New homes for D.C. charter schools

Charter schools have captured nearly half of the public school market in Washington, D.C., but they have struggled to find suitable buildings to carry out their mission. That changed this week when D.C. mayor Vincent C. Gray announced that the District would give charter schools the chance to lease as many as sixteen former or soon-to-be-closed public school buildings. Charter advocates were pleased.

This move was long overdue. Charters have been attracting more and more of the public school market share in D.C. every year, but they have been grasping for adequate space to accommodate their burgeoning enrollments. Arguably, the D.C. charter sector would be even larger today if the city hadn’t hoarded vacant properties, prompting even the best charters to scrounge for makeshift facilities and place students on waitlists due to lack of space.

These challenges are familiar to charter schools in most cities. Despite the surge in charter school enrollments and the support the sector receives from both political parties, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has documented that charters still commonly rent or own building space that is much smaller than that occupied by their traditional public school peers or that lack kitchens, gymnasiums, libraries, or science and computer labs.

The same could be said of even the best-performing charters in D.C. Until the high-flying Washington Latin Public Charter Schools got the chance to move into a former district school, it had been operating on three different campuses and forcing older students to walk three blocks to get from class to class. KIPP DC has been struggling to find new property for its high school to meet heightened demand.

Mayor Gray then perhaps recognized that the city can’t keep treating certain public school students as second-class citizens. He’ll now give twelve charter schools long-term leases and provide the others with short-term rentals. Eight of these buildings are district schools scheduled to close by next year.

Charter opponents in the district have decried the move as another, major step toward an all-charter school system. But this ignores the trend lines in D.C.: Charter enrollments have grown by around 7 percent each year during the past five years and are on track to make up 50 percent of the total public school population in the near future. To ask in-demand charters to keep turning students away because they lack the facilities is unacceptable.

Charters shouldn’t have to rely on the goodwill of city leaders and school districts just to get a suitable school building. They should have access to the same capital funds and bonding authority available to traditional school systems. But until they do, Gray’s move ought to be emulated in other cities.

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