Advantaging The Advantaged: A Tale Of $312 Million

In a pandemic that has wrecked the economy generally, and DC revenues specifically, the spectacle of a last-minute addition of $48 million in capital spending to purchase the Georgetown Day School’s lower school building, to create a new Ward 3 middle school, provided unique entertainment value. It added to $56 million newly committed to build a new Ward 3 elementary, both expenditures ostensibly to address overcrowding in Wilson high school feeder pattern schools.

But what those new capital commitments have really done (besides practically ensuring that a new high school for Ward 3 students will need to be built, bought, or forced into being) is to continue to deplete other DCPS neighborhood schools.

The Price Of Curated Diversity

As the city’s wealthiest and whitest ward, Ward 3 has the third fewest resident children in DC, with only wards 1 and 2 having fewer kids–and each waaaay behind wards 5, 7, and 8.

Ward 3 also has the city’s highest estimated participation rate in private schools. Overall, an estimated 45% of the ward’s school-age children attend private schools, with an estimated 59% of resident high school children attending private schools.

Despite this new capital commitment for public school seats in Ward 3, there is little housing planned for Ward 3 in the near future compared to other wards, so any growth that the ward’s population will experience is likely only to be children in existing homes, with existing footprints.

As it is, Ward 3 has already enjoyed a disproportionate share of DCPS capital improvement dollars (see it outlined in terrible detail on the chart here–and the powerpoint presentation that chart is from here).

But the issues behind that new $104 million capital commitment go way beyond Ward 3.

Specifically, the Wilson (high school) feeder pattern consists of the following 15 schools spanning a relatively large geographic range and four wards (1, 2, 3, and 4), all of which eventually feed into Ward 3’s Wilson high school:

Oyster-Adams EC
Deal MS
Hardy MS
Wilson HS

While all the Wilson feeder pattern schools have out of bounds students despite high utilization rates, the average in SY19-20 hovered around 30%, ranging from 4%-64%.

While out of bounds students clearly contribute to student diversity in the Wilson feeder pattern schools, this all becomes crazily disproportionate in terms of Wilson HS itself, because most of the feeders’ students eventually feed into Wilson.

So it is that in SY19-20, Wilson HS had more out of bounds students (669) than all students enrolled in any other DCPS high school except Columbia Heights Education Campus (CHEC), Eastern, and Roosevelt. In fact, with its 1872 students that year, Wilson was more than twice the size of the next largest DCPS high school (CHEC, at 928).

This would not be especially meaningful but for the fact that most DCPS high schools are underenrolled–some severely.

Not surprisingly, given their geographic range, some of the Wilson feeder schools have large, non-Ward 3 student bodies and/or are actually closer to other middle and high schools outside the ward (i.e., Bancroft to Cardozo HS (74% utilization in SY17-18) and Shepherd to Coolidge HS (28% utilization in SY17-18)).

But switching those feeders would require capital investments of a kind that, thus far, DC has seemingly been reluctant to make outside Ward 3 (i.e., re-building Shaw middle school, which appears moribund for the foreseeable future).

What makes that lack of investment all the more disturbing is that most Wilson feeder pattern schools are below the threshold for full utilization (85%) if only their in boundary populations attended–averaging 81% for elementaries, 67% for middle schools, and 65% for its high school, Wilson itself.

Wilson Feeder Shed Enrollment & Utilization (Draft)

(See the spreadsheet containing this data here. Source materials include audited enrollments; the latest master facilities plan (MFP); the 2019 MFP supplement with data in appendices; and updated capacity numbers.)

While some of the capacity numbers and percentages are not entirely clear-cut (i.e., some schools have portables as part of their capacity numbers, while the capacity for Key is different in various documents), it is nonetheless clear that current overcrowding in Ward 3 schools appears at least partly, if not entirely, a manufactured problem that is a result of achieving high enrollments (and diversity!) through large boundaries, extensive feeders, and the liberal use of out of bounds slots in the Wilson feeder pattern.

So How Did We Get Here?

In a 2019 working group report (by DCPS and Ward 3 and Wilson feeder community members) on crowding in Wilson feeder pattern schools, the ($0) option of changing boundaries or out of bounds slots to address high utilization rates was rejected, while there also appeared to be no consideration of eliminating some Wilson feeder schools from the feeder pattern–even while the report noted that population growth in the area would likely mean yet more students in the same schools.

