An important new campaign to boost public education in the District of Columbia is underway. Scandalously, while there are 12,000 students on waitlists for public charter schools, the city owns around one million square feet of surplus school space—including 14 schoolhouses that could accommodate them. But the city chooses not to allow this.
The “End the List” campaign includes a District residents’ petition to lawmakers to release the available space, so families who want their children to attend over-subscribed charter schools can do so. It can be signed at EndtheList.org.
Charters are taxpayer-funded, tuition-free public schools open to all District-resident students that operate independently of DC Public Schools. The DC Public Charter School Board, whose members are appointed by the mayor, holds charters accountable for improved student performance.
Using their freedom to innovate, charters have led the way in raising educational outcomes, with programs offering rich curricula and setting students up for lifelong learning, while producing strong standardized test and graduation results—regardless of zip code. These unique public schools now educate nearly half of all District children, but the government’s insistence on hoarding surplus space and property prevents them from expanding further.
DC law requires charters to have the “first right of offer” before school buildings that are surplus to requirements are offered to developers. Shockingly, instead of following this, scores of schoolhouses have been sold for luxury condominiums. Other school buildings in less sought-after neighborhoods have been left empty and not properly maintained.
The city’s large surplus inventory is a product of the old segregated school system and a generational fall in school enrolment, as the traditional public school system entered a spiral of decline from the mid-1960s through the introduction of charters in the mid-1990s. Public charter schools not only proved popular with parents, but also incentivized the government to improve the city-run system, leading to today’s hybrid public education provision of charter and city-run schools.
Recently, AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School, which operates an in-demand pre-K program on multiple campuses citywide, had to vacate premises in a city-run school while searching for a permanent home. Its lease ended and it has not found an alternative site—a challenge for many public charter schools. This program offers high-quality, effective early education designed to close the achievement gap between students from low-income families and their more affluent counterparts. Its method has been acclaimed by the federal government and educational experts.
Last year, the government announced that it was turning five former school buildings over to non-educational uses, including property that has been vacant for many years. One such space will become a mix of high-priced residential, office and retail space, of which there are an ever-increasing number in the District, while charter schools languish at the back of the line.
Adding insult to injury, the city spends $1 on facilities for District public charter school students for every $3 it spends on their peers in the traditional system. This unfair funding is all the more surprising when one considers that DC charter schools educate a higher share of economically-disadvantaged and minority students than DC Public Schools.
This inadequate provision forces charter schools, the focus, priority and mission of which is education, into a highly-competitive real estate market where they must secure expensive loans to convert office, retail or industrial space, allocating scarce dollars from tight budgets in place of city funding. As a result, many lack adequate school facilities including auditorium, cafeteria and library space—despite offering a higher-quality program than the alternatives.
By following the law and releasing underused and vacant school space, the city could offer a bright future to those students who would like to accept a place at a charter school. In the city’s most disadvantaged wards, charter students are twice as likely to meet statewide college and career standards as their neighbors and siblings enrolled in the public school system.
EndtheList.org aims to provide a voice to the children who are being denied a high-quality public education thanks to decisions by the powers-that-be, blocking their access to easily available facilities. If you are frustrated by the lack of quality public education options, please do take a look at this video, Open Doors, Open Minds, and register your support for the petition.
By choosing to open doors to our city’s young minds, a win-win-win solution is in prospect. DC families can access the school of their choice; charter school facilities funds can be used for city-owned properties rather than simply the private real estate market; DC Public Schools can tap rental revenue for public charter school programs; abandoned buildings can be renovated and used as community assets; and DCPS and DC public charter schools can work together for all DC families. We urge Mayor Bowser to lead us to a place where all can benefit.
Dr. Ramona Edelin is executive director of the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools