D.C. School Closings

Thursday, November 29, 2007

NOTHING ROILS neighborhoods more than school closings, so it's not surprising that D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's announcement of plans to close two dozen of schools has caused an uproar. What's being overlooked is that the closings are a necessary part of a bold plan by the mayor and Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee to overhaul the city's scandalously poor public education system. If they are thwarted, so too will be the last best chance for D.C. children.

The need to close schools is unquestioned, given the degree to which enrollment has plummeted. In just the past year, the system dropped from 55,000 students to 49,600. Instead of operating incomplete school programs in underutilized facilities, Ms. Rhee proposes shutting 24 schools and using the money saved to strengthen existing programs and to add new ones. She's talking about matters such as ensuring that every school has a librarian and art and music programs, not to mention exciting new ideas such as lab schools for children with special needs or a program for gifted and talented students. Ms. Rhee movingly describes her sadness in realizing from conversations with parents and students that the essentials of a complete education are seen as frills in the District.

D.C. Council members briefed about the plans distressingly chose to focus on their pique at not being consulted regarding the closures rather than on finding out what the plan would mean academically for students. Certainly, council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) is right to ask why nine schools are being closed in his ward, but shouldn't he also be more excited about Ms. Rhee's ideas to add new resources to the district in the form of a fine-arts magnet school or a Montessori program? There will be plenty of opportunity for input and feedback as the mayor submits his proposal to the scrutiny and rigor of community meetings and council hearings. Nonetheless, the final decisions should be based on the needs of students and not tit-for-tat ward politics. Council members should not be deciding which of the schools in their wards should be closed, nor should they be trying to find ways to undercut the mayor's authority to shutter them. We would think they would appreciate the mayor's willingness to take the hit for making those hard choices.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company