But there are good reasons for those stances:

DCPS not only values full enrollment in its schools, but also rewards it with money and resources. It is in the interests of Wilson feeder pattern schools to ensure they are well-subscribed at all times, which for most has meant importing fairly large percentages of out of bounds students for years running.

As it is, without those out of bounds students, Wilson feeder pattern schools–particularly those attended by large proportions of Ward 3 residents–would lack diversity.

Indeed, on June 11, 2020, during the DC Council hearing for DCPS, Chancellor Lewis Ferebee doubled down on this point in an exchange with council chair Phil Mendelson (boldface below is mine; the video is available here starting at the 3:40 mark):

Phil Mendelson: What other plans do you have to address overcrowding in the Wilson feeder pattern?

Lewis Ferebee: We’re continuing to . . evaluate any other opportunities where we could potentially construct an additional site that would relieve some of the capacity challenges that we’re having. We’ll also continue to build temporary and permanent space, and we believe that that will also relieve some of the capacity challenges that we have. And we’ll continue to review that on an annual basis.

PM: Are you looking at boundaries?

LF: The boundary process has not been a part of the current discussion as it relates to some of the capacity challenges that we discussed.

PM: So if I were to go to a community meeting in Ward 3, or in the Wilson feeder, I would be accurate in saying that what the administration or DCPS is doing to look at overcrowding, overenrollment, is a facility-based answer but not looking at boundaries at this time. Is that correct?

LF: That is correct. And I want to be really clear about some of the feedback we received in the Ward 3 working groups around school capacity . . . is that there was a large outcry to ensure that schools can maintain their current level of diversity and there were some fears that any conversation around boundary shift could impact the demographic makeup of the schools in those communities. So I just want to let that it was obviously something that we heard and wanted to be responsive to, but had not included that in our considerations.

Not long after this exchange, the council voted to spend $56 million to build a brand-new elementary literally within spitting distance of another DCPS building (Old Hardy), which the mayor has promised to the Lab school for the foreseeable future.

(NB: If this Lab deal–a giveaway of a public resource to a private entity without one syllable of public dialogue–seems familiar, it’s because Mayor Bowser did this already, with Jelleff field.)

And not long after approving that $56 million, the council approved another $48 million for the purchase of the Georgetown Day building to create a new middle school–incredibly, without explanation for why the city is paying twice the building’s assessed value, while the building itself has been for sale for at least 3 years.

Both capital expenditures, together amounting to $104 million, happened without one word of public testimony–and they were, literally, approved outside of the law governing facilities and capital planning in DCPS (the PACE Act).

Which means that the city’s wealthiest ward with the lowest public school participation is getting an immediate capital expenditure for its public schools of $104 million in the wake of commanding a disproportionate amount of DCPS capital expenditures in the last two decades.

But Wait! There’s More!

The council does not appear to be stopping at $104 million to address Ward 3 school capacity issues: It has also approved an $8 million purchase of the old Military Road school from LAMB, on an emergency basis.

(Yes: it was a DC public school building, sold to LAMB, and now being sold back to DC. Gotta love the private profits!).

Using paid and family leave funds, this purchase is, per the legislation, to either relieve overcrowding in wards 3 and 4 OR create an early childhood center. (Although a good number of students in the Wilson feeder pattern reside in Ward 4 compared to Ward 3, Ward 4 has the next smallest amount of new housing planned.)

Upshot: Whatever else one may want to say about the potential expenditure of $112 million (!) to address Wilson feeder capacity, that $112 million outlay is less expensive to those in power in DC than the political will needed to alter feeder patterns, boundaries, and out of bounds slots in Wilson feeder pattern schools–even when this capacity situation has been longstanding.

(Possibly the closest DC got to official dissent was the last-minute attempt in July to shift money from the GDS purchase to renovate a Ward 8 school, MLK Elementary–which failed to get any supporters beyond its council sponsors, at large rep. David Grosso and Ward 8 rep. Trayon White.)

