- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 7, 2004

The D.C. appropriations bill that President Bush signed into law in October grants, among other things, a “right of first offer” of surplus public schools to charter schools. The mandate is part of a proviso orchestrated by Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and it also stipulates that charter schools be given a discounted price for facilities. Parents and charter advocates are elated, since the burgeoning choice movement struggles mightily against the status quo for not just the buildings, but for money to rent, renovate and purchase their own schoolhouses. Unfortunately, D.C. officials are not only unfairly criticizing the law, but are also threatening to undermine it.

Several D.C. Council members called the preference for charter schools “outrageous,” according to the Nov. 4 editions of The Washington Post. Council member Carol Schwartz, for one, said it was insulting that “people” lobbied Congress on behalf of charter schools, while congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton was upset that Mrs. Landrieu never informed her about the amendment.

What’s outrageous is that city leaders failed to take the initiative to read the legislation themselves. What’s equally troubling is the fact that the “people” Mrs. Schwartz referred to are the same people who have been lobbying her and her colleagues — as well as the mayor — for better facilities for students attending charter schools.

Indeed, Mrs. Norton is anti-school choice, and the council and the school board prefer to sustain the status quo as parents continue to pour their children into charter schools. The audited enrollment figures aren’t expected until January, but if the preliminary numbers are any indication, the remarkable growth of charter schools continues upward while the student population in D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) spirals downward. As Friends of Choice in Urban Schools (FOCUS) reported last week, DCPS has lost an estimated 25,000 students since charters opened in the late 1990s. In fact, the trend points to DCPS losing another 2,200 students this school year.

Fewer DCPS students means fewer DCPS facilities — or so one would think. Instead, DCPS still has more than 140 schools online, and dozens of others that are either underutilized or completely vacant.

D.C. officials also complain that the discount — market rate minus 25 percent — is a steal. Their argument does not wash, however, since the buildings will be utilized by the children of hard-working, taxpaying parents.

We’ll let you in on the real gripe: The criticisms of the Landrieu amendment aren’t directed at the costs of education; and they aren’t throwing partisan lobs at the Republican-controlled Congress. (After all, Mrs. Landrieu is as liberal a Democrat as the Republican Mrs. Schwartz.) The real beef is that Congress and FOCUS made an important educational move without seeking permission from City Hall. If City Hall directed its energies toward improving the academic lot of all students, FOCUS and others wouldn’t have to march up to Capitol Hill — and parents might stop pulling their children out of traditional public schools by the thousands.

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