- The Washington Times - Monday, November 29, 2010

The classrooms of Meyer Elementary School in Northwest Washington used to be filled with young minds and its playground was full of romping youngsters. Today it stands as a testament to one of the challenges Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray faces as he tries to fulfill campaign promises to bolster charter schools and implement his age 0-to-24 education plan.

As part of the D.C. Comprehensive Plan Act, the city’s land-use road map, Mr. Gray succeeded last week in getting an amendment passed that would grant charter schools the “right of first refusal” to public school facilities. But there’s a catch.

The bill differs slightly from current law, which gives public charters the first right to lease or purchase closed school buildings. But both the current law and the new measure stipulate that the right applies only after the facilities are no longer needed by the D.C. government.

Therein lies the rub with charter-school advocates, who want the right of first refusal to kick in when the school closes, not, as the current and proposed law both say, when the D.C. government decides it doesn’t want to use the buildings for any purpose - educational or otherwise.

The new measure keeps charter schools at the back of the line and, the advocates say, even gives anti-charters forces within the city government an incentive to find other uses for school buildings.

“If the District of Columbia is changing its law to allow charter schools the first right to ‘use’ vacant school buildings that are unneeded by the District government, that would be an improvement,” said Peter Goff, executive director of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.

The director of a local advocacy group was more blunt.

“This is not good news,” Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, said of last week’s amendment. “It’s bad news and the reason is that the 1995 school reform law gives charters the right of first offer on surplus D.C. Public Schools buildings.

“Closed schools should be used for their intended purpose,” Mr. Cane added.

Finding and financing adequate facilities have been long-standing challenges for charter schools, many of which incubate in nontraditional settings, including office and retail space, before securing their own building. Many lack kitchens and play and sports areas - facilities readily available at surplus schools.

The problem takes on a political dimension with closed public schools like Meyer.

One of dozens of schools closed because of underperformance and declining public school enrollment before the 2006 mayoral election, Meyer, which is a neighbor of Howard University, is worth an estimated $13 million.

School-choice advocates lobbied hard and long for Meyer to be used as a charter, but the administration of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty said no.

Exercising the caveat in D.C. law, city officials instead proposed to put the closed schools to other government use, including public safety and works, and a community boxing program.

In some instances, vacant schools only are being reused for educational purposes after a public outcry.

For example, Mr. Fenty proposed using one closed school by then-Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee for the Department of Motor Vehicles and another for public safety training. But stakeholders succeeded in securing both former schools as campuses for the city’s new community college.

Mr. Fenty also pushed to place social service and jobs programs in other closed schools, including the old Merritt Middle School in Mr. Gray’s backyard.

Charter advocates don’t discount the need for such programs, but they said charter-school growth requires the law to change.

Traditional D.C. public school enrollment has declined in each of the three previous years, while public charter enrollment rose steadily. The increase means nearly 40 percent of school-age children now attend a public charter school.

Much of that growth is attributed to charters’ prekindergarten enrollment, a direction Mr. Gray endorses as part of his birth-to-24 education policy.

At the start of this school year, 49 charter schools offered education programs for 3- and 4-year-olds, with five devoting themselves entirely to such work. Others hope to expand.

Now policymakers need to match growing charter demand with the supply of already-closed schoolhouses.

“We would hope that the Gray administration will recognize charter school primacy to facilities,” Mr. Cane said. “Meyer school is still empty two years later. I think the [D.C.] Council is trying to do something good for charter schools, but didn’t accomplish that goal.”

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