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37,000 to Start D.C. Public Schools Today, Well Below Budget Figure

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By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 24, 2009; 9:14 AM

Despite an advertising campaign and an early push to sign up students, the D.C. public school system is beginning classes Monday with an enrollment of about 37,000 -- 17 percent below the total at the end of the last academic year, officials said.

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Enrollment in regular public schools often grows during the year, as students and parents complete paperwork and some transfer from public charter schools. But a spokeswoman for Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee declined to predict whether the system would reach 44,681 -- the audited enrollment figure from last school year and the basis for its $760 million 2010 budget.

Moreover, because the school system moved up the start of its annual enrollment process from July to April, the late surge could be smaller than usual.

"We anticipate a much smoother start to school with fewer families needing to enroll during the first few days," said Jennifer Calloway, Rhee's spokeswoman. She added that last year at this time, only 15,000 students had completed enrollment.

In addition to the District, Prince George's County public schools also start the school year on Monday. Calvert County public schools resume classes Tuesday, and the school systems in Montgomery and Howard counties will open to students Aug. 31. Virginia public school systems open after Labor Day, on Sept. 8.

To encourage D.C. families to enroll, the school system launched a radio and bus sign ad campaign ("Go public and get a great free education!" said some spots), and principals visited homes, held community barbecues and conducted enrollment fairs in concert with immunization clinics held by the District's health department.

Regular public school enrollment in the District has declined by more than half since 1980, while the public charter community has grown dramatically since the independently operated schools began in the 1990s.

More than a third of the city's public students attend charter schools, which project an enrollment of about 28,066 this fall, up more than 10 percent from last school year's 25,363. Some analysts say public charter enrollment could surpass the regular school population by 2014.

The vastly different trends have made enrollment politically contentious. Rhee has said she expects persistent declines to bottom out, with the school system's numbers perhaps starting to edge upward. But the D.C. Council voted May 12 to hold back $27 million of the 2010 budget, because it found implausible her projections for an increase of 373 students, to a total of 45,054.

Council members contended that the charter schools would be drawing more students from regular schools. The council projected regular public school enrollment at 41,541, based on trends from the previous three years. Both sides eventually agreed to use last school year's number -- 44,681 -- as the benchmark.

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) said Sunday that the 37,000 total is "probably low," given the school system's history of late enrollment. But he added: "I do question the likelihood of getting 7,681 enrolled between now and the first of October," when the first official count is taken.


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