D.C.’s Officials Are Blocking High School Graduation and College Opportunity for Hundreds of Students

D.C.’s Officials Are Blocking High School Graduation and College Opportunity for Hundreds of Students
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Every public school building in Washington D.C. stands empty today. But some have stood empty for years, because elected officials are defying a law that requires that they offer the buildings to charter school operators. The human cost of their intransigence: hundreds, perhaps thousands of D.C. children who fail to graduate from high school and never go on to college.

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And now that Congress’s stimulus bill includes $725 million less for D.C. than for the smallest state, making our coming fiscal crisis that much deeper, the financial cost of that intransigence will be particularly painful. If the mayor were willing to turn the empty buildings over to charter operators rather than let them rot, she would generate significant rent, plus tax revenue as the operators paid to renovate them.

The previous two mayors handed 12 and 14 buildings to charters, each in just one four-year term. In her fifth year in office, Mayor Muriel Bowser finally agreed to release one last summer, after angry citizens launched a campaign demanding that she “end the list” of almost 12,000 students on charter waiting lists by turning over empty buildings. (Charters are public schools, operated by nonprofit organizations and authorized by a board appointed by the mayor. They do not charge tuition and they are not allowed to select their students.)

Consider just the eight available school buildings in D.C.’s three poorest wards, 5, 7, and 8: Fletcher-Johnson, Kenilworth, Langston, Malcolm X, Marshall, Springarn, Wilkinson, and Winston. (Malcolm X, Wilkinson, and Kenilworth are partially used by other D.C. government departments.) Given their square footage, they could easily educate 5,000 students, without displacing the other departments.

How many of those 5,000 would graduate from high school? Let’s compare graduation rates from the city’s district and charter high schools. But let’s do it fairly: Let’s eliminate the district’s selective schools, which get to pick the strongest students—plus Wilson High School, whose affluent zone is selective by geography. And let’s eliminate all “alternative schools,” which educate many over-age students. Finally, because so many of D.C.’s low-income students are behind their grade levels and need an extra year to finish high school, let’s compare how many graduate within five years.

The eight remaining high schools in D.C. Public Schools (DCPS), which had 1,348 students in the cohort that began ninth grade in 2014-15, had an average five-year graduation rate of 72.9 percent by 2019. The 16 chartered high schools, with 1,107 students in the cohort, averaged 88.4 percent. If the 1,348 DCPS students had attended charter schools and that 88.4 percent average had held, 209 more students would have graduated. Virtually all of them would have been accepted to college, and more than six in 10 would have enrolled.

The other 3,652 empty seats in those three wards could go to chartered elementary and middle schools. Charters in wards 5, 7 and 8 vastly outperform district schools on every measure, so these 3,652 students would have entered high school with a much better shot at graduation and college.

One can look at PARCC scores, where almost twice as many ward 5, 7, and 8 charter students as DCPS students (in non-selective schools) are proficient.

Or one can look at the city’s new five-star rating system for schools. In Wards 5, 7, and 8, there are 19 charter schools rated four or five stars—the equivalent of “A” and “B” or “good” and “excellent.” Only four non-selective DCPS schools in those three wards earned such ratings.

And empty buildings aren’t the entire story. As of 2017-18, 14 DCPS schools were more than half empty, all but three of them in wards 5, 7, and 8. In the past, DCPS has allowed only a few charter schools to co-locate in its buildings.

Those 14 schools have an estimated 6,500 empty seats. By encouraging co-location and releasing the eight available school buildings, Mayor Bowser and DCPS could almost eliminate the charter school waiting list. Meanwhile, they could charge rent to the co-locating charters, increasing DCPS revenues at a time when the city will desperately need the money.

If 1,348 more seats in high schools would result in 209 more students graduating from high school, imagine what 11,500 seats throughout PreK-12 would do. Given the performance gap between charters and district schools in low-income wards, such a change might eventually allow a thousand more students to graduate from high school and go on to college, every year.

This is the price D.C.’s low-income children are paying for their elected officials’ bias against charter schools.

Those officials might argue that opening up all this space to charter schools would drain children and dollars from DCPS. But are the mayor and city council elected to protect DCPS or to educate the city’s children?

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