Let’s Talk About the Real Cost of Closing DC Public Schools—Because It’s 2016

Last year, after his election, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked why he endeavored to have gender balance on his cabinet.

He had a simple answer: “Because it’s 2015.”

So, let’s talk about the real cost of closing DC public schools—because it’s 2016.

Two years ago, in 2014, the DC public charter school board (PCSB) asked Potomac Prep to meet certain goals after starting the process to revoke its charter. The school had been managed from its start in 2005 until June 2014 by Lighthouse Academies, a charter operator, and had high turnovers of staff and low test scores.

With a change of staff and board members after June 2014, Potomac Prep came close to, but didn’t in fact meet most of, the goals PCSB set for it to meet as a condition of continuing its operation.

Most of the 425 kids who attend Potomac Prep are at risk, with a sizable percentage who are special ed.

At its board hearing in December, at which Potomac Prep supporters spoke out passionately about their school (see 2:17 of the video), PCSB voted to initiate charter revocation for Potomac Prep.

Then, on January 14, PCSB held another, informal, hearing for the school, wherein students, parents, staff and community members talked about, and applauded, the positive changes in the school since management by Lighthouse ended.

At one point (1:44:50 in the video), a Ward 7 ANC commissioner noted the devastating effect of the 2013 closure of five DCPS schools in Ward 7 and the resulting “critical state of affairs” for kids in the ward whose school feeder patterns were “decimated.” For her and others testifying over the course of that 3-hour hearing, Potomac Prep’s work on its turnaround was key.

This coming Monday, January 25, PCSB is going to vote on revoking Potomac Prep’s charter at its regularly scheduled board meeting.

Let us now go back 20 years.

Chamberlain Career Senior High was closed in 1996, in a round of school closures that sought to save DCPS money, as it was considered to have too small an enrollment. Chamberlain’s 400 students, many from poverty, learned trades, with the idea that most, if not all, would never go on to college. Rather, the vocational skills they gained at Chamberlain would serve them immediately upon graduation.

Parents, community and staff members protested the closure at several organized events, but the school closed anyway.

Today, Chamberlain is still a school–but a charter school, Friendship’s Chamberlain preK-grade 8 campus, opened soon after Chamberlain high school closed. The Chamberlain school building itself is now owned by Friendship.

With 400 students, DCPS’s Chamberlain high school would have been on par with enrollment at some current DC public high schools. Even so, that same round of school closures in 1996 targeted Hardy Middle School, which at that point was at 101% of capacity.

Clearly, enrollment was not the sole factor for closure (or, as Hardy’s inclusion on that closure list shows, not even a passing concern).

So, it’s now 2016, 20 years after Chamberlain ceased being a high school run by DCPS and 10 years after Potomac Prep started. But the movement to close public schools in DC continues unabated, with DC charter schools having as high as a 40% closure rate, and some neighborhoods now without a by right school at all.

Now, as opposed to 20 years ago, different people helm DC public education.

Now, as opposed to 20 years ago, the mayor controls all public schools, with appointments to PCSB and a deputy mayor overseeing DCPS.

Now, as opposed to 20 years ago, we have charters educating almost half of all DC public school students.

And yet, even with all those changes, this old path of DC school history continues: a school lacks something, according to the people entrusted with the death and life of schools, and that lack justifies closure.

But that something lacking is never really defined.

It’s not always (or even ever) enrollment–which, as the attempt to close Hardy and the DCPS 2013 budget debacle over a “small” versus “large” school proved, is as much in the eye of the beholder as it is about hard numbers.

That something lacking is not always or even test scores, which at their best can only ever tell part of the story, especially in student populations where trauma is present.

That something lacking is not even time to prove new strategies or new staff or new students–because as any educator knows, time is of the essence for children, who cannot relive the one-way path of childhood.

But that something lacking is very important, because it serves to justify school closure, which (at least in DC) comes hand in hand with reassuring logic and rationality: low test scores, low enrollment, poor performance, the possibility of saving money on facilities or staff or supplies.