There are now two distinct, yet officially unrecognized, effects of not changing feeder patterns, boundaries, and out of bounds slots for Wilson feeder pattern schools in conjunction with expanding capacity there:

1. DCPS school closures are inevitable. Absent a wildly growing student population, students in the added capacity in the Wilson feeder pattern will have to come from somewhere. Given the civic commitment to support diversity in those schools at what appears to be any expense, we should expect that on average 25-30% of students in those new seats will commute from areas where DCPS schools struggle with underenrollment. To be sure, some underutilized DCPS buildings may be saved as DCPS buildings with charter co-locations (whose enactment is all but certain now that the council has also approved affirmation of the mayor’s powers therein in the budget support act). Still, given the baleful effects of co-locations in general and inequitable provisions for them in DC, saving DCPS buildings through co-locations amounts to a Hail Mary pass performed while cutting off one’s passing arm.

2. DCPS will have to add high school space in the area of Ward 3 to accommodate students in those new seats in the Wilson feeder pattern. Or, as one might say,

How To Get $200 Million MORE In That Pot At The End Of The Rainbow

In August 2017, Duke Ellington School of the Arts high school moved back into its building in Ward 2, at 3500 R St. NW, after a multi-year renovation.

Before it became the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in 1977, the building at 3500 R St. NW served as a comprehensive high school for the area that now comprises most of wards 2 and 3. Western High School served that large area until another high school, Wilson, was built to accommodate overflow.

The mad rush to populate two high schools, however, didn’t last: After a brief period in which Duke Ellington’s school was co-located in its building, the (underenrolled) Western HS closed for good in 1977–and Duke Ellington School for the Arts got its own building.

But in subsequent decades, there has been no shortage of people opining on who and what should be in the building at 3500 R St. NW–and where the Duke Ellington School of the Arts should be located instead.

After much debate (which included proposals to locate Ellington at Logan, Roosevelt, and Shaw), the city invested more than $200 million to renovate the building at 3500 R St. to create a purpose-built school for the arts for the Duke Ellington program. As the ed specs for the renovation make clear, the building’s renovation took into account all of Duke Ellington’s programming and enrollment, building out specialized spaces for all of its arts and academic programs for its student body, which has ranged between 550 and 600 students.

Yet, despite the school’s (full) enrollment, a mere year after it moved back into its renovated building Mayor Bowser proclaimed that the school had unused space that could be used for a charter school.

This went almost entirely unnoticed—except by folks in Ward 3, including that ward’s council member, who has opined about all the unused space at Duke Ellington as the (relatively nearby) Wilson swelled in enrollment.

While neither the mayor nor council member Cheh seems to have read the master facilities plan, which has outlined (repeatedly) that the Ellington building is fully utilized, nonetheless this February (before the pandemic shut down schools) DCPS sent in a team of people to calculate Ellington’s usage.

Now, it is possible that those who aren’t DC taxpayers will not care whether purpose-built dance studios are ruined by desks being put on them—or purpose-built art studios made unusable for art or purpose-built music practice spaces made unusable for musicians because they are being used for, say, math or English or history.

But for those of us who are DC taxpayers, it’s pretty much a gut punch to think about—especially given that the DCPS team determined (surprise!) that the building was fully utilized (what generally happens when you have close to 600 students in a building with a capacity of 600).

Nonetheless, don’t expect the bankrupt idea of using part or the entirety of the Ellington building to accommodate Wilson HS overflow to go away, given the willingness of DC leaders to lavishly fund schools in the wealthiest area of the city in an economic downturn without one moment of regard for its deleterious effect elsewhere.

But if transforming a purpose-built arts school into a comprehensive high school comes to pass, the $200 million of DC taxpayer money spent to create that purpose-built arts school at Ellington will have been wasted in service of accommodating the wishes of (wealthier, whiter residents) to have curated diversity in well-provisioned and modernized public schools in their midst.

Think of it as the ultimate Trump card:

For decades, the experience of DC residents in other, less-affluent wards has been seeing their neighborhood schools of right repeatedly underfunded, overlooked in modernizations, and ultimately closed and converted to charters. Most residents who watched this happen never wanted any of it. Many have protested, and one group even sued over the last round of closures, in 2013.

But the end result of that defunding, ignoring, and closure has not merely been entire neighborhoods deprived of any school of right, but remaining schools that are notably not diverse, with high concentrations of the poorest children in the city. It also has resulted in residents commuting from east to west outside their neighborhoods using the lottery to attend, among other places, Wilson feeder pattern schools, in a pattern that has clearly advantaged the advantaged.

