- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 16, 2006

In 1996, Congress began reshaping public education in the nation’s capital with the passage of the D.C. School Reform Act, the law that not only mandated the establishment of charter schools, but established the parameters for academics, funding, facilities and partnerships for charter schools. While advocates of the status quo criticized the Republican-controlled Congress at the time as playing hardball, some of the actions taken in recent months by school authorities suggest they finally have begun to reckon with the decade-old law.

Enrollment in D.C. Public Schools has been steadily declining since 1996, when the first two charters opened their schoolhouse doors. And in the past five years alone, 10,000 former DCPS students now attend charter schools. That single enrollment reality led to Monday’s announcement by Superintendent Clifford Janey that six DCPS schools will close this summer and several others with will consolidate, including a popular bilingual school.

As DCPS closes schools (and rightly so) because of losing students, charters continue to grow in interest and diversity. Fourteen new and expanded charters opened just this school year, and another wants to build a new campus for a boarding school for 600 students.

The phenomenal growth of D.C. charters (from two in 1996 to 51 this year) has presented obvious competitive challenges for DCPS, but that growth also presented a downside for charter: DCPS facilities. The 1996 school reform law is unambiguous regarding the use or even lease of DCPS facilities, explicitly saying that DCPS must give charter school the “right of first offer.” DCPS never made the considerable effort to adhere to that aspect of the law — until now.

In February, after pressure from school-choice advocates, DCPS reversed its policy that virtually forbid charter schools and DCPS schools from sharing school space. The superintendent’s Master Education Plan would grant priority to “uses that support the mission of schools,” including charters. Then, on Monday, the superintendent publicized the groundwork for such an educational partnership, saying that nine schools would be offered to charters or city agencies.

While more must be done, school officials should be commended for taking steps to rightsize the DCPS inventory, a thorny issue that must be consistently revisited every few years. Still, we read some discouraging reports about downsizing. Specifically, that “no school staffers will lose their jobs.” That simply cannot be. If DCPS is losing thousands of students each year, necessitating the call to rightsize the inventory, then downsizing the payroll should be on the superintendent’s to-do list as well.

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