Planning For Schools AND Saving Them, Part 1: DCPS Closures

By the end of 2023, DC will likely have both a new boundaries study as well as a new iteration of its master facilities plan (MFP). As both are integral to the future of DCPS, it’s useful to look at how we got here—and where we might be going. This is the first of a series of blog posts exploring that—here, by way of examining DCPS closures. The other posts will discuss the MFP and boundaries process itself; charter school expansion grants; and changing zoning rules for charter schools.

DCPS Closures

Since 1990, about 72 DCPS schools have been closed (about 2.2/year to the present), constituting millions of square feet of publicly owned space.

Most of the DCPS closures (43) occurred after 2007 (about 2.9/year to the present). Recall that 2007 marks the (minority-imposed) abolition of the elected school board and the beginning of mayoral control under a chancellor determined to bring education reform and school choice to DC:

1990 through 2007: 29 DCPS closures (about 1.6/year)
2008: 23 DCPS closures
2009: 2 DCPS closures
2010: 1 DCPS closures
2011: 1 DCPS closure
2012: 2 DCPS closures
2013: 11 DCPS closures
2014: 2 DCPS closures
2020: 1 DCPS closure

These numbers come from Mary Levy’s data here with the addition of Washington Met (at the former KC Lewis elementary), which was closed in 2020. That said, these numbers differ from what the deputy mayor for education (DME) cited in 2019 for closed DCPS schools owned by either DC or charters (see it here in case that link isn’t working). That difference is represented by the sale of some closed DCPS schools to non-school interests (i.e., gym, condos), while a small number remained in (or returned to) DCPS control.

Significantly, DC has seen the most closures of DCPS schools after its population began to rebound in 2000 and as births increased (see here for the DME’s March 2022 population accounting).

Not coincidentally, what also increased in that time were the sheer number of DC’s publicly funded schools and seats of choice.

Per the charter board’s accounting here, 119 charter schools have been approved since 1996. That doesn’t count expansions to existing charter schools in that time, whether with enrollment ceiling increases or additional campuses, which has resulted in thousands of new seats.

The upshot is not merely that nearly as many DC students now attend charters as DCPS—but that DC also has more than 35,000 unfilled seats at existing schools in more than 60 LEAs (see here if that link isn’t working).

This harsh reality puts growing enrollment in DC since mayoral control (shown below from the OSSE website here) into a different (and far less praise-worthy) perspective:

Copyright OSSE

As this chart outlines, during a time when DC’s population has grown, enrollment in its publicly funded schools has also grown. But for DCPS, it was actually not much growth at all since mayoral control.

Thus, despite a period of both increased population AND public school enrollment, DC’s education leaders approved dozens of closures of DCPS schools while at the same time greenlighting immense charter expansion, such that DCPS enrollment hardly grew at all.

That’s literally been the plan here in DC for all of this current century–almost 25 years.

And given its staying power, as shown by that chart above, it means that no one in DC leadership is or will be saving DCPS schools–period.

This is not to say charter closures have been fun and games. There have been at least 65 between 1996 (when charters started in DC) and 2020 (about 2.6/year), according to the charter board’s listing here. (NB: Achievement Prep’s middle school closed in 2020, which isn’t listed; see more information here and here on that closure. That omission suggests that the charter board’s list is incomplete and/or out of date.) Because at least some of those charter students ended up in DCPS, it is reasonable to conclude that DCPS growth in that period is as a result less anemic than it would have been otherwise.

It cannot be overstated how devastating the loss of all these schools has been.

It wasn’t merely that entire neighborhoods had no more schools of right or students lost beloved teachers and friends. Families suddenly had to engage in the lottery or navigate new barriers–even to avail themselves of seats they had a right to. Those barriers include longer commutes; more dangerous passages; and new schools that had no history or connections for them, their families, or communities.

Official rationales for DCPS closures have almost always included saving money and students attending schools with better test scores, with citations of poor scores at schools identified for closure (see, for example, an accounting of 2012 proposed closures and the report justifying them).

Indeed, in dismissing a 2013 lawsuit against DCPS closures that year, which alleged racial discrimination in what schools were up for closure, a federal judge declared that the closures were “explained by the single, race-neutral justification . . . [that] closing under-enrolled schools will save resources that can then be spread throughout the school district to benefit all students.”

(Fascinatingly, the judge in that case, James Boasberg, is the brother of Tom Boasberg, whose tenure as head of Denver’s public schools was marked by charter expansions and a district school closure overseen by Antwan Wilson, who would go on to become DCPS chancellor. Naturally, neither Boasberg brother attended public school (see here and here).)

But no matter the high-powered people uttering them, such rationales justifying DCPS closures are not only false, but perpetuate ongoing damage:

–A 2012 report published by the DC auditor showed that the 2008 closures cost much more than estimated, thus providing marginal savings. (NB: That report was published on September 6, 2012—so anyone in 2013 justifying further closures on the basis of “saving resources” should have known better.)

–Closures since 2007 have resulted in a shortage of extra space in DCPS, particularly east of the Anacostia, where the largest populations of DC kids reside. This has prevented robust planning for DCPS schools there and delayed or complicated renovations in an area that still has the most DCPS buildings untouched by comprehensive modernization. Ironically, this is also an area where the DME projected many DCPS schools to shortly be overcapacity.

