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As charter schools expand, the traditional DCPS system is looking to shrink. In November, Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced a long-awaited plan to shutter 20 schools, a follow-up to a 2008 closure of 23 schools overseen by her predecessor, self-appointed education revolutionary Michelle Rhee.
As Henderson explained it, DCPS will only get better if every available dollar goes to sustain teachers instead of half-empty buildings; currently, D.C. has more buildings (123) for its number of students (around 45,000) than the jurisdictions around it, and some kids are taught in buildings that are only half-used.
Opponents were quick to rally, arguing that closing schools only drives more students out of DCPS—which leads to more schools having to be closed. Henderson, though, turned that argument on its head: If she keeps all the current schools open, the education and programming offered at each one will be bad enough that parents will look elsewhere for schools anyway. Naturally, D.C. councilmembers say they agree that schools need to close—but only schools in someone else’s ward.
While a final list isn’t due until January, Henderson has drawn plaudits from almost all quarters for not being Rhee. Unlike her former mentor, Henderson has taken to the streets with her proposal, hosting discussions in affected wards, and inviting opponents to offer alternatives. In one hearing, Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry even went so far as to call her a “breath of fresh air.”
Closing schools will look easy compared to what’s next, though: a D.C. Council proposal to redraw school boundaries and feeder zones, which determine where kids have an automatic right to go. When there are only a limited amount of very good public schools to be had, after all, drawing lines that determine who can and cannot get in is certain to produce an epic fight.