- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Mayor Adrian Fenty is scheduled to announce tomorrow more details on his education plan, which, approved last week by the D.C. Council, would effectively change every aspect of school governance since LBJ was in the White House. We hope the mayor voices support for charter schools.

One of the best things that has happened on the D.C. education front in the last 10 years is charter schools, and the fact that D.C. Public Schools has been bleeding students since that time while waiting lists and applications for new charter schools has grown by leaps and bounds — to 55 schools on 71 campuses this school year — is the perfect testament. The growth remains encouraging for parents looking to opt out of violent and ineffective schools, but there’s little evidence that the Fenty administration and school officials will bolster support for parents and students.

We’re not suggesting the mayor’s support for charter schools is depreciating. Indeed, Mr. Fenty’s 2008 budget proposal follows enrollment trends by basing his spending plan on projected enrollments. What is of paramount concern is the unmet facilities needs of charter schools and school authorities’ historical failure to give them equal treatment in long- and short-term planning. We’re also somewhat suspect of the potential for politically motivated red tape once authority over public education is transferred to City Hall.

The District is embarking on a $2.3 billion school facilities plan that has the support of both the Board of Education and the mayor. The overall plan includes closing some schools because of the trends in declining enrollment. The problem is that while the District has several laws to aid charter schools in obtaining surplus school properties — even at below market rates — past and current school administrations close or consolidate schools and then use them for other non-academic purposes. Some closed schools are used solely for administrative purposes.

Enrollment projections prove that about 20 schools should be closed in the next couple of years if DCPS is to right-size itself. Meanwhile, charter schools are dramatically changing not only how children are being educated — Washington Latin School, for example, has a classical focus — but charters are also dramatically reshaping the physical landscape — “friends” of the Friendship Collegiate Academy turned a deteriorated, closed junior high into one of the city’s most prestigious high schools. But where do charters really stand?

One of the District’s buy-lease school laws is riddled with caveats. For example, one law stipulates that while charter schools must be given “right of first offer” at below-market rates, it also says that DCPS can reject a charter school’s offer if doing so would result in a significant revenue loss that might be obtained from other dispositions or use of the property. The end result is that charter schools often are forced to pay market rates or borrow substantial funds for their schoolhouses.

Charter schools shouldn’t be an after-thought as Mr. Fenty — who captured a considerable school-choice voting bloc at the polls in November — moves forward with his restructuring plans. Tomorrow would be as good a time as any for the mayor to articulate his support for charter schools.

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