- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 9, 2003

Some D.C. leaders have begun to make some hard choices regarding the delivery of quality public education. Mayor Tony Williams and several lawmakers, for example, have said they want the executive and legislative branches to have more control of the budget for public schools. The renewed push for publicly fundedvouchers is another example. As Isaidinlast week’s column, however,the voices that remain the loudest belong to those who wish to sustain the status quo. As Mr. Williams used to say, it’s time to think outside the box.

In short, D.C. Public Schools simply has too many school buildings. Trying to maintain them, modernize them, keep them properly heated and cooled, and keeping up with the Teamsters Union’s request for more facilities employees (and, of course, more money for facilities employees), is too costly. Taxpayers don’t grow money on trees (unfortunately).

Currently, there are several schools that are not online and the school system has 146 operating schools in its inventory. Yet, there are only about 64,000 students. While there are not enough anti-voucher senators on Capitol Hill to block the doors of each schoolhouse, there are more than enough anti-choice bureaucrats within the school system to block any proposals to close or consolidate schools.

The smaller-class theorists are highly visible and very vocal. These are the politicians who wait for the unions to pull out their wallets, and then claim that our children aren’t learning because of high pupil-teacher ratios. These also are the unionized employees who bend over backward to testify at public hearings, but can’t pick up the trash in school hallways or ship the toilet paper from the warehouse to the schoolhouse. And, until last year, the city’s top school administrators didn’t know — and didn’t care — how much the school system paid for various utilities. (They still don’t care, but at least they are asking.)

It’s testy politics, consolidating schools. Many years ago, when school authorities finally got around to building a new Dunbar High School, folks around the city wanted to riot because the old Dunbar was to be razed. Now, with dozens of D.C. schools reaching 40, 50 years old, and older, and the costs of using those schools increasing by the month, more hard choices must be made.

The numbers speak for themselves: In 1999, the District had 77,111 students in public schools, last school year it had 67,000 — compared to an expected 64,272 this school year. Yet, while enrollment declined, the school budget increased 34 percent — not including the tens of millions the mayor and council had to turn over to school authorities to trim deficits and pay for raises for the Teamsters, teachers and others.

Something’s got to give.

It was hoped that the school modernization plans that parents and other stakeholders finalized two years ago would now be the road map for consolidating schools. The group I worked on, for example, urged that a new high school in Ward 7 be used not just for daytime school purposes, but for adult education and recreation programs, as well as after-school community programs. Our school cluster wasn’t the only one that made such recommendations. After all, schools should be part of neighborhood life.

Unfortunately, there are two tugs of war going on: The status quo doesn’t want anything to do with charter schools, whose enrollment figures grow by the thousands each year. Why? Because the school choice movement, arguably, has been most responsible for uncovering the city’s dysfunctional public system. In addition to the public school-charter school tug, there is a power struggle between the mayor and other reformers, and the superintendent and the status quo. Caught in the middle of both struggles are the parents who crave and deserve better schooling and better schools.

The superintendent and the rest of the status quo are smarting from the fact that Republicans pulled the voucher legislation off the Senate floor. The war for school choice, however, is not over. As a high-level official in Tony Williams’ administration told me yesterday, “The city cannot afford to give [DCPS] any new capital dollars.”

So, tactically, the local status quo just might have gone too far. If the mayor and council hold firm, school officials will be forced to think outside the box, and close and consolidate schools. The status quo also would have to come out from behind their desks to partner with charter schools and developers, as well as the mayor and the council. Without partnerships, the large inventory cannot be maintained.

Consequently, as more parents choose choice and enrollment in traditional schools continues to decline, the hard choices become easier.

And you wanted to know why the anti-choicers won’t shut up.

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