Last Call For DC’s Comprehensive Plan (And Education Rights)

[Ed. Note: Below is my submitted testimony on DC’s comprehensive plan. As a basis for future planning in DC, the draft comprehensive plan submitted by the mayor is now before the DC council for its consideration and approval. For more information, including how to submit testimony, see here. The public hearing record is open until December 3, while two public hearings were held (November 12 and 13). For some excellent testimony on the education shortcomings of the plan, see here and here and here and here.]

November 22, 2020

Dear DC Council Members,

As a DCPS parent and a DC resident for almost 30 years (as an adult), I am submitting this testimony on the education elements of the draft DC comprehensive plan.

As I noted to the office of planning in my comments on the earlier iteration of this plan, this current draft fails to make even ONE mention of education rights in relation to DCPS or to a system of municipally run neighborhood schools. You may recall that in 2014, the boundaries process made clear that a system of municipally run, neighborhood schools of right was a priority of parents and communities across DC.

The comprehensive plan’s apparently purposeful omission of education rights is sadly in keeping with the plan’s frequent mentions of public/private partnerships, shared use agreements, and co-locations with respect to DCPS and its physical assets.

All of this suggests that our municipally run neighborhood schools of right (and their physical assets) are regarded by our mayor as insufficient in and of themselves.

By contrast, the mayor avoids such pejoratives when describing DC’s public libraries. According to the comprehensive plan, DC’s public libraries do not require co-locations, public/private partnerships, or shared use agreements to fulfill their civic duties and demands appropriately and equitably.

Like DC’s public libraries, DCPS schools of right are vital neighborhood, and self-sufficient, public assets

The reason this plan refuses to acknowledge that true statement immediately above—and the plan’s insistence that DCPS facilities and assets must be subject to shared use agreements, public/private partnerships, and co-locations–is that unlike DC’s public libraries, DCPS facilities and physical assets can be (and often are) deployed for private interests profitably.

After all, no DC public library patron carries a funding stream like DC’s students, who each carry about $10,000 annually for a publicly declared mission (instruction) as well as thousands more for the place where that mission is achieved (facilities).

For DC school privatizers, that per student funding stream from DC taxpayers amounts to almost $1 billion annually.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the comprehensive plan’s main discussion of education is a section on facilities–NOT a section on schools or education in general or even specificity about education needs in relation to facilities (including no mention of special education anywhere).

Indeed, almost no current problem in our publicly funded schools merits any mention in the plan whatsoever, including

–widespread and persistent inequity in funding and modernizations from west to east;
–terrible and persistent socioeconomic segregation (among the worst in the nation);
–large, and growing, achievement gaps;
–horrible teacher, principal, and student churn;
–unfilled seats while new schools are created (>20,000 at last count);
–dozens of closures in the last 20 years alone;
–the fact that absolutely no parent or student ever wanted any of those school closures OR had any substantive say in them or school creations and expansions.

Much in the way that the 2018 master facilities plan was never actually a plan (and thus never ratified by your body), the education discussion in this comprehensive plan concerns primarily only what education privatizers want: DCPS facilities.

Those DCPS facilities bring with them ready-made (and already publicly paid for!) places to practice education privatizing, whether through co-locations, right of first offer, shared use agreements, or sale. They also bring market share through neighborhood buy-in, since most DCPS school buildings are located in areas with many resident children.

The idea behind school privatizing is that an endless array of schools to choose from will solve many, if not all, of DC’s education problems (such as those listed above) by allowing parents to choose better schools.

Unfortunately, DC’s student population has never grown commensurately with the creation and expansion of schools here. As a result, we now have more than 20,000 unfilled seats and entire neighborhoods without ANY schools of right–a result of school closures due to inevitably declining enrollments.

More importantly, our robust school creation (and the resulting instability and churn) have not solved even one of those problems listed above–despite the comprehensive plan’s laudatory language about improved school quality.

But private operators and their lobbyists (who lobby you and other elected and appointed officials every year) profit from the schools they create here by literally wagering our taxpayer funds on their (private) education experiments on our children!

That may seem a tad harsh, but consider that in just 8 recent years, from 2012 to 2020, 26 DC charter schools closed, having failed to sustain themselves, their students, or both in some manner. Every single one was not only approved by the charter board, but promised great things, spent inordinate amounts of time defending their practices, and had people testify in their favor. Yet, while the charter board applauds those closures as accountability, this is happening in a city where the majority of students are poor and already have instability in their lives outside school.

Whose choice is all that churn?

And whose demand?

