Editorial -- D.C. Sells Schools, but Shuts Out Charters

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

DISTRICT OFFICIALS recently announced that they have 11 former school buildings for sale to developers interested in using the sites for retail, offices or housing. Never mind that at least a dozen charter schools, desperate for new facilities, had hoped to acquire the spaces. Never mind that, by law, the charter schools are supposed to get first dibs. What's clear is that Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) is being as stingy as the previous administration was in denying public charter schools their rightful access to public facilities.

The 11 buildings put out to bid by the mayor's office of planning and economic development are among 31 schools throughout the city that have been shut in recent years. Most were closed by Mr. Fenty and Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee at the end of the 2007-08 academic year as part of their reforms of the school system. The large number of closures gave charter school advocates hope that schools operating in cramped or makeshift facilities would finally obtain relief. Indeed, 18 charters made 33 separate bids on 10 buildings offered last fall; the city, however, selected six of the charters to negotiate on just three of the buildings -- with two charters competing for each one.

Charter school operators nationwide struggle to find suitable facilities, with many schools having to move repeatedly after starting out in inadequate spaces. So it's maddening to see students crowded into church basements or small offices while facilities that were built specifically for the education of children go unused. Obviously, charters shouldn't be automatically entitled to every old school. There are situations in which other uses make more sense for economic reasons or because of neighborhood concerns. Stevens Elementary in Foggy Bottom, for instance, is sitting on a piece of property potentially so valuable that it would be shortsighted of the District not to investigate a sale during these hard budget times. But charter school advocates are right when they argue that they are continuously shut out of the process.

As a result, charters are forced into the commercial market, where they often end up paying top dollar for substandard space. What D.C. officials seem to forget is that the money being spent comes largely from the city's taxpayers and that the students they are slighting are the city's children.

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