8. Most top schools are in the northwest and central areas of the city.

The report makes a number of sensible suggestions: ensure that all classroom seats are filled in the high-performing schools; focus attention and resources on Tier 2 schools to get them to top-performing status; and close underutilized, outmoded and badly performing schools.

Clearly, the city is not about to close 46 schools overnight and, as Deputy Mayor for Education De’Shawn Wright stressed, the study is the starting point for coming up with solutions. Nonetheless, as The Post’s Bill Turque reported, pushback was almost immediate. Washington Teachers’ Union President Nathan Saunders assailed the “assault on traditional public education” and the threat to public school jobs, while others attacked the use of test score data to judge a school’s worth.

Doing things the way they have always been done helped contribute to a public education system in which fewer than half of students perform on grade level. School reforms started in the previous administration, and continued by Mr. Gray, have improved teaching and boosted student performance, but, as this report attests, the bulk of the work is still undone. Critical to this effort is better cooperation and more rational use of resources between charters and the public school system; the only criterion should be student success.

City officials, mindful of the turmoil when former chancellor Michelle A. Rhee closed schools, said any restructuring will not be made for at least a year. Mr. Gray is right to want to consult with affected communities in making informed decisions, but he also must be mindful that children stuck in failing schools don’t have a day to waste.