- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 11, 2006

On Dec. 5, 1804, the new City Council of the District of Columbia passed an act “to establish and endow a permanent institution for the education of youth in the City of Washington.” At the first meeting, the trustees of the new school board elected as its first president the nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson.

From that day until this — for more than 200 years — the District’s public schools have been able to locate in residential neighborhoods as a “matter of right.” Over the past decade, that “matter of right” has extended to the newest public schools — those charted by D.C. Public Schools and the D.C. Public Charter School Board.

Today, the D.C. Zoning Commission may be considering an “emergency” amendment to the zoning code that would take away that right. Such an amendment, which represents a fundamental abridgement of rights and a real diminution of the District’s historic support for free public education, must be opposed.

The Zoning Commission is to be commended for faithfully discharging its responsibility to hear the very legitimate concerns of tax-paying citizens who wish to protect the loveliness and livability of their neighborhoods. Establishing a process that facilitates dialogue between public charter schools and the neighborhoods in which they settle would be a very good thing. Moreover, such a process can be established without compromising a tradition codified more than 200 years ago — the tradition that gives special status to the schools that educate our children.

Changing zoning laws and weakening the community’s commitment to free public education is not the way to achieve that end — and there will be unintended consequences.

Or, maybe they are intended. In fact, many of the activists who seek these extraordinary changes are not interested in protecting our neighborhoods at all. Their agenda is not to save the old neighborhood from crime or congestion, but to save the old central system schools from competition.

General Motors, Ford and Chrysler could not be saved by protective tariffs and bumper stickers that read, “Buy American.” They tried that. It didn’t work. In the end, they had to build better cars. By the same token, the old centralized school system cannot be saved by changing the zoning laws to foil the competition. In the end, that system will have to build better schools.

This Zoning Commission is right to respond to good neighbors and good citizens who want to protect their neighborhoods, but they must not allow their efforts to be hijacked by those whose agenda has nothing to do with their own. They must keep in mind that property values are critical to the health of neighborhoods, and nothing does more to raise property values within a neighborhood than to build a good school in it.

There is an emergency in the District, but it is about saving our kids — not saving our neighborhoods from kids. The District’s old centralized system of schools is the nation’s most expensive and among the lowest performing. Until someone comes up with a better idea, chartering public schools that are free from the massive mismanagement of DCPS is the only chance many of these kids will have.

While an antiquated and hidebound school system sits on more than 5 million square feet of unused and unneeded space, scrappy charter schools fight to obtain facilities in a competitive real-estate market with the lowest commercial vacancy rates in the nation. They struggle to capitalize leasehold improvements on temporary space while trying to find the resources to build campuses worthy of their mission. Zoning regulations must not further complicate their task.

Recently, New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein remarked that: “Charters can stimulate innovation. We need to create an environment in which charter schools can be supported and thrive.” Now is the time for the District to strengthen its charter-friendly environment, not weaken it.

Schools that actually teach and children that actually learn and play are not threats to any neighborhood. They are the heart and soul of the neighborhood. They are its laughter, its light — and its future.

These days, it’s hard to imagine a sitting president of the United States allowing himself to be elected superintendent of the District’s public schools. That should tell us something about the relative value placed on free public education then and now.

Maybe we should listen again to Jefferson’s logic: “The education of the common people is the surest security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.”

T. Robinson Ahlstrom is headmaster of the Washington Latin School.

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