- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 18, 2006

Few folks in the District are able to argue reasonably that all the city’s abysmal schools should be spared from the chopping block. However, the who, the what, the when, the where and the how some of the system’s 147 crumbling buildings should be closed raises a ruckus in almost every quarter.

You can play nice and label the plan by any number of bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo misnomers you like, such as “right-sizing” or “consolidation,” but the plain truth is D.C. school officials finally have gotten the guts to close some schools.

As usual, the neighborhoods where the schools will be closed first are those that traditionally are the least served when it comes to getting government goodies. And, these neighborhoods east of the city, where unemployment and dropout rates are extremely high, are the ones that need public services most.

Has it occurred to anyone that the public school system, which has been besieged by all levels of government micromanagement for decades, is losing thousands of students? Has anyone reviewed the myriad “reform” experiments and parade of poor political policies that drove poor and working-class families away from this capital city and its failing schools? Dare I mention the word gentrification? Dare I raise the bugaboo of inequitable distribution of resources? When you demonstrate that you care more about buildings than babies, your public institutions will deteriorate to the point of no return and be reflective of blatant mistakes and neglect.

Here again, we punish the victim. Yet, some folks don’t like it if you don’t dance around the devil in the details.

Earlier this week, Superintendent Clifford B. Janey released a “right-sizing” plan that is a half-baked effort to save money and sell off surplus space supposedly to improve academic standards. Six schools in poor black neighborhoods are slated for immediate closing. Not a single school west of Rock Creek Park is on the initial consolidation list.

Emily Washington, a veteran D.C. teacher who once sat on the appointed school board, never minces words when it comes to advocating for poor black students and parents who have suffered long enough in schools “that don’t work.”

“On its face [the plan] looks all right, and it appears that the other schools won’t suffer,” Miss Washington (no relation) said. But, “it seems [Mr. Janey] thought ,’How can we get the most space the fastest with the least amount of resistance and not make any white people mad?’”

Oops, there it is — race and class, which commands center stage in all that goes down in the District.

“What the board is doing with the Southeast and far Northeast schools is overkill,” she said.

Credit Mr. Janey for even bringing the politically charged issue of school closing and consolidation to the table. Indeed, this first step is long overdue, but quite frankly, it does not go far enough to improve academic performance.

Taking more time and laying out the entire long-range school closing plan, ward by ward, school by school — rather than piecemeal as was done by an untested Mr. Janey this week — surely would have caused more criticism across the city. But better to upset many all at once than a few in dribs and drabs and open up yourself to charges of discrimination.

No one will be completely satisfied when the consolidation deed is done. But if the relatively new superintendent, or anyone on the D.C. school board, thinks they will be able to convince longtime Washingtonians — sensitive to proverbial political slights — that race and class were not a factor in this decision, I’ve got a baseball stadium to sell them that won’t cost taxpayers more than $611 million.

Which brings us to another point: Even with all the upheaval and hand-wringing, it is still not clear how Mr. Janey’s plan achieves the promised $8 million long-term savings. How, when he pledges not to fire staff or put the valuable old structures on the bidding block for panting condominium developers? Skeptical Washingtonians have long thought the school consolidation push is merely a land grab. School officials must be mindful of this skepticism as they proceed, even if it means a delay to allay long-held fears.

Parent and student-advocacy groups are right to lay out their lengthy list of questions regarding the transition of students from one building to the next and possibly then again. One issue that must be carefully considered is the possibility of heightened gang activity as student populations are meshed.

“They are compromising the human potential and safety of the children least able to undergo drastic changes in their education,” Miss Washington said. “It would be something different if they were putting in competent leaders, but to shut down [the schools] and send the students to another low-performing school is not the answer.”

The school system is required by law to hold public meetings in the next several weeks to allow parents and others in the community an opportunity to comment on these school closings. All stakeholders should make it their business to attend these forums.

School closings are now inevitable. Mr. Janey and the board must do something the D.C. school system has never done: They must ensure that this process is done in a fair and equitable manner for all.

As Miss Washington says, “There is nothing wrong with having pain for progress, if everybody has to share it.”

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