On one side, prospective charter school founders say that existing schools aren’t adequately serving students and that they are offering an option some families want. On the other side, education leaders say forcing schools to compete over students in a city where there is not enough demand to fill existing seats puts all schools at a disadvantage and stretches budgets too thin.
A 2018 city analysis determined about a fifth of all school buildings are less than 65 percent full, with campuses in the traditional school system even emptier.
Smaller schools operating under capacity are more expensive to run, and even as the city’s overall education budget grows, dozens of schools in the traditional public school system are facing budget cuts because of projected enrollment declines. The problem is most acute in the upper grades in low-income neighborhoods, where some schools struggle to meet staffing needs.
Meanwhile, in some wealthier areas, schools sit above capacity, strained by having too many students.
“I am concerned about the under-enrollment of a number of current middle schools in Wards 5 and 6,” Jim Sandman, member of the charter board, said at a March public meeting to prospective leaders at the Lotus Public Charter School, an elementary and middle school. “What data do you have, what evidence do you have of interest for the Lotus model of parents saying, ‘Yes, that’s what I am looking for?’ ”
The District is home to 128 charter campuses, which are publicly funded and privately operated schools that educate nearly half of the city’s 98,000 public school students. Many jurisdictions have caps on the charter schools that can open, though the District does not.
Six new charter schools opened in the current academic year. Most opened with a single grade and plan to add a grade level each year. Two schools are expected to open in the fall, including one on Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, which would serve students who live on the military base and the children who live in the Southeast Washington neighborhoods around it. KIPP DC — the city’s largest charter network — is also opening a new elementary school in Southeast Washington.
In all, the charter board has approved nine middle and high schools that are in the process of opening, expanding or adding more grade levels, with the potential to add more than 3,000 seats in the city, charter school board member Saba Bireda said at the March meeting. She also noted that a surplus of seats exists in the city. The traditional public school system also opened two new high schools in the past few years.
The five groups that are applying for a charter license would open in the fall of 2022. Among the applicants: a school targeting students with cognitive and behavioral disabilities in low-income wards of the city; a Montessori elementary school that would eventually have eight “micro” campuses in the city; and an entrepreneurial-focused middle and high school.
The schools made their cases last month in front of the seven members of the mayor-appointed charter board.
“Capital Experience Lab Charter School reaches for something new,” Lanette Dailey-Reese, co-founder and prospective executive director of the school, said at the March meeting. “Our school model uses space differently and our students learn from experiences that happen everywhere, not just within the four walls of the building called school.”
The prospective charter leaders argued in their applications and in front of the board that although there are vacant seats in the city, waiting lists of families exist at the city’s top-ranked schools. They said they have already surveyed families who want to attend their schools.
But at the public meeting, several board members questioned whether there were enough students to support these schools and the other recently approved charter schools.
Members of the D.C. Council and State Board of Education have also pushed back against the opening of new schools in their wards. Eboni Rose-Thompson, the Ward 7 representative on the State Board of Education, wrote a letter to the charter board saying some of the schools that are applying in her ward would be offering programs that already exist in the area with vacant seats.
“In a year where we are dealing with challenges we have not seen in our lifetime and hope to never see again, it is hard to fathom why we are soliciting charter applications,” Thompson wrote.
Paul Kihn, deputy mayor of education, did not comment on whether he believed the city could sustain more campuses. But in 2019, when 11 groups applied to open charter schools, Kihn wrote a letter to the board saying the large number of applicants gave him “pause.” Ultimately, five schools were approved.
“As a city, we are thinking about the impacts that any school potentially opening has on an existing school,” Kihn said at the time. “Our number one priority is making sure that the schools we have are getting better.”
The charter board can also vote to close schools that are underperforming academically or financially struggling. Schools can also voluntarily close. No schools are expected to close at the end of the year, although Friendship charter network has proposed to take over operations of Hope Community Public Charter School.