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DC Public Schools' failure to compete

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

For months, Mayor Vincent Gray and DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson had been crying poor mouth, asserting schools must be closed to free up cash to ensure greater investments.

So you would think that when they finally released the plan to shutter 20 facilities, they would be able to tell the public exactly how much money would be saved and what those funds would buy.

Think again.

In two appearances before the D.C. Council, Henderson could not offer any details about savings, new academic investments or even how an existing school might be helped by merging with students from closed facilities. Worse, the chancellor seemed to blame charters for DCPS' state of affairs.

"The reason [enrollment] is so low is because there are so many charter schools," Henderson told Yvette Alexander when the Ward 7 councilwoman raised questions about the large number of schools in her area slated for closure.

"Parents are voting with their feet," Henderson added, as if she is powerless to stop the erosion.

Henderson didn't arrive in the city yesterday. When she accepted the job of deputy chancellor under Michelle Rhee and then took the helm as chancellor in 2010, charters were sprouting all over the city. And while the Public Charter School Board has begun a process to improve their quality, there is little evidence anyone intends to fully close down that system -- although it certainly needs tweaking.

The chancellor and her team have failed to compete.

"Whether we like it or not, this is the era of school choice. This is the era of competition," Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells said during the council's second public hearing, adding that schools must become more "entrepreneurial."

Hating or envying charters won't cut it.

Henderson's inability to answer Alexander's query about why parents in Ward 7 are racing to charters is revealing. After all, many charters east of the Anacostia River aren't producing test scores better than DCPS.

Why hasn't the chancellor parlayed that simple fact to her advantage? Has she bothered to survey, even informally, parents who once called DCPS home? Has she asked them what they wanted from DCPS that they didn't get? Did she ask any of them what it would take to bring them back?

Bringing art, music and other extracurricular programs aren't that expensive. Years ago, when some Ward 3 elementary schools couldn't afford full-time arts and culture instructors, they contracted with the Fillmore Arts Center.

Is there anything preventing a similar arrangement for small schools on the chancellor's closure list? Can celebrities or nonprofits be persuaded to adopt a traditional school for two years, providing critical investments? Has the chancellor sought out such help the way Rhee did to finance the switch to provide bonuses to teachers who agreed to performance evaluations?

During the opening chapter of the city's reform movement, Henderson famously told teachers gathered for the launch of a new school year to "play hard or go home."

She may want to take her own advice.

Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

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