So it is that in the wealthiest, whitest ward of the city, residents can be justly proud of the diversity of the schools in their midst, which the rest of the city participates in only inasmuch as it gives up its own—students, modernization funds, priorities, or time commuting—in service of that.

It really is no different than DC’s charter school governance. After all, DC charters, too, are schools with (even more!) seats of choice, and if the students who enroll serve to benefit the schools demographically–whether through diversity or because of school ratings dependent on test scores that track with student socioeconomics–well, so be it! It’s all random, anyway, right?

(Well, except when it isn’t through tweaks here and there with the lottery and/or at the schools’ choice because–fairness! And freedom! And sibling preference! And getting rid of students before graduation!)

Now we face more than $300 million in potential capital expenditures to support that system of choice in the wealthiest ward of the city—an incredible figure in an incredible time when literally no one knows how the pandemic will affect enrollment anywhere and while we still have not ensured all our students have a way to achieve the floor of education in SY20-21, which is distance learning.

And it’s all the more incredible given what we know about school choice–not merely how it increases segregation, but also how our city tries to make choice equitable when it, literally, is predicated on inequity (whether in who participates in the lottery, which is lower than the percent at risk, which (and whose) schools must close when new seats are added, how schools are rated (often rewarding socioeconomically advantaged student bodies), how existing schools must go without when new ones are created, and the pretext for the creation of those new schools, which is often that the existing ones are “failing”).

Absolutely none of this has to be this way. In fact, we can change ALL of this, starting today, for $0:

–We can have fiscal and social impact statements for all new schools;
–We can have equitable support of existing schools of right;
–We can change boundaries, feeders, and out of bounds slots in the Wilson feeder pattern; and
–We can create a system of school ratings that isn’t mostly based on the socioeconomics of attending students.

And for that princely sum of $312 million ($56 + $48 + $8 + $200 million), we could additionally

–Create matter of right feeders in every neighborhood;
–Support those matter of right feeders; and
–Ensure the remaining schools that need modernizations are quickly attended to.

But right now, DC leaders have committed potentially as much as $312 million to avoid every single one of those things, in service to ensuring one section of the city continues to have relatively diverse, well-supported, and modernized schools.

There’s only one word for that: Shame.

4 thoughts on “Advantaging The Advantaged: A Tale Of $312 Million

  1. Valerie: Great article and great term coinage — “curated diversity”! But such diversity is quite beneficial for the black and white students who participate in it. And it’s much better than your implied solution, which amounts to separate but equal. — Jeff Schmidt


  2. Thanks–I first heard the term “curated diversity” from another education activist, and I used it here because it fits IMO this context.

    To your larger point of “separate but equal”:

    Demographically, because Black students outnumber White students in DC schools by a relatively large margin, the easiest way to achieve diversity and IMO equity in the city’s publicly funded schools would be to get rid of all boundaries and choice, make all schools follow the same rules and get equitable funding, then put every student’s name in a hat, assign them to schools randomly, then invest in bussing.

    No one has embraced this.

    Another relatively easy (and cheaper!) way to achieve diversity in our schools would be to randomly distribute only the demographically smallest group of students in our schools: White students.

    Again, no one has embraced this.

    Why is this, if we say we prize diversity in our schools?

    Or, to put it another way, what are we valuing *more*?

    As it is, we have had “separate but equal” schools in DC for a very long time. More than 50 years ago, Julius Hobson sued the city, twice, over what amounts to de facto segregation in DC’s public schools, with schools with large majorities of Black students having less experienced teachers, fewer resources, poor facilities, etc.

    He won twice.

    Despite that, there remain huge inequities in funding, resourcing, planning, and investment across the city’s schools, tracking from east to west and from schools with poorer students to schools with fewer poor students. As with the situation I described here, those inequities are presided over by the mayor and the DC council. They have been affirmed in voting and funding for a very long time, despite some small efforts to change that reality (i.e., at risk funding, the PACE act, etc.).

    So, again, I have to ask: what are we, as a city, prizing in that?

    My asks in this piece, for $0, are the only way to ensure education rights are upheld absent simply randomly assigning kids to schools. If that seems like “separate but equal,” then I suppose I have failed to make my point clear.


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