There’s just one rub, as the folks testifying about Potomac Prep all touched on and that every civic leader understands and banks on: the value of a school extends beyond test scores, enrollment, performance, and saving money.

So, now that it’s 2016, let us ask ourselves what the real costs of closing schools are.

One place to start is to ask where the Chamberlain kids went all those years ago when their school was closed. And where the Potomac Prep kids will go if PCSB votes to close that school.

That is:

Is there a way to track those students, to see if another school, or another methodology, does better with them? Or, will those students go off in all directions, to all sorts of places, such that they will never be together again, unless another charter or DCPS moves in to that same space and takes on that same school community wholesale?

In that case, what metric will be used to show improvement for those same students? Or will they just move on, their history forgotten except as it may relate to overall test scores, enrollment, performance, and/or saving money at other DC public schools?

This is only one reasonable and basic question that no taxpayer in DC has ever gotten an answer for in any school closure. (Though not because the questions hasn’t been asked before regarding tracking students rather than school performance.)

But the unanswered questions go much, much farther.

For instance, I have lost count of the times I have been admonished by city leaders (even fellow parents!) that if my public school gets X, another public school loses X.

Setting aside the dubious ethics of a rich city pitting schools with needs against each other (“What choice shall we make, Jeeves, now that we have gifted Marriott with $200 million: bathroom sinks that don’t fall off walls for Stuart-Hobson or windows that don’t leak for Watkins?”), this conversation of school costs never includes the actual costs of school closures, some of which have not garnered the savings they were supposed to have realized.

We taxpayers have also never gotten an answer on the costs of creating new public schools–both on enrollments at existing schools as well as the costs of infrastructure and staff for the new schools.

These unanswered questions about costs extend to the effect on the community at each school closed. It is admittedly tough to put such an effect into the handy boxes of logic and rationality that appear to govern our school decisionmaking (test scores, enrollment, performance, money saved on staff, etc.).

But think about it for a second: who in DC do you know who doesn’t embrace school choice, whether for themselves or others?

And yet school choice is completely upended by school closures, which take away the choice that parents and students make in selecting a school–and, once they win a spot, becoming a part of that school.

Moreover, given that no public school in DC is 100% in bounds, school closures inevitably mean entire communities upended. In addition to actual neighborhoods that depend on those schools as places of civic engagement (think voting, recreation, emergency shelter), DC communities affected by school closures extend beyond mere geography and the nicety of boundaries and feeder patterns to parents and students across the city who have invested in long commutes and time to become a part of those schools.

And, now that it is 2016, another question arises: Will the cross-sector task force delve into any of this next week when they meet for the first time?

More importantly, will the task force recognize, and act on, that pesky American notion articulated by all those people protesting the closure of Potomac Prep, Chamberlain, and countless other DC public schools facing closure: that any public school is so much more than test scores, enrollment, performance, saving money?

It’s 2016: let’s get some answers to these questions.

3 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About the Real Cost of Closing DC Public Schools—Because It’s 2016

  1. Your article is quite timely. You seem to be ware that closing schools has very little to do with providing parents with quality options for their children. School choice in Washington has turned into a political football that seems to ignore that 85 per cent of the children in public schools are black. The decisions being made are being made as if they are all leaving town, or worse still don’t even exist. The Cross Sector Taskforce is a farce, the report is going to be a rehash of the several reports that have been written over the past several years on exactly the same topic. The purpose of the taskforce is to limit the options available to poor children, it is to keep them in Wards Seven and Eight under the pretense that renovated or new classrooms will make the education better.

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  2. Thanks for the clarification about Hardy; the old Hardy at Foxhall had been an elementary and then became a middle school. It was what moved into what we now know as the current Hardy MS in 1996. The point I was making was that enrollment has not always been the issue regarding school closures–indeed, the condition of a school facility has also been taken into account.

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