- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 6, 2008


When Mayor Adrian Fenty and education Chancellor Michelle Rhee announced in November their plan to close 23 D.C. schools, the immediate critics were D.C. Council members, namely Marion Barry, who was miffed at not being included in the planning stages of the proposal, and Harry Thomas Jr., who disliked the disproportionate number of schools being closed in his ward. We appreciate lawmakers being protective of their wards, but not at the expense of schoolchildren. The school-closure plan makes sense.

The original executive order emphasized initiatives that would improve early childhood education and special education, and introduce a gifted and talented program. It also would improve fine arts options at many schools. On Feb. 1, the list of school closures was reduced to 21. A key portion of this plan that residents should understand is that “approximately 80 percent of public schools are underenrolled, [and] resources based on student enrollment have been stretched increasingly thin.” Another is that the city allots “approximately 330 sq. ft. per student, while the national standard is 150 sq. ft.” More importantly, as Mrs. Rhee and her five predecessors have said, student enrollment has been on a steady decline while the costs to maintain facilities has been on a steady uptick.

This situation is a no-brainer: The education budget will be more cost-efficient and cost-effective when funding is spent on teaching and learning instead of bricks and mortar. Students need more guidance counselors; extra math and reading tutors; and other academic resources — not extra schoolhouses.

Another major concern of lawmakers is the use of the school property after each building has been closed. Mr. Thomas and Mr. Barry introduced legislation in December, the School Closing Fairness and Accountability Act of 2007, that would effectively prevent the city-owned buildings from being sold to private development companies. Mr. Fenty, for his part, has said that the schools will not be sold. But the buildings that aren’t used for educational purposes — and that likely will be the majority — should be put on the tax rolls. Those that aren’t should be turned over to charter schools and considered for private and nonprofit day facilities for preschools and seniors.

Much public discourse lies ahead in this debate. The Fenty administration and the council could aid this important cause by informing parents and other taxpayers what lessons we have learned by not closing schools and why this time around, children will be the primary beneficiaries.

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