Parish the Thought: With closings on tap, the charter board mulls Catholic conversions.
Parish the Thought: With closings on tap, the charter board mulls Catholic conversions. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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The Archdiocese of Washington has put a compelling ultimatum before the District of Columbia. It is bailing on seven parochial schools in the city that it can no longer afford to operate. If these schools are not converted to charter schools, says the archdiocese, they’ll simply close.

And all those kids in adorable uniforms will just have to enroll in D.C. Public Schools.

The horrors! In response to the archdiocese’s power play, charter authorities are considering shortening their normal approval process to accommodate the children by this fall.

Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells, however, is not. Wells has long been one of the District’s strongest opponents of charters, dating back to his stint on the Board of Education. He believes that these schools, which now number 55 in the District and serve more than 22,000 students, are poorly monitored and provide an uneven education to their own students while at the same time siphoning resources from the public schools.

On that last point, at least, the whole battle provides a nice rhetorical toehold for Wells: If the city essentially adopts the seven Catholic schools as charters, it’ll have to find $14 million in funding in the fiscal 2009 budget.

“What do we do?” asks Wells. “Do we defund $14 million worth of D.C. Public Schools in order to do it? Where does that $14 million come from?…They’re going to have to cut some service in District government in order to fund these private schools.”

Wells is picking a fight with a pretty motivated group of people. On the evening of Monday, May 19, more than a hundred kids and adults sporting red T-shirts poured into the Gala Hispanic Theatre in Columbia Heights for a meeting of the seven-member D.C. Public Charter School Board.

The red-shirted crew comprised students, parents, faculty, and administrators from the Center City consortium, the official name for the seven schools in jeopardy. At that evening’s hearing, Center City honchos made their case to the seven-member charter board, to wild applause from the bused-in audience.

Charter application hearings are usually pretty subdued affairs, seeing as most proposed charters start out with little more than a plan on paper and few backers on a board of directors—not a peanut gallery. But Center City comes pre-loaded with teachers, administrators, students, and supportive parents, not to mention a high-powered board, which includes former Ward 7 councilmember and longtime charter-and-voucher proponent Kevin Chavous, former deputy mayor George W. Brown, Freddie Mac honcho Ralph F. Boyd Jr., politically active lawyer Darrin Glymph, and Beverley Wheeler, a former aide to Mayor Anthony A. Williams and At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson now serving as executive director of the District’s State Board of Education.

The big turnout for Center City’s pitch to the charter board reflects the amount of attention given the bid vis-à-vis the dozens of other proposals the board has passed judgment on relatively anonymously in recent years. There’s plenty of reasons for that: It stands to be only the second charter in the city to be converted from an existing school. (Paul Junior High converted from a traditional public school in 1999.) It’s among the first religious schools in the country to attempt a charter conversion to save the school from closure. It’s also pretty much unprecedented to have schools that aren’t considered to be academically failing wanting to convert to charters.

And, if approved, Center City’s seven campuses will each be up and running with public dollars starting this fall, serving an estimated 1,000 students less than three months after its approval. For virtually every charter school in D.C., there’s about 15 months between the time an application is approved and when the school opens. Center City, however, proposes to shorten that wait to three months—a schedule that’s possible because these are schools with teachers and buildings and students already in place.

But that’s where the budget becomes an issue: With only three months between the Center City application’s potential approval and its opening—its application wasn’t even submitted until March, when the mayor’s budget proposal is essentially complete—funding for the schools haven’t been included for the city’s fiscal 2009 budget, which will have been sent off to Congress by the time the final ruling on Center City is made, on June 16.

Wells’ resistance to making special arrangements for the $14 million presages efforts on the council to take a closer look at charters in general.

There is, for instance, the fact that the charter board isn’t truly part of the District government yet can force a $14 million hole into the city budget. Established in 1996, its members are appointed to four-year terms by the mayor, but Hizzoner’s choices must come from a list vetted by the federal education department—meaning the board’s makeup are as much a product of George W. Bush’s thinking as the mayor’s. In fact, there’s no requirement that any of the board members actually live in the District, and two of the current members don’t—vice chair Anthony J. Colón, an education consultant, lives in Columbia, Md., and member Will Marshall, long associated with right-leaning Democratic groups, lives in Arlington.

“There’s no check or balance, and I hope they aren’t in the business now of converting private schools in D.C. to the public tax dollar,” Wells says. “There’s no accountability of the charter schools to the people who are paying for them.”

Robert Cane, head of the Friends of Choice in Urban Schools nonprofit and the most outspoken of charter proponents, calls the purported budget gap “bogus.” “The mayor and the CFO have known for a very long time that this conversion was in the works…plenty of time for them to understand that these schools would be closing down and a bunch of those kids would be going into public schools in D.C.,” says Cane. “There’s absolutely no excuse for the city not having put money in the budget.”

