DC’s Comprehensive Plan–Or, The End Of The Road For Education Rights In DC?

[Ed. Note: DC’s office of planning has promulgated revisions to the city’s comprehensive plan. The deadline for public comment was last week–but ANCs have additional time to review and comment on the draft document, which is here in a redlined version.

The changes made to this planning document not only are long on celebration and short on historical detail, but the emphasis throughout appears to be on public private partnership agreements for everything public, whether using public facilities, modernizing them, or locating in them. (Really: check out what it says about public private partnerships to construct new police stations (section 1113.4) and to remodel and construct correctional facilities (section 1114.13).) If the mayor’s planners succeed in pushing this privatized utopia through, it will likely lead to a landscape for public education in which privatizers are further encouraged to get their piece of public action, a la what DPR seems to be currently doing with Jelleff and nearby Ellington field.

(NB: If you don’t have time to wade through the >1500 redlined pages of the draft comprehensive plan to get a flavor for this, you can get the shorthand version (including a 999-year lease!) on this current list of DPR public private partnership agreements for DC’s publicly owned recreational facilities. That list was provided to the council after the public hearing on Jelleff.)

Anyhoo, below are my comments on this draft document, with an emphasis on education. To see exactly how the public could have a much more, well, democratic role in its publicly funded schools (and not that merely of a silent and compliant funder), check out these edits to the draft comprehensive plan, from the 21st Century School Fund. Here’s hoping someone somewhere is listening–because education rights in DC appear to hang in the balance.]


Dear readers at the office of planning,

Here are my comments on the draft comprehensive plan, with a focus on public education. I found the draft interesting inasmuch as it displays the values of the mayor and her concept of the city.

But I also found that in (literally) erasing historical details in the prior plan and replacing them in many places with what appears to be laudatory statements of progress, the plan eschews any real details for what appears to be aspirations and/or indistinct and uneven progress.

Possibly worse, there is a quality to this plan that suggests the mayor–and the mayor alone–has the authority to do such planning above all others.

For instance, on p. 5 (102.1), the plan appears to negate the ability of the council to alter it. Rather, it states the council must simply adopt it.

Then on p. 7 (103.6), it deletes all mention of the education master facilities plan (MFP) as a planning document among all city planning documents.

Sadly, all this suggests that our schools are in fact not a part of city planning–which is reinforced throughout. Indeed, there appears to be a complete disconnect between schools and the other planning.

For instance, of all the places listed on p. 34 (304.11) that are being encouraged to expand residential uses, there are few, if any, public schools and few, if any, mentions of them. In fact, on p. 53 (309.6), in the definition of a successful neighborhood, there is nothing about schools, something repeated on p. 499 (909), where no mention is made of schools in designing successful neighborhoods. And on p. 481 (903.11), the mention of promoting equitable growth in our city includes nothing of schools. In fact, I found only on p. 47 (306.17) any note about siting schools along transit ways. This suggests that the document is DIScouraging, rather than supporting, a system of neighborhood schools of right and has no consideration for safe passage therein.

Likewise, the section on commuting and transit mentions nothing about getting kids to school nor ensuring safe passage with cross walks and school guards (and omits mention of the Kids Ride Free program). Given DC’s crisis in pedestrians getting hit by cars–including children around schools–this appears to be a major omission.

Yet on p. 135 (414.11) there are calls for a pilot program for DC schools of transportation demand management–which is not the same thing, but appears to stand in for it. My read of this is that the mayor supports not existing schools and networks, but a way of managing demand for whatever arises as far as schools go. This would suggest that school proliferation, rather than supporting existing schools, is a value herein.

The idea of strong and complete network of municipally run neighborhood public schools of right is hardly new–it was created to ensure education rights are secured in all corners, such that families would have assurance that their children would not have to commute far to get an equitable education.

However, this document appears to upend that in many ways besides those I just outlined and supports the current INequity we see in our public schools, especially those of right in DCPS.

For instance, the section on housing shows affordable housing mainly in the east half of the city. We know that this concentrates poverty, which leads to schools of right in some areas also having concentrated poverty. While that alone should not be a problem for those schools, in our city it is very much a problem, as those schools are often inadequately provisioned BY the city for the students they have.

There is also the fact that our city has promoted in both its lottery as well as its planning materials a rating system for our schools that is largely correlated to the household wealth of the students in our schools.

As a result of that and the fact that there is no ceiling on the creation of new schools and expansion of existing ones, schools with poor ratings (and not coincidentally poor students) often face tremendous enrollment pressure and closure. This document does nothing to outline this dilemma, much less address it, nor seems to even understand how housing and other city-led policies contribute to it. And there is no acknowledgement of the costs in wasteful school proliferation.