Please recognize that parents like me are not actually choosing or demanding which schools open or close–much less where and how and when! As a parent, my most expansive (and really only) role in school choice is to sign up my children in the lottery.

(Or not, as a majority of families at DC’s publicly funded schools do not participate in the lottery every year. This is why waitlists are most explicitly NOT public demand—they’re just lists, with a fraction of our total students on as many as 12 at any given moment.)

A system of municipally run neighborhood schools of right is as vital a civic asset as our public libraries. It not only ensures that education rights are secured in every quarter for all students, but that stability and a level of nonnegotiable quality (square feet per pupil, teacher qualifications, programmatic offerings, etc.) are the first order of business for every and all students, while school governance is answerable directly to the public.

Without that most basic foundation of, by, and for DC residents, our publicly funded schools are rendered into mere interchangeable widgets, to be opened and closed at someone’s desire (and/or their potential profit!) without serving the real needs of, and answering to, the public funding them.

Despite rosy comprehensive plan estimates, DC’s student population is not growing by leaps and bounds

To support such school churn, students are needed. Not surprisingly, the comprehensive plan outlines tremendous growth of DC’s student population, while noting that co-locations of charter schools in DCPS facilities are needed and advisable in light of it.

There’s only one hitch:

DC’s student population isn’t growing like that–and likely will not anytime soon.

Here’s why:


The data represented in these graphs show several things quite clearly:

–There is a bulge (increase) of new entering students from 2010-2016 in the lower grades now moving through higher grades.

–Since 2016, however, there has been no new growth (or decrease) in entering kindergarten classes–despite growth in DC housing before and during this period.

–The cohort survival ratio in our schools has consistently gone down over time. Generally, since about 1980 DC has not been increasing its retention of students over time as a percentage of the total. This is shown in both enrollment as well as census data.

–Census data show that the percentage retention of DC’s children (ages 0 through 7) decreased across most age cohorts from 1980-1990 to 1990-2000 to 2000-2010. This is an indicator that children (and possibly entire families) were likely leaving the city at a faster pace (by percentage) in the 2000-2010 period than in the previous two census periods. This explicitly contradicts the comprehensive plan’s laudatory language about the growth in DC’s schools and how school quality has been a factor in the city’s population growth.

–Enrollment data also back up this point above: loss in child cohorts has increased over recent time.

Here’s what the comprehensive plan CAN and SHOULD say about future school populations

Although the city’s population of young adults may still be growing, it is unlikely that enrolled students will match this growth. Enrolled students have not done so over the past decade or more, and the data above suggest that the departure rate of families may actually be increasing, a factor that could zero out any possible growth in the student population.

The key for the immediate future will be the audited SY20-21 entering kindergarten class size; the grade cohort survival rate; and the age cohort change from 2010 to 2020 (which will come from the 2020 census).

None of this is mentioned in the comprehensive plan.

Rather, the plan explicitly notes “improving” schools as a factor in people choosing to live in DC (without any proof). It then assumes that many young adults currently living here will not only have children, but stay here to raise them and THEN send them to DC’s publicly funded schools.

While all of that is a nice thought, it’s not likely to happen given the data above and historical trends of kids leaving from DC’s publicly funded schools as they age at relatively high rates.

Indeed, because the rate of growth in the student population has slowed dramatically in the last few years and the rate of departure of families appears to have increased slightly, this suggests essentially quiescent public school enrollment by about 2028.

Using data from the last decade, it is reasonable to assume that

–growth of new kindergarten students has ended (max was in 2016) but will remain stable in the near term (i.e., before 2028) and

–the cohort loss rate at each grade will remain stable in the same period.

Using those assumptions, we can make some projections for the near term (i.e., by 2030) as the 2010-2016 “bulge” moves through higher grades:

–Elementary students may only increase by <400, which is about the growth of one school in the next couple of years. That suggests that building or establishing new elementary schools is not needed and that any charter growth will come at the direct expense of enrollment at existing schools.

–Middle school students may increase by about 2,000, mostly in the next few years. But building or establishing new middle schools also seems unwise, since it’s too late for any new school to come on-line in time, while DC continues to have a surplus of underused middle school seats and facilities. Charter growth will mainly come at the direct expense of enrollment at existing schools.

–High school students may have a potential increase of over 6,000, reflecting the bulge at entering grades in the 2010-2016 period. Given that the majority of this potential growth will occur in the next 5 years, and DC already has empty seats in high schools, building new schools also does not seem to be the appropriate response.

What YOU, the DC Council, need to add to the comprehensive plan for DC public education

–Secure education rights in every community—not school choice. Rights must be the cornerstone and primary driver of every school decision in DC. Right now, due to closures, some neighborhoods have NO school of right, while others face losing theirs due to declining enrollments brought about in part by school proliferation that is completely disconnected from both actual public demand and student growth.

