District Needs Blanket Plan for Public Schools
Published: Friday, March 1, 2013
Updated: Friday, March 1, 2013 01:03
As a member of the Washington D.C. community concerned with the educational opportunities in the District, I am deeply troubled about the closure of Kenilworth Elementary and 14 other area schools without a viable plan to educate our students. Over four years ago, former Chancellor Michelle Rhee closed 23 schools due to low enrollment, intending to allocate resources more efficiently to stronger programming at fewer schools. Mayor Vincent Gray’s education policy has paralleled hers. And so it comes as no surprise that five years later, the District is closing more schools using similar logic.
If the major push for these consolidations is enhanced programming, what should students expect at the consolidated schools? According to D.C. Public Schools, consolidating schools will promote teacher collaboration and expand programming. Further, it should permit elementary schools to hire assistant principals, librarians and full-time art, music or physical education teachers as long as their enrollment stays above 300 students. The expanded range of programming will be stretched thin, however, as the majority of the consolidated schools will have fewer administrative staff per pupil than in the schools on the closing list, according to a study created by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. Finally, D.C. standardized testing results have been stagnant after the closures in 2008. While many variables are responsible for test scores, the trend suggests that consolidation does not lead to increased educational outcomes.
Another argument used for the closing of schools is the potential cost savings. The proposed school closures would save $8.5 million, less than 1 percent of D.C.’s education budget. These savings fail to account for additional costs of transportation and will not leave much money left over for additional programming, which was the primary goal of the consolidation. In the case of Kenilworth Elementary, which will be closed in July 2013, the savings from closing would be less than $300,000. This move would be understandable if D.C. were pinching pennies, but the District ran a budget surplus of $417 million in 2012.
While the fiscal savings and the enhanced programming may be minimal, the social costs of these closures are real and significant. First and foremost, a school is public space designed for community engagement and unity. It is central to a strong neighborhood identity and a source of pride. By closing these schools, these communities — especially isolated ones like Kenilworth — will lose some of their last remaining public spaces, which are conspicuously few and far between already. Besides the negative effects on community development, there will be additional costs to both the parents and students in consolidated schools. Transportation to and from school will become more difficult and will only be provided by the District in the short term. As parents live farther away, their engagement will become even more difficult for schools.
These issues could be addressed with some critical thinking and planning from the District, but there remains one issue that must be tackled and addressed amid consolidation — the lack of a District-wide plan for public schools. By July, DCPS will have shuttered nearly 40 schools since 2008, while charter enrollment has increased by 10,000 students in that time.
The exodus of students from traditional public schools is troublesome as it sets the stage for another generation of segregation. Although this segregation will not be propagated by legislation or bias, it will create a deep divide within our public education system. On one side, the students with the resources to navigate the complex application process will enroll in charter schools or participate in the out-of-boundary lottery. On the other side, students who don’t have the time, resources or expertise will be marginalized in their traditional neighborhood schools. This runs contrary to a government’s obligation to educate all students equally, not just the ones it prefers to educate or those that can maneuver the system. These distinct populations will continue to divide and segregate until a District-wide plan focuses on equal opportunity for all children in D.C.
What could a District-wide plan look like? First, it must address the achievement gap between socioeconomic groups by supplying more effective resources to our students that need it most, not closing schools in these areas. Second, the District must make an effort to understand the individual needs and desires of the communities its schools serve. Too often, directives from the DCPS central office, like the school closings, lack community collaboration and alienate the very population they intend to serve. Finally, Gray and the city council must find a way to foster cooperation between DCPS and the Public Charter School Board in order to formulate a coherent plan for the future of public education in D.C. If the District fails to act with any long-term vision in mind, we will be talking about this very same solution — and problem — five years from now. What a shame that would be.
MATTHEW KERRIGAN is a senior in the School of Foreign Service and a coordinator for D.C. Reads.