The Real Master (Facilities) Plan?

Back in October, I attended a public meeting at Kramer Middle School, for feedback on the master facilities plan (MFP). The session was one of several held throughout the city by the deputy mayor for education’s (DME) office, which is responsible for creating the plan.

Required to be updated wholesale once every decade, the MFP is supposed to provide a plan for public school facilities in DC. Per the law, this latest incarnation of the MFP will have a hearing before the council this week, on June 5 (sign up is here).

Perhaps the most salient note at that October feedback session was what was not discussed: neither the new Bard high school nor an expanded Banneker high school at Shaw (which is, after intense debate, now located for good at Shaw), even though both were officially announced at about the same time as that feedback session and officials in that room certainly knew well the plans for both.

Indeed, the few members of the public attending that MFP feedback session spent a considerable amount of time talking about how it is difficult, if not impossible, to plan when schools can locate anywhere anytime.

After all, none of us plebes in that room had any idea (and still don’t)

–What other schools DCPS will be starting;
–What schools the charter board will be starting;
–What schools DCPS will be closing;
–What schools the charter board will be closing;
–What DCPS closed schools will be put up for RFO (i.e. see this, just out);
–How the public is supposed to engage on the MFP without that information; and
–What value our feedback could possibly have when everything we were told was not merely subject to change, but was apparently being changed as we spoke.

My main piece of feedback was that the MFP must have as a foundational principle the right of children to attend equitable schools of right in their neighborhoods. That means that the MFP would at the least prioritize

1. equitable physical conditions at each neighborhood by right school;
2. ensuring each neighborhood HAS a full complement of by right schools and a predictable feeder pattern; and
3. ensuring each neighborhood by right feeder pattern has enough space to accommodate all students who LIVE in those places (i.e., to secure their rights, which is not possible right now in either wards 7 or 8).

Needless to say, the MFP doesn’t do any of that.

In fact, despite its name, this MFP is not a plan, but a collection of data (which is not even complete) that will be used to inform planning.

To be sure, the data in the MFP is impressive, including the size and capacities of buildings; historical trends in enrollment; programming; modernizations; facilities conditions; population and enrollment projections; and a listing of possible decision making (co-locations of schools, transit options, etc.). And though it doesn’t present any plan, the MFP makes clear that whatever planning or plan there is, it will take into account not merely data the DME has collected (including utilization rates and in boundary participation and percentages for DCPS schools of right), but also each school’s STAR rating, which is largely based on test scores.

In the meantime, DC’s actual school facilities planning–the actual decision making on DC school closings, relocations, co-locations, creations, RFOs, etc.–is happening (and will continue to happen) entirely out of public view.

Let all that sink in for a moment:

As each student inside a school building takes tests largely correlated with household income (not to mention that also require technology that some students and schools have less access to than others), each student’s performance on those tests may determine the fate of the building they take those tests in.

And if that’s not twisted enough, none of the public will have a say in any of this, because the facilities decision making will be presented publicly only after it’s made.

Interestingly, the fact that the MFP is just a collection of data suggests it’s also in violation of the law, as the mayor needs to provide a plan to the council, for council approval.

Also interestingly, a recent document the DME created for the charter board (see here) comes somewhat closer to a plan (albeit a negative one, inasmuch as this shows only the problem of unfilled seats, not its solution). While unfilled school seats are not exactly news in DC, a fascinating little tidbit contained within this document states that between 2010 and 2017, DC’s public high school student population actually declined by 1300 students.

Now, you’d think with all the talk about how our schools and their governance are, uh, successful, this wouldn’t be happening–but then, you wouldn’t think that the same agency that produced this report would, at the exact same time, be creating new schools (Bard, enlarged Banneker) or offering up a closed DCPS school to further proliferate seats in a ward brimful with unfilled seats.

The bottom line is (once again!) that none of this is a plan.

Indeed, if ANY plan for our schools and/or their buildings exists in the public view (and believe me, I’ve looked), it would appear to run along certain principles:

–Both the DME and chancellor have signaled that we cannot afford enrollment stabilization funds of $4 million a year for DCPS schools, so schools with low enrollments will lose resources and enrollments faster;

–The mayor has said small schools are unaffordable;

–Our ESSA plan (p. 35) makes clear that schools with low test scores can be made available to other operators after consecutive years of low test scores;

–The MFP suggests that low utilization rates imply future facility re-use–even though there are no transparent standards for capacity measures in the MFP and all capacities are self-assessed by each LEA;

–Our FY20 budget kneecapped many schools of right in wards 7 and 8, even when their enrollments are actually NOT decreasing;

–Our DME has said that schools of right must “look at their role”–while accepting that one high school of right may never offer the variety of another;

–Our charter board authorizes an unlimited number of new seats annually, no matter that its success rate is, ironically, relatively low; and

–All the instability from all of the openings and closures has no consequences whatsoever that cannot be overcome by, uh, doing more of the same!