–Enact a full stop to creating new schools and expanding existing ones until all schools are not only equitably supported for the students they have, but sufficiently enrolled, which is the best use of public money.

–Delete all mention of co-locations and shared use agreements for DCPS facilities, as they not only are unneeded, but inevitably hurt host schools and potentially create disruption and churn. (If you need some examples of why, see here and here.)

–On the west side of the city, revise boundaries and feeder patterns and limit out of bounds slots to ensure better use of existing facilities without incurring additional capital expenditures. As shown here, overcrowding in schools in Ward 3 is not due to resident students, but to a refusal to limit out of bounds seats and change feeder patterns and boundaries. This importation of students from east to west not only concentrates poor students in schools on the east side, but also ensures those schools are often underenrolled. If the rationale for not changing Ward 3 out of bounds slots, feeders, and boundaries is to promote diversity, then the city should really commit to diversity, cost-effectiveness, and equity by moving as many students in its smallest demographic—White students—to schools in the east as there are non-White students who travel to schools in the west, while also ensuring equity in funding, modernizations, and resources across the city (as opposed to concentrating them in the west).

–Do not build or create any new elementary and middle schools in the near term.

–Accommodate more high school students within existing facilities except in Ward 3, where boundary and feeder changes in DCPS will address all possible growth without the expense of capital investment.

–New and potentially disruptive factors, such as COVID and its associated economic decline, must be accounted for, as they are likely to slow and even reverse population growth in the city.

–Accept historical and housing trends that show that new growth of students is more likely to occur in areas of the city already with a surplus of school seats. Conversely, accept that such growth of students is not likely to occur in areas where the most school expansions have been approved in the last 1-2 years. Those are generally downtown (Banneker, Stevens) and west of Rock Creek Park (in Ward 3).

Making these changes in the comprehensive plan is ultimately about securing communities, rights, and responsible use of public resources

DC annually invests hundreds of millions of dollars in school choice, whether with funding new schools or expansions, closures, or aids for choice (i.e., the lottery, advertisements (buses, metro), open houses, EdFest, etc.).

But by far the more expensive part of school choice is that it requires a constant array of schools without consideration for, or securing of, education rights, school stability, communities, or public resources.

For an example of how costly school choice is, as currently practiced in DC, look at the Ward 7 campus of Rocketship, at 4250 Massachusetts Ave. SE, which opened in 2017.

In May 2016, three separate, but contiguous, properties in Ward 7 between Massachusetts and Alabama avenues were purchased by an LLC in California connected to the Turner Agassi charter fund. Neighbors had no idea what was happening in their midst until construction fences went up around the perimeter of the properties.

The next month, Rocketship reached out to the community with its plans to build a school on the T-shaped site. This was all perfectly legal: all you need to locate a charter school ANYWHERE in DC is a site that is at least 9000 square feet and 120 feet wide. Despite the surprise (and opposition) of neighbors to its plan, Rocketship’s plan was approved by the charter board.

Shortly after that approval, Rocketship demolished existing buildings on those sites, including a house and an apartment building, at 4135 Alabama, designed and built in 1939 by Black DC architect Lewis W. Giles. He was known for his apartment buildings around the city, some of which still stand. (Giles also apparently designed many of the houses in the neighborhood south of Kenilworth aquatic gardens and also some in Deanwood.)

Giles’ building at 4135 Alabama was a nice example of Art Deco design—and, given his history in DC, should never have been torn down so easily.

More to the point, in a city with a serious shortage of affordable housing and many unhoused people, tearing down a multi-unit apartment building to build a publicly financed school when there was already a surplus of public school seats in the area AND no one in the community actually ever wanted it is a tragic waste of public funds and purpose.

So let me ask you:

–Whose choice was that Rocketship school–and whose demand?

–What existing schools will close because of the seats Rocketship created that our city didn’t need except by the promise that those seats would be “quality” seats? (Remember: the 26 DC charters closed between 2012 and 2020 all promised the exact same thing before their approval.)

–And who remains unhoused because public funds were used to create an unneeded and publicly unwanted school instead of ensuring an existing apartment building could be used for affordable housing?

At the end of the day, this comprehensive plan is about our aspirations as a city.

If we cannot value our system of municipally run neighborhood schools of right as a vital and self-sufficient public asset–just like this plan does our public libraries–then we are degrading education rights, communities, and our own children.

We can and must do better—and so must you, by adopting the changes above for the comprehensive plan. Thank you.

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