Charter schools ask DC for its unused buildings

Perry Stein

WASHINGTON – (THE WASHINGTON POST) – The students, carrying signs that read “I [heart] charter schools,” packed the sprawling auditorium, where more than 1,000 children and teachers gathered after leaving school midday last month to attend a rally alongside leaders and consultants from the District of Columbia’s charter sector.

Chants ensued.

The speeches, calling on Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, to allow charter schools to use vacant city campuses, were impassioned.

“At the end of slavery, we were promised 40 acres and a mule, and that promise was never fulfilled,” said Shawn Hardnett, founder and executive director of Statesmen College Preparatory Academy for Boys, a public charter school that has struggled to find a permanent campus.

“Now, we’re calling on Mayor Bowser for four acres and a school.”

Executive director of DC Association of Charter Public Schools Ramona Edelin listens as Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn, talks to a reporter in the District of Columbia. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
More that 1,000 people rallied for more support for charter schools in the District of Columbia

It was the pinnacle of a citywide campaign imploring DC to remove empty school buildings from its inventory and give them to charter schools clamouring for adequate real estate.

The rally, organised by the advocacy group DC Association of Chartered Public Schools, followed months of radio and web ads pushing the mayor to act.

Unlike traditional campuses, charter schools – which are publicly funded but privately managed – do not operate in taxpayer-funded facilities.

Instead, the city allocates extra money to charter schools so they can secure facilities in an increasingly competitive private market or lease vacant government buildings.

Charters receive about USD3,300 per student for facilities.

But as the traditional public school system grows after years of declining enrollment and charters continue to open, some charters are scrambling for space.

DC’s charter school population is overwhelmingly black and Hispanic, and advocates have framed the quest for city properties as a civil rights issue, arguing that the city is denying children a quality education by refusing to let them use these government facilities.

There’s one significant disagreement framing the campaign: Charter advocates and city officials have a vastly different count of how many vacant buildings exist.

Advocates say there are at least 10. The city tally? Three.

And DC officials are still determining whether the city needs them. “It is a set of facts that is irrefutable,” Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn said.

“And you have an advocacy group – a special interest group – that is promoting a set of facts that is false.”

Charter advocates insist that by using a small part of some buildings, the city is pursuing a strategy of holding on to the structures – and keeping them out of the hands of charter operators.

They point to the original Malcolm X Elementary, a shuttered campus in Washington, as an example of a building that should be leased to a charter. Kihn said that building is used by two city agencies, the Departments of Employment Services and Parks and Recreation.

Hundreds of current and former school buildings exist in DC, which city operated a segregated school system for decades with campuses for black and white children serving the same grades in proximity to one another.

There are 215 buildings in DC used as public schools, both traditional and charter.

The DC government owns 144 of those structures, leasing 30 of those campuses to public charter schools. The rest of the active school buildings in the city are owned or rented by charter operators.

Ramona Edelin, executive director of the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools, said high-performing campuses with long lists of students waiting for seats are unable to expand because they cannot find space.

Fledgling schools operate in basements, or temporarily share space with other schools until they outgrow that space.

Five new charter schools are slated to open next fall, and it is unclear where they will be located.

“We would not want to be cynical by thinking the city is trying to thwart the growth of the charter sector by withholding the school buildings,” Edelin said. “But whether they intend to or not, that is the effect.”

Under federal law, charter schools in DC have the right to make the first offer on any surplus school campus the city owns. Preference is given to charter schools that are considered high-performing and financially sound.

If the city does not reach a deal with a charter school in six months, it can accept applications for the building from other organisations. In June, Bowser announced plans to lease the vacant Ferebee-Hope Elementary building – the first time in her nearly five-year tenure that she has proposed the possibility of leasing a city building to a charter. The city has not reached an agreement with a school to use the building.

The issue of school facilities has become charged in local education circles. Many proponents of the traditional public school system believe the city should hold on to school buildings, signalling that it plans to invest in the growth of the system.

“People are very community-oriented, and it makes people lose hope when they give these neighbourhood buildings away,” said Mysiki Valentine, a former DC teacher and campaign manager for the Fair Budget Coalition, a left-leaning DC advocacy organisation.

“Parents want choice, but when you continue to close neighbourhood schools, you are taking away choice from families.”

DC Council member Vincent Gray, a Democrat who led the city as mayor from 2011 to 2015, released more than a dozen school buildings to charters during his tenure as head of the government. That has further fuelled criticism that Bowser is hoarding facilities.

But Kihn said times have changed. Because DC Public Schools is growing, the city needs to keep its academic facilities, the deputy mayor said. But the city would consider sharing space with charter schools on traditional public school campuses that have capacity.

“The era of [DC Public Schools] being able to give over buildings to charters is over,” Kihn said. “I don’t see us being in a situation where we are going to decide whether we are going to give over lots of buildings to charters.”

Joshua Rales – founder of the Norman and Ruth Rales Foundation, which helped fund the campaign urging the Bowser administration to release school buildings to charters – rejects assertions that the battle for space is a proxy war over whether charters or traditional public schools are more deserving of the buildings. The goal, he said, is to ensure that high-performing schools have access to facilities.

“The end game,” he said, “is that every child should have access to an excellent school.”