March 22, 2013

D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s plan to close 15 traditional public schools continues to cause controversy, sparking a series of meetings and protests and now the threat of a lawsuit. Henderson’s plan follows former chancellor Michelle Rhee’s 2008 decision to close 23 schools that the city deemed under-enrolled and underperforming and a 2012 report cataloguing the poor performance of many District public schools.

Incredibly, not one of the 15 schools will be made available to the city’s public charter schools, which are growing fast and desperately need the space.

This makes no sense. Some 43 percent of the District’s public school students attend charters, which are publicly funded but operate independently of the traditional system. These charters can have a difficult time finding buildings in which to operate. Almost always, they must buy or lease property and then renovate it — that is, compete for commercial real estate and spend huge quantities of precious resources to renovate what often is warehouse, office or retail space. All told, two-thirds of charter campuses lease commercial property.

At the same time, the city has for years allowed vacant schools — with their playgrounds, playing fields and other education amenities — to rot. Or it has filled them up with D.C. government agencies or sold them to private developers for uses such as luxury condominiums. Only a lucky few charters have been permitted to repair, restore and renovate derelict school buildings after the city agreed to lease or sell them.

This isn’t the way the dual system was designed to work. D.C. law gives the city’s public charter schools a legal preference to move into surplus DCPS buildings before they can be offered to developers. Yet the city is refusing to allow charters to bid for any of the soon-to-be-closed schools.

As a result, D.C. charter schools are chronically short of space. Last school year, D.C. charters received 15,000 more applications than available seats. By contrast, DCPS school buildings have space for 20,740 additional students, the city has found. Over the next four years, currently open D.C. charters will require 1.6 million additional square feet of space, and new charter schools will need 1.7 million extra square feet of space, to accommodate new students. Meanwhile, DCPS middle and high schools are one-third empty.

In case you are wondering, none of the city’s discrimination against its charter students is justified by charter schools’ contribution to public education in the District.

Charters offer superior academic performance in a safe environment. District charter high schools have a graduation rate that is 21 percentage points higher than the traditional system’s. Not coincidentally, college-acceptance rates among charter graduates are significantly higher than for their DCPS peers. Among students eligible for federal lunch subsidies, the share of students in charters who pass the city’s standardized tests is 16 percentage points higher in math and 12 points higher in reading than the share of students in DCPS.

In the last round of closures, the city kept 17 school buildings away from charters, eventually letting them lease only six — a sorry result, but still far better than how charters will fare under the current plans.

The city has not made clear why it wants to keep charters out of mothballed school buildings. DCPS enrollment is about one-third the level it was a generation ago. Moreover, enrollment is only now increasing slowly, after years of DCPS reform: just 1 percent last school year, compared to 10 percent for charters. Changing demographics do not suggest a large increase in DCPS enrollment is imminent. As the District’s population increased 10 percent between 2000 and 2012, its school-age population fell by almost 16 percent.

A city study found that an additional 39,758 seats are needed at the high-quality public schools to adequately serve every District student. Yet high-performing D.C. public charter schools are being denied the right to move their schools into any of the buildings due to close. By denying surplus school buildings and space to D.C. public charter students, the city is failing its children.

The writer was chairman of the D.C. Public Charter School Board from 2004 to 2010.

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