Now, with the charter board having just approved 5 new schools for a total of nearly 2000 more seats, while other existing charters will likely get approved for expansions this year, those principles immediately above provide valuable justification for DCPS closures, which will free up a lot of facilities for all those new charter seats.

So it would seem that the animating factor behind this non-plan plan is real estate rather than rights. But not just real estate for charter schools (though that is an ever-present part of it).

(And not just about buildings, either–though there is this nicely produced propaganda that overlooks all those pesky details of existing unfilled seats and poorly resourced schools and the fact that those newly approved charters have left DC on the hook for as much as $6 million MORE annually in charter facilities fees that, well, might have come in handy at existing schools.)

Rather, it may be that the real estate concern here is about location.

Take this study done of charter schools in DC neighborhoods (interestingly, the work of an organization mainly funded by education privatizers).

In a chart that seeks to elucidate which charter elementaries draw the most from their neighborhoods, a DCPS elementary school of right is listed and then charter elementaries in the boundary for that DCPS school are listed. Each of the charters has a color-coordinated graphic showing the percentage of kids in bounds for each of those DCPS schools who attend the charters in question.

But what is not shown is that of the 35 elementaries of right listed, 22 have charter elementaries in their boundaries that are located in closed DCPS facilities–most of which were once elementary schools. Here’s my accounting:

Noyes: one charter in closed DCPS elementary
Brightwood: one charter in closed DCPS school
Wheatley: two charters in closed DCPS elementary
King: two charters in closed DCPS elementaries
Seaton: three charters in closed DCPS schools (two closed elementaries)
Savoy: two charters in closed DCPS elementary
Langdon: one charter in closed DCPS elementary
Whittier: one charter in closed DCPS junior high
Barnard: one charter in closed DCPS elementary
Miner: one charter in closed DCPS elementary
Garrison: one charter in closed DCPS elementary
Burrville: two charters in closed DCPS elementary
Smothers: one charter in closed DCPS elementary
CW Harris: one charter in closed DCPS elementary
Simon: one charter in closed DCPS elementary
Lasalle-Backus: one charter in closed DCPS special needs school; one charter in closed DCPS elementary
Tyler: one charter in closed DCPS high school
Burroughs: one charter in closed DCPS junior high; one charter in closed DCPS elementary
Patterson: one charter in closed DCPS education campus
Amidon-Bowen: one charter on campus of DCPS middle school
Walker-Jones: one charter in closed DCPS elementary
Browne: one charter in closed DCPS elementary

Now, one can say that all of this is good school planning–reusing public space wisely!

On the other hand, given that some neighborhoods have no more public schools of right due to closures–and that many more neighborhoods lack predictable and accessible feeder patterns of right due to closures (hello Shaw!)–this outline of where students attend charter schools at the elementary level shows that location is, well, everything.

Simply put, the fact that many charter elementaries right now draw neighborhood kids suggests that these charter schools directly benefit in enrollments from the fact of the DCPS schools they occupy having been closed.

That is, here is the narrative for DCPS facilities and closures shown by that study’s chart:

1. Charter school is approved;
2. Charter school is awarded a closed DCPS school of right building;
3. Charter school draws kids from the neighborhood of the closed DCPS school of right AND the boundary of the (receiving) school of right.

But explanations of the data in this MFP, and DC education leaders’ stated principles above, indicate a very different narrative for DCPS facilities and closures:

1. DCPS school of right loses enrollment;
2. DCPS school of right is closed;
3. DCPS school of right building goes up for RFO;
4. DCPS school of right building is awarded to a charter school.

The first narrative above documents predation; the second appears to be one of apparently objective rationality (just the facts, ma’am!).

Yet, the reality that charter approval, and subsequent location in a former DCPS school, may contribute to lowered utilizations and enrollments in existing, nearby DCPS schools is entirely omitted from any official discussion–despite all the MFP data on utilizations and all the heavy breathing on enrollments and test scores that we have baked into how our schools are categorized by our city.

So it is that only one narrative is promulgated officially among our city’s education leaders regarding closed schools of right: that of DCPS failing. Failing to attract students, failing to utilize space, failing to have high test scores: all are portrayed as if completely independent of anything and everything else, even though that study’s one chart makes clear that all of those things are never independent variables.

What is also fascinating is that while this study shows that location is a huge factor for school enrollments, particularly at lower grades, the underfunding of schools of right for FY20 has largely affected schools in wards 7 and 8 that have, for the most part, low in boundary participation rates, but relatively high in boundary percentages in their enrollments.

In other words, the families who have chosen those underfunded (and sometimes underenrolled) schools are largely those who live in close proximity to them.

In a town where every council hearing features pleas for help with safe passage, ignoring this reality in our funding and support of our schools of right is akin to saying that school choice is great–but only for some people. At some schools.

All of which is to say that this data, and this MFP, are not a plan–at least, not one seen by the public.

(Though we can see enough to know that whatever plan there is, it’s probably not about securing education rights.)

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