Rather, this document seems to blithely accept and even encourage this state of affairs! For instance, on p. 199 (506.11) it encourages purchasing housing on “scattered sites” as affordable housing, so as to allow low-income people to attend high-performing schools in their neighborhoods, thus tacitly accepting that schools in traditionally low-income areas will NOT be high-performing!

The irony here is that p. 172 (500.18) notes that there is a declining share of households with children–which means that with no brake on school expansions or creations, undue pressure is put on enrollments.

Yet, the document is not merely silent on all that–but contradictorily notes that “improving schools” (p. 173, 500.22) are why people want to be in DC, a belief repeated on p. 810 (1500.7)!

To be sure, this isn’t to say that people without children may not eventually have children here–or send them to our public schools.

But it is a long way to assume that people without children not only WILL have them, but have actively chosen to live in DC because of the schools–and then will stay here with any children they have! Historically, almost none of that has ever been true, and current trends, showing kids leaving from all DC’s publicly funded schools as they age at relatively high rates, suggest it is not true now, either. As if to underscore this unreality, old text mentioning the high drop-out rate in DC’s schools is struck out on p. 956 (old 1807.2). But that rate is still high.

There also appears to be a complete disconnect here between our schools and the future of the city.

Take employment: despite mention on p. 394 (716.3) of the need for a “career-oriented curriculum” for DC public school students and a DC goal of increasing access to education and employment (p. 402, 717.10-13), there is no connection of that to economic realities, like the fact that 45% of job growth in DC will be relatively poor-paying jobs (p. 182, 504.3).

And although p. 395 (716.5) includes a strong statement about “a more comprehensive and integrated workforce preparation system,” specifics for that were actually edited out–including career magnet campuses and vocational training in our publicly funded schools.

Rather, only on p. 404 (717.23) do we see mention of DCPS being involved in workforce development programs. And support for digital literacy for such programs (mentioned on p. 405, 717.23-24) mentions this only in relation to our libraries–not schools.

Indeed, despite p. 357 (EG1.3.F) mentioning the need to create programs for technology jobs for DC students (i.e., internships), and recognition that many jobs will require a college degree (p. 392, 715.2), there is little offered here to bridge the gulf between employment prospects among DC adults.

To be sure, this document does not erase schools entirely—but there is a weird disconnect throughout, as if schools have little to do with civic life and need private investment or better use to be, well, successful.

For instance, p. 424-5 (805.9FF) encourages shared use agreements for DCPS open spaces, so all residents can use them–while there is nothing about charter spaces (despite the fact that many DC charters occupy publicly owned buildings and all use public money for their facilities).

The implication is that DCPS open spaces are not well-used—without any evidence to support that. This theme is scattered throughout regarding public recreation spaces. For instance, on p. 434 (808.4) there is a reference to neighborhood-based rec facilities not being “sustainable”–which is strange, given no mention of them being unaffordable or unused.

But a short while later, on p. 461 (817.1), there is a reference to public private partnerships for expanding access to parks, with the next page noting how lease arrangements with private groups are a revenue stream.

Really: our wealthy city needs revenue streams for public resources?

Arts in our schools are not spared this weird treatment of being used for private or commercialized ends. For instance, p. 781 ((1403.9) encourages shared use of schools for cultural and arts ends, while pp. 805-6 (1415.2FF) mentions the importance of arts to education–without any mention of schools.

Possibly worse, this theme of private public partnerships for, and co-locations in, public facilities for recreation and schools is explicitly on p. 620 (1103.5FF) touted as a solution for deferred maintenance. Essentially, absent a civic facilities plan, the comprehensive plan appears to endorse the city turning away from its civic obligation to maintain public spaces and schools for children and the general public!

What appears to be disregard of the public sphere here comes to a real head in the section on schools.

For instance, starting on p. 687 (section 1200), there is no mention of education rights. Rather, the focus is “efficient use of school property,” such that the school buildings themselves become the school system, which is pretty grotesque–unless education rights are indeed meaningless.

In fact, with the document’s focus on “fair access” to education and not rights (and with no definition of what “fair access” means in this context), it is not entirely surprising that the language of the prior plan–calling for the primacy and support of DCPS as the municipally run school system of right–is quite literally struck out on p. 689 (1200.3FF).

In its place, there is a lot about–really–real estate.

