March 16, 2013

“KIPP is a great school, they do good work, they’re a valuable part of the District. But that doesn’t mean that we’re simply going to hand over a parcel of land to them.” So said Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s spokesman, explaining why there has been no action on a proposal by the high-performing public charter network to build a high school in Southwest D.C.

But KIPP is not seeking a handout; it would lease the land from the city and use $40 million in private money to build a state-of-the-art school while providing the community with a medical clinic and recreation center.

More important: Why, in a city desperately short of good schools, are officials not doing everything they can to support a school that succeeds in educating underserved students?

KIPP DC officials, The Post’s Emma Brown reported, want to put a campus at the centrally located and Metro-convenient Randall Recreation Center north of Nationals Park in Ward 6 to replace its Southeast high school that is bursting at the seams. The officials, searching for new high school facilities for five years, feel a sense of urgency in wanting to expand educational opportunities for D.C. children, so they are pushing to break ground this summer for an opening in 2014. (Donald E. Graham, chairman and chief executive of The Washington Post, is on the board of trustees of KIPP DC.)

Mr. Gray unfortunately doesn’t seem to share that sense of urgency on behalf of D.C. students. He’s made no move to put the land up for public bid in a process that would allow KIPP to compete for it. The land is zoned for educational, recreational and health-care purposes, so it’s hard to follow the logic of some opponents who say that a KIPP campus would be incompatible with a development planned for an adjacent parcel. Even more illogical is how the District blithely justifies spending tens of millions of dollars to rebuild or restore underenrolled high schools (Cardozo, $119 million; Ballou, $112 million; Roosevelt, $127 million) while doing little to help a school where students excel, where someone else is willing to pay and where there is high demand from parents.

The District government’s record in providing facilities for its publicly funded charter students, now 43 percent of the public school population, is abysmal. Of the 15 schools to be closed by the D.C. public school system, none will be made available for lease or purchase by charters. KIPP would have liked to take over the soon to be vacated Spingarn High School, but when Chancellor Kaya Henderson couldn’t be persuaded, KIPP — rejecting unworkable locations the city suggested — turned to the Randall site. It has support from some neighbors, who see benefit in private investment, and from five D.C. Council members, including David Catania (I-At Large), who heads the education committee. KIPP officials told us Mr. Gray has always been supportive of their efforts and they are hopeful he will give them the chance to make their case.

“Folks are getting ahead of themselves,” said Mr. Gray’s spokesman in reporting no plans to advertise the land. If so, it’s only because the mayor hasn’t gotten out in front. It’s not too late for him to lead the way on a project that promises so much to a community and to students needing a better education.