- The Washington Times - Monday, February 20, 2006

There has been substantial movement on several fronts in recent weeks that threatens public charter schools, the very backbone of school choice in the District of Columbia. Consider legislation introduced Feb. 7 by D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson. The Public Charter School Assets and Facilities Preservation Amendment Act of 2006 would amend both the D.C. Public Charter School Act of 1996 and the D.C. School Reform Act of 1995 to mandate that all assets of a closed charter school “be deemed the property of the District of Columbia.” Assets include such things as textbooks and computers, as well as real property. The offense in this egregious legislative move is that D.C. lawmakers assume — mistakenly, we hope — that Congress and school-choice proponents will simply ignore the fact that local authorities are trying to amend federal legislation.

It’s safe to say that had a Republican-controlled Congress not passed and Bill Clinton not signed the D.C. School Reform Act, that DCPS would not feel so threatened by the growing support for charters, where enrollment increased this school year to 17,419, while DCPS declined by nearly 4,000 to a low of 54,748. “This is the ninth consecutive year of growth for these popular school,” the Friends of Choice in Urban Schools said in its newsletter. “Meanwhile, DCPS in-District enrollment dropped from approximately 78,000 [in the 1996-97 school year] to its current level of just under 55,000… Six new charter schools and at least one expansion school are scheduled to open next fall.”

That means DCPS has lost more than 23,000 students in less than a decade. But instead of reforming DCPS to both raise the academic standards of those already in the system and to lure new students, the council, school authorities — even the mayor — disappoint.

The Board of Education, for example, wants to close or consolidate some schools because the current inventory of 147 buildings is too large for such a small DCPS enrollment of under 55,000. But don’t think for a moment that charter schools are going to be granted carte blanche to utilize those schools. While charter schools have no givens given DCPS’ huge inventory, the mayor has created yet another adversarial position. This one involves the Apple Tree Institute, which wants to turn its $1.5 million facility on Capitol Hill into a preschool. But the mayor’s planning office and the zoning commission have designed new regulations that forbid a small charter school like Apple Tree’s. In fact, the regulations apply to schools and schools only. As Focus put it: “[T]he regulations do not apply to the many other uses that may locate by right in residential zones, including churches, embassies, hospitals, sanitariums, private clubs, fraternities, sororities, boarding houses, museums, Sunday school buildings, and mass transit facilities.”

These and other heavyhanded tactics are worrisome. On the one hand, they prove that charter schools are performing an important role in public education — competition. (Enrollment numbers provide more than circumstantial evidence.) On the other hand, these actions prove the need for both federal lawmakers and school-choice proponents of all stripes to stand ever vigilant. It is possible that since authorities have yet to reform DCPS that they now want to get rid of their No. 1 competitor — which, of course, is charter schools.

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