Many years ago, when I was a member of the D.C. City Council, I attended a community meeting at a junior high school scheduled to be closed. At the meeting, Julius Becton, then superintendent of D.C. Public Schools (DCPS), laid out logical and common-sense reasons for the proposed closing. Among them was the poor academic performance of the kids at the school. Still, parents were outraged at the prospect of their children’s school closing.
I thought about that meeting when I heard the news earlier this week that current DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson wants to shut down 20 underperforming D.C. public schools. I instinctively knew that her announcement would be met with vitriolic community opposition. African Americans are intensely loyal, even if that loyalty doesn’t always serve their needs. Such loyalty is understandable given this country’s history of racial oppression and segregation.
For many young people, neighborhood public schools were the only gateway to economic empowerment. Today, however, the sad reality is that far too many of these historically significant public schools are not serving our kids well — and some need to be shut down. It’s tough, however, when people don’t know what they don’t know.
Like it or not, accountability matters in K-12 education. So does quality. And sometimes, the resistance to change in an underperforming school is so strong that the only way to change the culture is to start from scratch.
Henderson believes that these 20 schools aren’t serving kids and need to be closed, and I trust her judgment. It’s paramount that we are willing to reward and duplicate the performance of high-quality schools, but also that we be willing to close schools that perpetually underserve our kids — often the very kids that are most in need of quality instruction.
But accountability in our schools is only one side of the large and expansive education-reform coin, one that must be coupled with educational choice to truly pay dividends for our children in the long run.
These 20 schools that are closing will theoretically mean an escape for the children who used to attend them, but an escape to where? Although school closures are taking place in six wards, the reality is that they disproportionately affect kids in Northeast Washington and east of the Anacostia River, the very area that I used to represent, and where I know there needs to be significant improvement to the neighborhood’s public schools.
If school closures simply mean overcrowding already overburdened schools with more children and fewer resources to go around, we’re doing no better than when those underperforming schools were around in the first place. We must provide families with a legitimately better-quality option in lieu of where they were, and it’s also not fair to overburden teachers and students at the schools that are likely to see a new influx of students from the soon-to-be-closed schools.
For some, the answer is the robust number of high-quality public charter schools operating throughout the city. But “some” also includes parents whose kids may be able to benefit from the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which is helping nearly 1,600 children attend private schools in the District. The truth is that we can’t simply stop at charter schools. As I wrote in last Sunday’s Washington Post, in order to best serve the students displaced by school closures, we need to put the full slate of educational options on the table.
On one hand, we do students a service by removing them from schools that are failing them. But what good is that effort if we don’t give them a choice to go along with their newfound freedom?
But we also need a more community-oriented informational campaign to help our parents understand the possibilities associated with quality schools and expanded educational choice. The knee-jerk opposition to Chancellor Henderson can be ameliorated, in part, by including parents in the discussion and allowing them to be part of the vision. Ultimately, the goal is making sure we educate our kids effectively — right now, not just in the future. For that to occur, some bad schools must close. Our task is to motivate folks to understand that loyalty to a school building is not as important as the educational services taking place inside.
Kevin P. Chavous is senior advisor to the American Federation for Children and a former D.C. Councilman (D-Ward 7).
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