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Certainly one can expect traditionalists in the nation’s capitol to be vexed by Tuesday’s decision by D.C. Public Schools to shut down 20 of its schools with low enrollment over the coming two years. After all, the district has long-existed as a jobs program for the American Federation of Teachers’ Chocolate City affiliate and for politicians such as the ever-embarrassing Marion Barry, who used his tenure on the school system’s now-defunct board as a stepping stone to his long (and often-undignified) political career. Add in the fact that the school closing being initiated by D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson reminds traditionalists in the district of the similar move undertaken in 2008 by predecessor Michelle Rhee — and also reminds AFT local boss Nathan Saunders of the broken promises given to him by current Mayor Vince Gray to do his bidding — and one can expect plenty of uproar to come.

At the same time, families concerned about the school shutdowns do have legitimate concerns about providing their kids with high-quality schools in their own neighborhoods. This is an issue that neither Henderson or Gray (along with predecessors Rhee and Adrian Fenty) have addressed to the satisfaction of parents in the city. Which is why it is time for Gray to use the school closings as an opportunity to step up systemic reform in the city by expanding school choice, enacting a Parent Trigger law that can allow families to take over the closing schools in their communities, and encourage the development of blended and online learning options that can expand high-quality school opportunities and continue D.C.’s move away from the traditional district model to the Hollywood Model of Education.

Certainly anyone looking at D.C. Public Schools’ 45 percent decline in enrollment between 2004-2005 and 2010-2011 (or the longer-term slide, 65 percent slide in student population since 1959-1960) can easily understand why the district is shutting down the schools. After all, as a large traditional school bureaucracy with the scale to match, DCPS can’t keep open schools that aren’t filled without straining the resources it needs to continue the longstanding overhaul of how it provides education to the children under its care. For D.C. Public Schools, it makes no fiscal sense to keep open a school such as Kenilworth Elementary on the city’s Northeast side, which operates at 49 percent of the 350-student capacity needed, or  continue operating Springarn High School, which is only serving two-thirds of the students needed to be economically feasible. Given that the district is still undergoing a slow-yet-successful effort to improve the quality of teachers and curricula provided to its students, it isn’t exactly as many of the schools being shut down were models of high quality. Shaw Middle School, for example, is one of the district’s more-persistent failure mills with two out of every three students struggling in school, while Davis Elementary School has done little more than condemn its young students to economic and social despair. Families and children won’t miss much with their shutdowns.

Yet DCPS’ struggles in filling its buildings isn’t just a problem of declining enrollment.

Henderson’s predecessor, Rhee, made a strong move two years ago in forcing the AFT into a contract that now requires teachers to be subjectded to stronger evaluations using student performance growth data, and rewarding high-quality teachers with bonuses for good-and-great work. This is helping the district improve quality of teaching and reduce costly headcounts. But the deal didn’t fully unravel the decades of defined-benefit pension deals between the district and the AFT that have made district operations costly to maintain at current levels; the district (and ultimately, taxpayers) must now bear the burden of taking on a pension deficit that increased by 72 percent between 2009 and 2010 (the latest years available) alone (which will increase given that at least 3.75 percent of teachers and other employees with 30 or more years of time on the job will retire every year). Given those burdens, the district has to look at reducing the number of aging and half-empty buildings it maintains.

Another reason why these buildings are half-empty has to do with the district’s continued embrace of zoned schooling and other Zip Code Education policies that restrict the ability of families to choose schools within the district that are fit for their kids. A family in D.C.’s northwest side may live closer to a middle school near Rock Creek Park than to Shaw Middle School, but can only attend the latter because of school zoning. Gray and Henderson could easily move away from zoned schooling and offer robust intra-district choice (and Rhee and Fenty could have done the same thing); this could have led to more families attending those half-empty schools. Simply put, Zip Code Education policies not only hurt children by condemning them to failure mills and otherwise-good schools that don’t serve their needs, it makes it difficult for DCPS to utilize building capacity in more-efficient ways.

Photo courtesy of the Washington Post

The consequences for these problems are borne by families are rightfully concerned about being able to have high-quality school opportunities for their kids right in their own neighborhoods.

Certainly school choice opportunities aren’t as limited for D.C. families as they are for those in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs surrounding the city. As the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools reported this week in its annual market share report, charter schools already serve 41 percent of D.C. students (a four percent increase over 2011-2012), and more students will end up flocking to those schools. A parent in Anacostia, for example, can send their kid to any of the traditional district middle schools in the area, a KIPP school, another Center City charter (in Congress Heights), or one of the Achievement Prep academies — as well as to any charter school throughout the city — and if they qualify, even get a voucher from the recently-revived D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program and attend any of the city’s parochial and private schools.