–Critics of DC’s 2012 closure report (see here and here) outlined its poor research and unjustified conclusions. (Greater Greater Washington even satirized its closure rationale–but such is the irony that it now looks like what DC education planners are actually trying to achieve in DCPS, by cutting programming and promoting migration of students across the city to Ward 3.)

–DCPS closures have demonstrably increased attendance at charters, resulting in DCPS enrollment pressures and declines with corresponding budget losses.

Now the future of DCPS, particularly east of the Anacostia, can be demonstrated in one simple question:

What is the likelihood of renovating schools in poor condition that are also underenrolled?

Per C4DC, schools with <50% utilization—the threshold for co-locations or closure–include Aiton, Nalle, Ron Brown, Sousa, Anacostia, Garfield, Hart, Johnson, Kramer, Malcolm X, Moten, and Savoy**. Some have never been touched by any renovation and are long overdue. Most have large percentages of at risk students.

And all are in wards 7 and 8.

Oddly, opening up lottery seats by way of expanding school capacity in Ward 3, DC’s wealthiest ward (not coincidentally, in DCPS schools with some of the city’s highest test scores and fewest at risk students), could make closures in wards 7 and 8 politically more palatable, given earlier closure rationales.

For instance, there would be

–No renovations of schools half or less empty (per the popular closure rationale, saving money and resources);
–Removal of kids to other schools, thus ensuring fuller use of those facilities (ditto); and
Encouraging families outside Ward 3 to send their children to Ward 3 schools, with higher test scores (per the popular closure rationale of sending students from closed schools to “better” schools).

This is where we come to perhaps the greatest heist of all represented by DCPS closures: education rights.

The overwhelming number of DCPS closures have always involved schools of right, schools that guaranteed a seat to anyone in bounds for them no matter what.

This concept of education rights is literally the backbone of public education in the United States. All students have a right to a seat in a public school they are in bounds for, with guarantees of equity and equality in the provision of education, all underwritten by law and courtesy of a massive legal effort secured by a Supreme Court victory.

Yet in DC now, the idea of schools of right as anything other than merely schools with geographic boundaries is as quaint as the poet’s ideation of home as a place where “when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

Consider the recent DC Policy Center examination of boundaries and facilities didn’t even bother to define what a school of right was except as it has . . . boundaries. Much like defining a car as a common object with wheels, the pathetic paucity of that definition suggests that DC’s publicly funded schools are just interchangeable widgets.

Never mind that unlike charters, DCPS has not only boundaries and an obligation to educate anyone and everyone at all times, but also (as the DC office of the student advocate notes) “policies and procedures which are subject to our city regulations, code, and significant governmental oversight.”

Protecting students, protecting families, guaranteeing education to all and anyone anytime—who cares?

Clearly, not a lot of people in DC education leadership.

Given DC’s history of DCPS closures, no one should be surprised by the deeply anti-public cynicism behind that belief system and its convenient omissions. For instance, in its 2012 capital commitment DCPS mentioned nothing about

–expanding capacity in Ward 3 by creating a new high school, much less another elementary;
–proposed closures that year;
–the seismic effect of the creation of the STAR rating;
–offloading of former DCPS buildings; and
–the constant taking in of charter students (and an entire charter school as well).

If—and when and how–DCPS closures will be handled around the boundary process this year remains to be seen.

But given closure data and charter proliferation, especially since mayoral control, it’s clear that no one in DC education leadership has any desire to save DCPS schools.

**UPDATE 2/9/23, 5:25 pm: Discovered that the most recent MFP supplement was just released here–and while it leaves off Savoy from the list of DCPS schools with <50% utilization, it adds many more, including Browne EC (Ward 5); Bunker Hill (Ward 5); and LaSalle-Backus (Ward 4). More schools on this list, especially outside wards 7 and 8, may add an element of geographic fairness for future closures.

2 thoughts on “Planning For Schools AND Saving Them, Part 1: DCPS Closures

  1. Having taken away the public’s right to vote for the DCPS school board when it was abolished to give the mayor control of DCPS, it would not surprise me if the “education leaders” took the step of taking away the right to a free and equal education. But that just the problem with merely changing the governance of schools–it doesn’t attend to their public service and how best to fulfill it. Great for moving children, their families, teachers and principals, even whole neighborhoods around as though they are nothing more than pieces on a chess board though, as you have so well described.


    1. Hi Valerie —

      You mention the 2013 lawsuit against DCPS school closures. To show support for that lawsuit, I attended the court proceeding. I remember thinking that the plaintiffs missed the strongest argument against the school closures. I tried to talk to plaintiffs’ lawyer Jamie Raskin about it, but he wasn’t interested. So I wasn’t surprised when Judge Boasberg gave the go-ahead for the school closings. Instead of citing studies, Boasberg did his own, crackpot analysis to justify his ruling, saying in essence that the affected students, almost all of whom were black, would be better off without neighborhood schools because the more distant schools to which they would be assigned weren’t failing as badly as their neighborhood schools.

      — Jeff Schmidt


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