For instance, p. 693 (1202.2FF) mentions investigating the “development of vacant parcels for public mixed-use projects that incorporate educational uses,” while p. 694 mentions expanding access to educational facilities (again without defining “access”). On p. 700 (EDU 1.1.3), the plan calls for co-location of charters in “significantly underutilized” DCPS buildings, without any recognition of damaging enrollment pressures, while the next page explicitly calls for developers to have space for schools in new developments (again, no planning) and p. 703 (1204.5) encourages partnerships for DCPS renovations (without recognition that all recent renovations have been done by private firms).

There is also a weird divide here between charters and DCPS.

For instance, p. 704 (EDU 1.2.8) has lots of details about sustainability in DCPS renovations (parking, environmentally friendly, etc.), but mentions nothing about that in charter buildings–as if those buildings just don’t count. This is simply stunning in a city where half the children attend charters! The same page also mentions making neighborhood schools an attractive choice–but there is no mention of rights, so it looks like it’s perhaps a back door to charter schools of right.

Despite what appears to be no recognition whatsoever of a neighborhood system of schools of right, p. 713 (1207.8) urges caution in the disposition of DCPS surplus buildings because of growth–without mentioning the statute that allows the chancellor to call back DCPS buildings from charters as needed. There is also nothing about maintenance of renovated DCPS buildings, which has been a very sore point for many, as many buildings are now once again facing years of deferred maintenance.

In disturbing echoes of the endeavor to transfer the Ellington field away from DCPS and students to a city-wide use, the plan on p. 695 (1202.4) seeks to see how school grounds and facilities could enhance city life–as if they do not already. It then notes on the next page that expanding access to and use of DCPS school buildings would meet community needs, without any mention of how those assets are currently used for the people they are actually intended for–DCPS students–and without mention of the fact that they already DO meet community needs in that role.

The impression one is left with is that public education–at least in DCPS–is never enough by itself, and education rights are simply meaningless.

The irony here is that p. 697 (1202.12) notes that planning estimates suggest growth in DCPS will ensure it will outstrip its facilities everywhere but in wards 5, 7 & 8. But even this is not in accord with reality, inasmuch as closures have left those wards without space for even the children they have now–much less those who are expected to be here in the future.

Such writing out of education rights and the public sphere that is public education is puzzling, given that other public aspects are actually lauded.

Take libraries.

On p. 658ff (1109.4FF), investment in libraries is mentioned as something vital to neighborhoods–and there is nothing about co-locating with private groups or having private groups put money toward those facilities.

Rather, libraries are presented here as a vital civic asset on their own terms—in a way that schools and the public areas used by school kids simply are not. Indeed, p. 663 (1111.2) mentions growing libraries alongside growing population as part of a master civic facilities plan–while there is no such mention anywhere here of that for school planning, much less ensuring education rights are upheld.

Moreover, while there is mention of school renovations as community amenities (p. 196, 506.1), there is nothing like that library investment mentioned for our schools or areas that schools use for recreation. Nor is there any mention of the destabilizing of communities by school closures.

So I have to ask:

Why are libraries here presented as valued civic assets on their own, without public private partnership agreements and co-locations with private groups–and not our schools of right? Why no mention of the devastating effect of school closures and privatizing of formerly public spaces and removal of them from their use for DCPS students?

Here’s what I think is the reason for all of that:

Private groups cannot get money from libraries.

Rather, they get money from our children–literally. Each child in DC comes with a price on his or her head at every single publicly funded school. Real estate is the security for that private economy lauded and encouraged here at every corner, while the entire idea of public education, and the public sphere therein, must be completely disregarded for that public money–$2 billion every year–to be accessed.

Yet, the idea of universal public education–which is truly one of the very best things our country has ever created–is not to monetize our children, but to ensure that everyone everywhere has equitable education rights in their neighborhoods as a vital part of our public sphere.

What is radical about the shared public purpose of public education is the idea that everyone can achieve educational merit.

But when you have a system of winners and losers–whether through the lottery or not funding schools equitably or, per this plan, creating developments near high-performing schools–the entire idea of public education is vitiated. Creating more schools does nothing to help kids in schools right now–nothing.

Rather, in addition to allowing private groups to profit, literally, off the public sphere and our children, it creates instability–not mentioned here. It closes schools–not mentioned here. It devastates communities–not mentioned here. It wastes money–not mentioned here. And it pretends that all schools are merely widgets, interchangeable but for their names, not vital public assets essential to our history, our communities, and our civic life.

I wish you the best as you go forward–I really do, because the fate of public education in DC may very well depend on it.

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