Why has DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced plans to close 20 underenrolled D.C. public schools -- one of every six DCPS campuses -- even though the District's population has been growing at its fastest pace in 60 years? Henderson's decision -- which makes economic sense -- is a tacit admission that the school choice movement has gone mainstream in the unlikeliest of places.
DCPS is on the ropes because, in six of the city's eight wards, public charter schools have been drawing away a larger and larger number of District families who are not satisfied with its poor performance. The seeds of school choice planted three decades ago are now blossoming.
This isn't the first time DCPS has been forced to retrench. Four years ago, then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee, Henderson's mentor, closed 23 schools -- triggering a fierce backlash. Henderson hopes to mollify parents and community members still angry about the last round of school closings by holding public hearings in the six targeted wards later this month. But hearings won't erase the bitterness that city residents feel as another neighborhood school is boarded up, especially since none of the high-performing, fully enrolled schools in Ward 3 will be affected.
A recent study recommended that 38 schools citywide be closed for academic failure -- some of them have student proficiency as low as 20 percent in math and reading. But only seven of those failing schools are on Henderson's chopping block, including four in Ward 8. The chancellor admits the proposed closings are based partly on considerations besides student achievement. If DCPS were getting its students to achieve, she wouldn't need to close schools because parents wouldn't be fleeing them.
Students displaced by Rhee's school closures were twice as likely to enroll in the city's burgeoning public charter schools, and it is likely that this will happen again. That will merely hasten the day -- now just three years away if current enrollment trends continue -- when charters are educating the majority of D.C. public school children.
Henderson has already anticipated this historic shift by asking the D.C. Council for authorization to set up her own charters within DCPS. The Washington Teachers' Union also sees the handwriting on the wall, and wants to unionize charter school teachers. But that would just inject the worst aspects of DCPS -- central planning and union control -- into a school system specifically designed to circumvent them.