- The Washington Times - Monday, June 20, 2005

The first task of the D.C. Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority (or control board) a decade ago was to get the District’s financial house in order and its second was to revamp the school system. There’s little doubt about the city’s fiscal fitness. As D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp told Sen. Sam Brownback and others on June 15, the city has nine balanced budgets, hundreds of millions in annual surpluses, seven consecutive unqualified audit opinions and an A rating from Wall Street as proof. When it comes to maintaining and renovating schoolhouse, however, the District still falls way short.

Notwithstanding the failure to raise student achievement, the city’s second most shameful educational aspect is the state of disrepair of school facilities. Indeed, a 1996 report by the Government Accountability Office urged school officials to pay closer attention to everything from roofs, heating and cooling systems and walls and doors to electrical and plumbing systems and basic safety codes. The report jump started a collaborative effort to modernize and build anew schools for the 21st century. A coalition of parents, teachers and other stakeholders spent the 1999-2000 school year drawing up plans to prioritize the rebuilding efforts, deciding which schools would be renovated, which ones would be modernized and which ones would get entirely new buildings. Suffice it to say, the D.C. Board of Education failed to turn those plans into reality.

That is one reason why it’s so interesting to hear school officials again broach the school-inventory subject. So what’s the plan? Well, like much of what school authorities address, there is no precise plan. But the board and the superintendent at least agree that there are two dozen school buildings that should closed or consolidated, and leased or sold. The money from the new revenue (and savings on energy, repairs and security) would then be used to upgrade other schoolhouses.

Both the superintendent of schools, Clifford Janey, and the president of the school board, Peggy Cooper Cafritz, have said they support co-locating charter schools in traditional public-school buildings (although we remain skeptical that such lease agreements will actually occur). But other officials fear repercussions in the voting booth, and some officials don’t support school choice, which they consider a financial drain on public schools. Yet those dynamics are magnified in positive light in the old Carter G. Woodson Junior High School. After bitter debates around the city, school officials closed Woodson in 1993 and it sat rotting for years, marred with gang graffiti and usual broken windows and doors of an abandoned school house. In fact, school employees destroyed the school, ripping out chairs and fixtures for other schools, and when they failed to drain the water pipes that winter, one can imagine the destruction. The school was so unsafe even construction workers and engineers were afraid to enter a few years ago. Today, the rebuilt school stands as a monument to academic success, political resolve and school choice as the Collegiate Academy at Woodson, a Friendship Edison charter school.

Rebuilding Woodson took about two years. By comparison, D.C. school officials closed Kelly Miller in 1997 and it finally reopened this school year. Rebuilding the entire 147-school inventory is an ambitious and costly plan (with estimates in the billions of dollars). Mr. Janey said he would like to start consolidating in 2006, which means plans must be formalized this year since next year, an election year, would stir treacherous political waters.

The facts for supporting efforts to close and lease schoolhouses are simple:

m Between 1996, when Congress passed the D.C. School Reform Act, and 2001, parents in support of better schooling had enrolled nearly 11,000 children in charter schools. Today, the enrollment is an estimated 15,500.

m The number of students in traditional schools has plummeted as parents move to suburban school districts or chose private and charter schools, and as dropout rates rise. Enrollment dropped from 170,000 in 1970 to 80,000 in 1997 to an estimated 61,700 today.

The new revenue from leased and sold facilities would be used to renovate and maintain other assets in the inventory. The city also would use bonds to pay for the school modernization plan. Problem is, there is no plan. As Mr. Brownback, chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the District, told D.C. officials at the June 15 hearing, “We need to get more resources into fewer physical plants.”

The school-choice movement laid bare the politics of the situation. Now it’s up to the city’s elected leaders to get behind an old idea and turn it into a reality for children of the 21st century.

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