- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 30, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

As many as 23 former D.C. school buildings are on the public selling block despite the fact that federal law says charter schools (also public) should get first dibs. Mayor Adrian Fenty has decided that developers are to get the first go - having offered 11 school campuses to retail, commercial and residential developers.

Law be damned, says the mayor. Parents and school reformers take heed. The mayor also has ignored another requisite - and that is to first declare the buildings surplus properties with the D.C. Register.

There is a longstanding history of opposition to school choice from proponents of the status quo. Former schools Superintendent Clifford B. Janey did everything he could to keep public charter schools - a choice for parents fed up with the troubled traditional schools - from competing on an even playing field. It meant that charter schools were routinely kept out of vacant and shared-space opportunities within public school buildings, forcing them to lease private space that was often inadequate and expensive. As a result, Rep. Tom Davis, Virginia Republican, helped craft a federal law that charter schools would get the first right of refusal of vacant school buildings. While Mr. Janey flouted that law, Mr. Fenty promised to reform traditional schools and support charter schools. Lawmakers now question whether the mayor intends to keep his promises.

“It is the law which says that closed public schools should be offered to chartered schools and/or used for governmental purposes. Development is the last resort when there is no other need for these buildings,” said D.C. Council Member Marion Barry, who, like the mayor, is a Democrat. “This latest attempt by the mayor to steamroll something past the council is totally unacceptable. This is a use of space that no one wants to support. The mayor should know better.” We concur with Mr. Barry.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the mayor working with the business community to increase the city’s tax base. It is generally good policy to do so - and even more pertinent amid the recession. But the law is the law. And commercialization shouldn’t trump education.

Maybe Mr. Fenty thinks he is advocating sound economic and academic policy by soliciting commercial proposals for the shuttered schools. But who would know? The mayor has yet to state his position and set his policy before the public. If the mayor opposes the law, then he should explain why. In the meantime, he must obey the law.

The council also has an opportunity to act should Mr. Fenty refuse: It can force the mayor’s hand with legislative action. At this juncture, the lawmakers should exercise that option and the mayor should heed the wishes of parents over developers.

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