- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 2, 2006

It’s been about two months since Superintendent Clifford Janey sat down with his principals and told them to start working together to see if they could come up with school-consolidation and closing recommendations. And it’s been a month since the Board of Education, having long refused to acknowledge the financial and academic calamities wrought by trying to maintain an aged inventory amid declining enrollment, finally made some hard calls. The public got its briefing Saturday on the criteria that will be used in the coming weeks and months to close schools, and the airing, as expected, was not without debate. But that was not surprising. Shuttering the doors of public schools — indeed, even merging schools — always draws heated criticism. Parents feel uneasy about children attending “new” schools, teachers worry about losing their jobs and alumni emote about the way things were.

The truth and consequences, however, are well-defined: Students are being short-changed academically and taxpayers are wasting money. The District’s burgeoning public charter schools, the first of which opened less than a decade ago, are pulling thousands of students each year from traditional public schools. But the decline in enrollment in traditional schools does not point solely to the growing interest in charters, although school-choice opponents raise that as their No. 1 argument. The truth is that parents take their children out of D.C. Public Schools for three primary reasons: A) The longer a student stays in public schools, the worse off he becomes academically; B) Parents move to the suburbs for better jobs and better schools; and C) Parents who have the financial wherewithal enroll their children in private schools.

The nagging consequences of the school system’s operating and personnel costs are stark, too: A) Fewer dollars advance toward academics, with the adult literacy rate standing at 44 percent; B) The unemployment rate for 20-to-29-year-olds is a shocking 41 percent; and C) 38 percent of adult illiterates can barely read beyond a third-grade level. Indeed, because of those negatives, D.C. residents lose out on job and housing opportunities, while suburban taxpayers reel in the benefits. Seemingly understanding the dynamics at play, the superintendent in recent months has begun trying to reconcile his budgetary requests with the need to substantially improve what goes on inside the classrooms.

Mr. Janey’s proposal calls for something this page has long advocated: Closing or merging schools to align them with enrollment and workforce trends. His is a plan that coincides with the D.C. Council’s legislative proposal to pour billions into modernizing school facilities. If planned and implemented properly, the city can finally begin springing forward toward an effective public education system. If not, the city will continue frittering away lost academic and economic opportunities. As special-interest groups begin erecting surmountable hurdles, we urge elected and appointed officials to solicit the support necessary to turn around the city’s school system. The means to that end can be achieved with earnest backing from parents, the Board of Trade and Capitol Hill.

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