Yet choice in the Chocolate City remains less than robust. For most of the past two years, families have complained about being unable to send their kids to middle schools within a decent distance from their homes. The fact that DCPS is closing four middle schools as part of its plan will not make them happy. Families are still going to want real choices in their neighborhoods — and given the high taxes they pay for laggard schools, are right to want it. That the schools are part of the life of their communities is an important consideration. Shaw Middle School, for example, gained stronger connections to the surrounding community two years ago after its then-principal, Brian Betts, was senselessly murdered by two teens attempting to rob him.

But it isn’t just about holding on to romantic notions about buildings where low-quality teaching was the norm. The high cost — both in time and transportation costs — of sending kids outside of neighborhoods, remains a concern, especially for D.C.’s poorest families; as Dianne Piche of the Leadership Council for Civil and Human Rights noted last year, single mothers, in particular, have to also think about their child care needs as part of the school equation. There is also the consequences of school shutdowns in dragging down communities. The shutdown of schools serving mostly-black students during the 1960s and 1970s as part of well-meaning school integration efforts were one reason why so many black communities fell into (and remain) in economic and social despair. There’s no sense in keeping open failure mills and dropout factories that drag down the communities that surround them. [Of course, such arguments can also be applied to the districts whose systemic dysfunction has led to those schools doing so poorly in the first place.]. At the same time, simply closing down schools without allowing for new schools to take their place is just as senseless.

This is an issue that neither Gray, Henderson, or the city’s school reform activists can ignore As Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform rightly remarked yesterday, the city is failing to do right by children and families with its decision to allow DCPS to not put 11 of the soon-to-be shuttered buildings up for sale or lease to charters and parochial school operators. Sure, the fact that DCPS may work with some high-quality charters in the city to re-open three of the schools is heartening. But it isn’t good enough. Failing to allow for the expansion of school options alongside the DCPS will only make families angry, which in turn, will play into the hands of traditionalists looking to stop the very reforms Gray and Henderson are undertaking. Considering the dissatisfaction Gray and Henderson have already fomented among families of students being forced back into DCPS’s special ed ghettos, giving traditionalists another weapon is not a good thing As seen in Chicago, where the school closings under mayors Richard Daley and Rahm Emanuel (and the lack of more-aggressive charter school expansion and Parent Power efforts by both) have fed into the efforts of the AFT affiliate there to oppose more-aggressive reforms, dissatisfied families can easily end up on the other side, opposing all reforms because of the lack of responsiveness over a major concern.  So D.C. must expand choice and Parent Power in order to both satisfy families and fend off the opposition.

Abandoning DCPS’ zoned schooling policies would be a good first step. The next should be increasing the number of charters in the city. Gray can overrule Henderson and require the district to lease or sell the buildings to charter school operators, ensuring that there will schools for families in the affected neighborhoods. The district’s charter school board can also help by aggressively recruiting leading operators such as KIPP, along with community organizations and families, to launch new charters over the next few years. Replacing laggard schools with new operations (including charters) is the approach that Gray’s colleague in New York City, Michael Bloomberg, has used to great success in his reform effort. Gray could go further and encourage Parent Power in the city by successfully pushing the city council to pass a Parent Trigger law that can be refined to allow the majority of families in neighborhoods served by the 20 closing schools to take them over and revamp their operations. This would rally families in the city around reform by giving them the ability to be active players in shaping the schools that serve their children, as well as expands the notion of choice beyond simply escaping failure.

Gray could also stand behind more-robust school choice by ending his opposition to the D.C. Opportunity voucher program, and working with congressional leaders and Gray’s predecessor, Anthony Williams, to push for its expansion. The program already serves 1,584 of D.C.’s poorest children, but it can serve so many more. Demanding that President Barack Obama back away from his constant efforts to shut down the voucher program — and pushing for more kids to be served by it — would win goodwill among families tired of waiting for DCPS’ reforms, and also addresses concerns among those families about the district’s school closings.

An even greater opportunity lies with expanding online and blended learning opportunities, as well as fostering DIY efforts. As Tom Vander Ark noted earlier this month, these innovations can help reframe the issues around families — especially those from poor and minority backgrounds — gaining access to high-quality education. Embracing digital learning also accepts the reality that the traditional district model is inadequate for providing all kids with good and great teachers and curricula, as well as accepts the embrace of the Hollywood Model of Education in which American public education moves from a monopoly provider to a collection of schools and school systems. Gray and the city council could launch an initiative to attract Rocketship Education and other blended learning outfits to the city, which in turn, expands school options. Allowing for the creation of virtual charters would also help. The city’s school reform players, including Atlantic Monthly owners David and Katherine Bradley could also fund a series of digital learning and DIY learning efforts throughout the city.

The DCPS school closings doesn’t have to be the loss of schools for families. Gray should take advantage of the situation to push for reforms that expand the array of high quality school choices available to every family. And serve as another example for reform-oriented mayors throughout the nation to the benefit of all children.