EDELIN: Level playing field for D.C. charter schools

Charter athletes are losing competition for sports facilities

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This summer, as school sports teams train for the upcoming fall season, public charter school students will have the opportunity to compete in citywide championship games in football, boys and girls basketball, and indoor track. Even with this change, because their public schools lack the facilities necessary, many students in the District of Columbia are denied the benefits of competitive sports. Anyone who grew up with access to school sports will be shocked by this situation.

Some 41 percent of students enrolled in District public schools are educated in charter schools, which are free to set their own curriculum and school culture, and are held accountable for improved student performance by the city’s charter board. Nonprofit institutions that do not receive a school building from the city to operate these publicly funded schools receive instead a facilities allowance, allocated according to how many students they enroll, so that they can buy or lease and renovate buildings to house their school.

Many charter schools have had to renovate nonschool space, such as warehouses, retail and office locations - or occupy church space when they first opened. Therefore, they typically lack facilities that purpose-built schools take for granted. Unfortunately, this means that many of the city’s youth do not have access to playgrounds, gymnasiums and playing fields at school. At some charter schools, less-than-adequate public space is used. At others, schools often try to improvise, offering a very small playground rather than none, or half a gymnasium instead of a full one.

To make matters worse, the funding gap between charters and city-run schools has grown in recent years. The funding gap is a serious matter. Let’s not forget that 75 percent of charter students are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch, according to a recent city study. Former Mayor Adrian M. Fenty cut charters’ facilities allowance from $3,109 per student to $2,800 in guaranteed local funds while he spent $32 million on a major school building program for the city’s traditional public school system. This included $18.7 million on school athletic field improvements, including $11.9 million for a pool at Wilson High and $1.4 million for a gym at Coolidge High.

These investments were badly needed, as city-run schools were neglected for decades. However, D.C.’s public charter schools, whose students are often more lacking in sporting facilities than their peers in the traditional school system, should also have benefited. The city spends about twice as much per-student in school building funds on D.C. Public Schools, the city-run system, as it does on charters.

This funding disparity creates many injustices. For example, the city’s best high school football team, Friendship Public Charter School’s Knights, does not even have a football field on which to play. Instead, student athletes practice on a run-down piece of public land that lacks any facilities. The team has never hosted a home game, and the school has to rent space if it wants to practice on a properly maintained and equipped football field. This is a school with 19 seniors who signed college sport scholarships this year, including with Florida State and the University of Maryland. Many other charter schools’ lack of facilities means they cannot offer sport programs, since training without facilities is impossible.

Evidence suggests that depriving students of such investments has consequences beyond denying them opportunities to develop the habit of regular physical activity. Department of Health and Human Services research shows that high-school students involved in after-school sports programs are less likely to drop out, use drugs, have school discipline problems or become teenage parents. A University of Michigan study found that high-school athletes had an average grade point average higher than those who did not participate in extracurricular activities.

Beyond test scores and access to college, involvement in school sports is for many students a way to develop social skills and a source of pride. A survey by the National Federation of State High School Associations revealed that student athletes were more likely to be involved in volunteering, voting and other civic activities than other high-school peers. The benefits alone make it clear we should act.

Every student should have access to quality athletic facilities. We need a citywide audit to ensure that investments are made where they are needed most, and we need an interim plan to better share the facilities we have.

Ramona Edelin is executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public School.

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