Tucked into the 11-page bill President Bush sent Congress last week transferring roughly 200 acres of federal land to the District is a 10-word clause that is unusually specific.
It says the city can take control of 15 acres of National Park Service land near Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium only if it puts a school on the property, "with first preference given to a pre-collegiate public boarding school."
As it turns out, there is exactly one such institution in Washington: the SEED School, which has been working with Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) for more than a year to find a site for a second campus.
The story of how a seven-year-old charter school secured the president's help in getting a large chunk of prime real estate is a tale of two former business consultants whose ideas about revamping public schools struck a chord with a powerful audience. And it is another illustration of how the White House and members of Congress from both political parties have used their clout to turn the District into a national laboratory for experiments in public education.
Ivy League graduates Eric Adler and Rajiv Vinnakota quit jobs as management consultants to create the Schools for Educational Evolution and Development (SEED) Foundation in 1997. Their idea of creating a highly structured urban boarding school for low-income children, who live on campus from Sunday night to Friday night, has attracted a powerful board of directors, $25 million in donations and support from the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates.
The school, which includes grades 7 through 12, has an 87 percent graduation rate, and all 34 members of its first two graduating classes have been accepted to four-year colleges, Vinnakota said.
SEED's 310 students are selected strictly by lottery. Of those currently enrolled, 100 percent are minority, 85 percent are from single- or no-parent households and 75 percent are in households below the federal income threshold for lunch subsidies.
The problem, SEED's founders said, is that the $26 million, four-building campus on C St. SE is at capacity. They want to open an $80 million second campus for an additional 600 students, slots they are confident they can fill because they typically accept only one out of every three to five applicants.
Congress, which passed the law allowing charter schools in the District, has been especially supportive of SEED, approving a provision that gives it additional public funding because of its status as a boarding school. Senior officials in the U.S. Department of Education also have been backers.
The proposal to give SEED the 15-acre parcel near RFK -- by comparison, the University of the District of Columbia's main campus consists of 11 buildings on 25 acres -- comes at a time when many other charter schools in the city are crying out for more space.
The number of D.C. charter schools, which are operated independently, will grow from 42 to as many as 61 by fall 2006. Finding suitable quarters has been a major challenge in a compact city where property values are skyrocketing. With the start of the school year six weeks away, the D.C. Board of Education tonight is to discuss plans to let charter schools share space in five underused traditional public school buildings.
"All public charter schools deserve to have public space to locate their schools in," said Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, who has urged the city for six years to turn over surplus schools and government buildings to the charter movement. "Since that hasn't happened, you really can't blame charter schools for doing whatever else they can."
Williams spokesman Vince Morris acknowledged that SEED is "the only [school] we know about now" that would meet the conditions for the transfer of the land near RFK. But he emphasized that if the law passed, city officials would work with anyone else interested in running a public boarding school, as well as the community and the D.C. Council.
But the SEED Foundation might have found an even quicker route to its goal. Tomorrow, the Senate Appropriations Committee is expected to consider a measure that would set up the transfer of the 15-acre site as part of the D.C. budget bill, which takes effect Oct. 1. Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.) are behind the proposal. Last year, Landrieu and Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) tried to provide land near Kenilworth Park for a second SEED campus before settling on language that urged the city to find a solution.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) supports SEED but strongly objected to the Senate move as "unnecessary legislating" on the city budget, given the president's separate bill.
Vinnakota said that the boost SEED has received from the Bush administration and Congress is not a case of the rich getting richer. "The federal government and the District government collaborated together to figure out how to get more space for a boarding program, and they came up with this land," he said. "I don't see that as being mutually exclusive with identifying other land for other needy schools."