Charter board chair Tom Nida says he’s been in discussions about the issue with the Office of the Chief Financial Officer for months, and as far as the Home Rule concerns go, he has his doubts about taking a legislative fix to the Hill, where he says politicos are “likely to push back and say, ‘How does this make this work better?’” Rather, Nida suggests, the city could insist the feds pass on only the names of District residents for appointments, which would be a way to “do this procedurally rather than get into some sort of legislative dogfight.”

But a legislative dogfight over charters might just be what’s on tap, with Wells & Co. prepared to move forward with additional charter restrictions. “A lot of people see this as an ideological debate, and I’m happy to have the ideological debate,” Wells says. “But the first thing I have to do is try to be a good steward with D.C. government, and the first step is what relates to the budget we’re about to pass.” To that end, Wells says, he plans to propose adding budget language that would prohibit funding for any charter school not included in the budget as passed.

Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray has also taken an interest in the issue; his chief of staff, Dawn Slonneger, reports that her boss plans to introduce legislation next month requiring direct mayoral appointment and District residency requirements for future charter-board members. Evidence that further proposals might also be in the offing can be found in a January report that Gray commissioned from the council’s Office of Policy Analysis, which recommended that the council “must work with the U.S. Congress to address the chartering of new schools” and held that “school choice may be worthy of review and may require revision.” Those revisions, sources say, might include bringing the charter board under the District government umbrella and studying stricter limits on the growth of charters.

Activist Terry Lynch has gotten involved with the council reform efforts, offering political and policy advice to Wells. Lynch, always a guy with his ear to the ground, says “the timing is right” for the District’s body politic to have another look at charter schools.

“It’s time to revisit,” says Lynch, whose children go to both DCPS and charter schools. “It’s been 10 years; it’s time to take a second look and see where we need to improve.” The Center City conversion is part of the reason for such a reassessment, he says, but it also comes back the need for better integration of charters with DCPS reform efforts—especially with scant evidence that the majority of charters educate children any better than traditional public schools.

That, Lynch says, begins with putting D.C. residents on the board, and Nida’s compromise proposal isn’t going to cut it. “It doesn’t reflect the fundamental right that District residents have to direct the resources of their public schools,” he says. “It’s a short-term fix; it’s not a long-term solution.”

Charter cheerleaders, though, can point to a simple fact: Whatever you say about charters’ academic and accountability record, parents have voted with their feet in a landslide. Charters now educate upward of 22,000 children, while DCPS, decimated by charter growth, now enrolls about 50,000.

Even the Catholic schools themselves can be considered victims of charter success: Parents left the parochials for charters when $4,500 in tuition no longer looked like such a good deal for a DCPS alternative. According to archdiocese spokesperson Susan Gibbs, inner-city parochial schools—the least sustainable of which are under consideration for conversion—last year ran a $1.7 million deficit on top of $5 million in support from the church and outside sources. The consortium, she says, “just collapsed on top of itself financially.”

The lesson of charters’ success, Cane says, is woe to the politico who decides to futz with them: “Why would the council want to alienate D.C. parents?” he asks. “Why they’d even consider doing that is beyond me.…Any politician who wants to slow the growth of charter schools, they’re just sticking their heads in the sand.”

Political Potpourri

The D.C. Olympic Team is back.

Two years ago, for the winter games in Turin, Italy, local voting-rights activists acted on a plan put forth by various folks over the years and tried to pull together a curling team.

This year, says team organizer Mike Panetta, it’s going to be racewalking.

Panetta, who also serves as the District’s elected shadow representative, explains that the stunt is intended to take advantage of all that Beijing media hype to bring attention to voting rights.

Why racewalking? Panetta cites logistical concerns: “You need something that doesn’t require a specific location or equipment or any resources, so that’s why speedwalking is perfect.” Not heeding such considerations last time, he says, made assembling a curling team difficult.

Also, Panetta says, walking is “a very Washingtonian activity. People are in training 24-7.”

Panetta & Co. will have their work cut out for them. For one thing, Olympic racewalks aren’t short—the short event is 20 kilometers (12.4 miles); the long event is a whopping 50 kilometers (31 miles).

And, says Vince Peters, chair of the national racewalking committee and a racewalker himself, the training is no joke. “It’s somewhat similar to training for the marathon,” he says. “It takes that kind of dedication.”

Panetta says he’s not trying to disparage the sport by corralling a bunch of tyros, and Peters says he’s happy to have all comers. “I’m not offended at all,” he says. “There may be a pearl in there, you never know.

And, as of yet, there’s no plans to have what Panetta describes as “a walking club with a democracy problem” go to that other country with a democracy problem. “I would love to have a contingent from D.C. go [to Beijing],” he says. “So if someone wants to write a check….”

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