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Opinion

Examiner Local Editorial: D.C.'s shrinking school system doesn't need extra cash

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Opinion,Local Editorial

What's wrong with this picture? As part of his $1.8 billion budget for the next fiscal year, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray proposes spending $442 million to renovate and build new public schools. At the same moment, DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson is closing more than 10 percent of the existing schools due to underenrollment as parents bail out of the traditional system in favor of public charter schools.

The folly of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on new construction for a public school system that is being forced to downsize is self-evident. But it is compounded by the fact that the District still has no plan for disposing of the 10 schools that are currently vacant or the 15 additional ones that will be vacant soon.

The District has already spent more than $2.5 billion since 2007 to modernize DCPS schools. Charters now account for nearly all of the growth in District enrollment. They educate 43 percent of all D.C. public school students, and enrollment is up 10 percent this year compared to less than 1 percent enrollment growth for DCPS.

Over the next few years, charter schools' enrollment percentage is expected to increase. They are on track to beat DCPS very soon if current trends continue.

However, charter schools ?-- which by law are supposed to be given first crack at all surplus school properties, but aren't -- still have to shoehorn their students into less-than-optimal facilities. If Gray wants to spend tax dollars on school construction, he should target the public charter schools, not DCPS.

Gray's budget proposal would also spend $70 million over the next six years to renovate the University of the District of Columbia, which has also been forced to downsize.

D.C. Council member David Catania, chairman of the Education Committee, has questioned the logic of physically expanding a downsizing school system. But he needs to dig deeper and ask: What happened to the $2.5 billion that has already been plowed into the DCPS capital construction budget over the past six years?

If that money had been spent wisely and well, there should be little need for new construction to accommodate DCPS' remaining 45,557 students -- down more than 100,000 since enrollment peaked back in the 1960s.

Gray should document exactly how that $2.5 billion was spent and clearly explain DCPS' future needs before the council approves hundreds of millions of tax dollars for new construction in a shrinking system.

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