When DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson begins her "State of Education" meetings Wednesday, she should expect this question: Why, after billions of dollars in facilities and program investments, teacher firings and school closings, have dramatic improvements eluded many traditional schools?
Some have done well; those have been in communities -- Wards 2, 3, 4 and 6 --where children already received a decent education. In other areas, gains have been minimal or nonexistent.
"We want stuff to be fixed tomorrow. I get that," Henderson told me. "I'm trying to create the kind of school system that I would send my children to."
Residents have wondered whether Mayor Vincent C. Gray, Deputy Mayor for Education De'Shawn Wright and Henderson have morphed into "relinquishers" -- reformers who advocate putting charters in control. That's happening in Detroit and Philadelphia.
"I didn't take this job because I want to be superintendent of charter schools," said Henderson, adding she "value[s] traditional schools."
Still, she and Wright, with Gray's approval, have been plotting school closures -- the third round since 2006. While acknowledging the potential dangers of eroding DCPS' portfolio, they have scheduled community meetings for this summer.
"I am never going to shy away from closing a school not serving students well," said Wright, adding he's primed for the summer. "We are going to understand which school with the right intervention and the right investment can become a healthy body."
"For there to be long-term gains, you have to make short-term sacrifices," said Henderson, asserting closures are more about quality academic programs than buildings -- though the city spends too much operating 123 schools for only 47,000 students. Some schools are underenrolled because "we played around with feeder patterns, so they don't have enough feeders to be viable." Boundaries and feeders haven't been adjusted for decades.
Closures should be halted -- until new boundaries have been established and tested. More important, officials should reboot reform, deep-sixing failed policies and strategies.
Why cling to a per-pupil funding formula? It's politically correct but ignores this reality: All schools aren't the same.
Instead, the District could establish education development zones, allowing greater financial support for schools within those boundaries and aggressively recruiting more middle-class families. It could create "strike forces" of academic volunteers and persuade foundations to provide at-home assistance for underperforming students.
As Ward 6 demonstrated, schools can be economic engines. "People moved in because of neighborhood schools; they stayed and they spent money," Ward 6 D.C. Councilman Tommy Wells told me. The District's growing population may force Henderson to reopen Van Ness Elementary School.
Standard development tools should be applied to education reform: The city could offer tax incentives to families willing to purchase homes and enroll in schools in education zones. That program would lessen their mortgage burden while reconstituting struggling traditional institutions.
Those changes could produce a win-win -- unless Gray, Wright and Henderson are determined to tread an overworn path, ascribing to that definition of insanity: the one about repeatedly doing the same thing but expecting different results.
Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Monday and Wednesday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.