- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 14, 2004

The federal government recently allocated $14 million for voucher scholarships and another $13 million toward charter schools for the District of Columbia. Whereas demand for a seat in a charter school greatly exceeds the availability of such opportunities, the city should seriously consider using a portion of these funds to address the shortage of suitable facilities for new and existing charter schools.

Because of the District’s notorious failing schools, children and parents are understandably fleeing them once given the alternative of school choice. But even with the resulting shrinking enrollment at D.C. Public Schools (DCPS), the school board refuses to consolidate their classrooms to free up facilities for charter schools, which have disappointingly long waiting lists. And they don’t want to share, either: To date, only two schools, Maya Angelou and Evans Middle School, have engaged in space-sharing schemes.

Even worse is the fact that, at last count, there were approximately 60 school-owned buildings declared surplus. Although the School Reform Act gives public charter schools the first opportunity to acquire any of these buildings, only nine of them now house charter schools. School officials say they’re holding the facilities for an emergency; but in the meantime, the space could be put to much better use educating children whose parents want an alternative to their schools. Officials evidently prefer to allow these buildings to remain vacant, while students remain stuck on charter-school waiting lists.

Real estate in Washington is too expensive and available land too meager to make new construction a realistic alternative. Common sense also dictates that there is no need to finance new buildings when existing (and city-owned) properties are lying around unused.

The situation has become so desperate that Mark S. Lerner, a board member at the William E. Doar Jr. Public Charter School for the Performing Arts, wrote to The Washington Post on Tuesday. Mr. Lerner’s letter to the editor suggested that perhaps the Old Post Office could be turned into a charter school.

It’s time for the city to wake up and apply plain old common sense to the facility shortage problem. Federal funds allocated to education in the District can go toward opening doors of currently empty buildings. Children who wish to attend charter schools should have an opportunity to take a seat in a classroom other than the broken one of DCPS.

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