Denying charter schools access to unused school buildings is against the law. The School Reform Act of 1995 requires the District to provide charter schools the right of first offer on surplus school buildings. This directive is being circumvented by the administration through its refusal to designate clearly underused buildings as empty or unneeded.
The mothballed school buildings are in neighborhoods where families need and deserve better public schools. Nine of these vacant school buildings are in Wards 5, 7 and 8. In those three wards, there are 15 public charter schools with the highest 4- or 5-star ratings, and only two traditional schools with that rating. Don’t families in Wards 5, 7 and 8 deserve more high-quality public options for their children? And shouldn’t these children be educated in school buildings their parents’ tax dollars have already paid for?
In addition, several vacant school buildings have amenities such as ballfields and basketball courts that many public charter schools lack because they are in buildings that were never designed to be schools. The tragic irony is that some charter schools are educating students in rundown converted warehouses while actual school buildings are being used for storage. Several of the surplus school buildings also have easy access to Metro stations, which would be a great relief to families who struggle to get their kids safely to and from school.
Bowser is under pressure not to release empty buildings to charter schools because some people don’t like charter schools, no matter how effective the schools are or how many parents want to enroll their children. It is unfortunate that some leaders are putting systems and bureaucracy ahead of the interests of children and families.
For more than 20 years, public charter schools have been a lifeline for families who once had no option beyond failing schools in their assigned district. Nearly half the District’s public schoolchildren now access free charter schools, which enroll students from every ward and allow parents to choose a public school that best fits their child’s needs. Because children learn in different ways, many families in the District have children enrolled in charter schools and traditional public schools.
This is exactly what D.C. leaders hoped for when they launched charter schools during the mid-1990s. Some charter school opponents peddle a fictionalized version of the origins of D.C. charter schools, claiming that school choice was forced upon the District by Republicans in Congress. This is not true. We know because we were there — one of us serving in the U.S. Senate and one of us serving in multiple capacities to improve education in the District. The reality is that the D.C. schools superintendent at the time, Franklin Smith, recommended making charter schools available, and the D.C. Council passed charter school legislation before Congress did. D.C. leaders recognized that these schools could bring new hope to D.C.’s education system, which at the time was abysmal. Republicans and Democrats in Congress partnered with District leaders to take bold action to revolutionize public education and enacted legislation to make the growth of public charter schools possible and all school options better.
Since that time, charter schools and traditional public schools have motivated each other to improve: to close achievement gaps, raise graduation rates and offer new models of schooling that cater to the needs of every child. Mayors and school leaders have embraced charter schools as essential to raising the quality of all schools. And, until now, mayors have followed the law by making 40 surplus school buildings available to charter schools.
The District’s educational progress could stall. Bowser has released just one surplus school building during her nearly five years as mayor. As a result, children traveling great distances to attend a good school walk past shuttered buildings in their own neighborhoods that could be centers of learning.
We urge the mayor and other leaders to stop limiting opportunities for our students. School buildings should be filled with children engaged in the joy of learning, not with empty desks and molding boxes. Making surplus school buildings available to high-quality public charter schools will end the waiting lists and will provide opportunity for all of our students.