- The Washington Times - Monday, February 14, 2000

D.C. must coordinate schools and housing

In October, more than a month after schools opened, the D.C. Public Schools system implemented a new funding formula. Called the weighted-student formula, it was supposed to ensure that each of the system's 71,000 students would get the same base funding.
The system is fairly simple. If a Each school receives the same per-pupil funding, $5,588, regardless of the overall number of students. Schools receive additional dollars for special or bilingual education, free and reduced-cost lunch and the like.
Supporters of that formula, of which I am one, agree it can make school-based budgeting a lot easier, and it can ensure that the dollars follow the student, not the bureaucracy. There are drawbacks, though, if careful planning is not done. One problem is forecasting the burgeoning charter-school enrollment and the other involves shifts in school-age populations.
Whether the school system buses large numbers of children or, as in the District, operates neighborhood schools that invite children to walk, housing trends, census figures and other demographic information play a large role in school planning.
For instance, the opening of a new single-family housing development might cause major shifts in a school's enrollment or require more or new school-bus routes. Of course the opposite is true as well.
A huge demographic shift is precisely what is anticipated for next year at H.D. Woodson High in Ward 7, which includes parts of Northeast and Southeast Washington. A large low-income complex is being evacuated for renovations. Woodson supporters learned of the closing at a recent meeting of the school's Local School Restructuring Team, which draws up plans for the budget, curricula, staffing and other priorities for next school year.
The problem is twofold. For starters, a number of children who attend Woodson and its feeder elementary and junior high schools live in that complex, which straddles the D.C.-Prince George's border. If the complex is emptied, those families and their children will have to live elsewhere and that, of course, means their children will probably attend schools in their "new" neighborhoods despite the fact that Woodson is the only high school in all of Ward 7. Now while it is easy for Woodson officials to determine the number of its students who live in that complex, the potential loss of those students is not the only problem Woodson faces.
Three new charter schools are slated to open in Ward 7 at the beginning of the school year, posing yet another major enrollment shift. While the dollars must follow those children whether they are in a charter school or a regular public school, the potential for fewer Woodson students is very real.
Who are the students who will attend the charter schools? Will they all live in Ward 7? Will they migrate from other areas of the city, as many high school students do? Will Woodson have to return money if it has fewer pupils?
The restructuring team, which comprises faculty, parents and partners in the nonprofit and for-profit arenas, is trying to answer those and other questions as it continues short- and long-term planning. Yet even after it finds answers to those questions comes another from the critics of the school-choice movement. Will the doors to Woodson be permanently shut if its enrollment drops?
That question is as pertinent as the others. And know why? Because long-term educational strategies are practically nonexistent in Washington. Oh sure, there has been reform in some areas such as that involving the school governance issue that is front and center right now. Yet the District continues to fall short of any meaningful long-term planning.
The best example of the city's shortsightedness is closing underutilized schools. The city has closed dozens of schools since the 1970s. Most of them are still idle eyesores in long-established neighborhoods, while others are being used by up-and-coming charter schools. Still, the buildings are not so much the issue as the students.
Take McKinley High School, which school officials closed in 1997. An aging school house, McKinley had an enrollment considered too small for such a huge building that at one point enrolled more than 1,100 students). When McKinley closed, all its students had to look for a new high school. Many of them enrolled in Spingarn, Woodson and Dunbar and, to be sure, those receiving schools were ill-prepared to handle the influx. There were not enough textbooks and computers, too few teachers and other staff, lockers and inadequate funds for sports and other extracurricular activities.
Now fast forward to the present, where charter schools are flourishing. I am one of those persons who knows we need charter schools and more, not fewer, choices. But I also have a problem with what is offered our children right now. It is unconscionable that housing, school and community leaders did not look at the whole picture before they decided to renovate that housing complex and before they decided to approve those charter schools. It seems, after talking to students, teachers and other parents at Woodson and at nearby elementary and junior high schools, the decisions were made in a vacuum.
Everyone says he wants District children to get a good education, then digresses into squabbles about school closings, where new schools will be built and who will get the next pay raise. We should talk about those things.
Bit if we don't know how many school-age children are in a particular neighborhood, and we don't know what the latest trends in the housing market are, and we don't know what's in store on the economic development front, then we cannot plan. Actually, we are just wasting our time and playing politics with our children.

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