Mayor Vincent Gray’s administration has exhibited a welcome change in attitude toward the city’s public charter schools, compared to his predecessor Mayor Fenty. This new approach has included recognizing that D.C.’s public charter schools, which are publicly funded and run independently of D.C. Public Schools, should receive the same funding as city-run schools. Gray also has stated that he believes charters should be able to buy or lease school buildings no longer needed by D.C. Public Schools.
Charter leaders are therefore cautiously optimistic that the historic Stevens school has been offered both to developers and to educational institutions in a new bid process set in motion by Gray’s administration. No one in the city’s charter community was surprised by the previous Mayor’s attempt to sell Stevens to developers, despite the fact that D.C. law is supposed to put our children’s’ needs above developers’ deep pockets. The 1996 law requires charters to be given a “right of first offer” to bid on school buildings that are no longer being used as such by the city, before developers can do so. But the former administration, while giving lip service to the right, rejected four charter school bids for Stevens, which they’d already decided to put out for development. Since then, an assertive community-led campaign has been asking the powers that be to rethink that plan, leading to hope that the building may serve as a public school once more.
The recent ups and downs of this landmark school building at 21st and L Street, Northwest—an enticing location for private developers—are a far cry from its distinguished history. Stevens was the first public school for freed slave children in the District. Named for the abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. It speaks volumes about the values of local politicians and bureaucrats that they thought the best use for this historic school building was to turn it over to developers for luxury condominiums—the all-too-common fate of so many former D.C. public school buildings.
It’s easy to understand why private firms would seek to purchase Stevens to create a new development—it’s a prime downtown location. But it is important that District officials take seriously the needs of charter schools to buy or lease the building.
D.C.’s public charter schools serve a higher share of disadvantaged children—defined as those whose families’ low-income qualifies them for free or reduced-price school lunch—than the city-run public school system. Social justice demands that their need for a school building should come before developers’ search for a tidy profit, and well-to-do D.C. residents’ quest for high ceilings, stainless steel appliances and granite countertops.
Since their inception in D.C. fifteen years ago, charters have raised the city’s high-school graduation rate and massively increased the numbers of D.C. children accepted to college. In 1996, half of the school system’s high-school students dropped out before graduating. D.C.’s charter schools have raised the graduation rate to 83%, significantly higher than the city’s traditional public school system even after three-and-a-half years of reformist Chancellor Michelle Rhee.
The city’s public charter schools are located by choice in the District’s most underserved neighborhoods, where the need for a quality public education is greatest—and yet they have surpassed the DC school system in terms of results, outperforming school system students from the fifth grade up. Many are located in former warehouses, or in what was once retail or office space; some even began in church basements. One of the former Stevens bidders plans to open on the site of a former grocery store; another shares space with a city-run high school. Nonetheless, thousands of D.C. children are on waiting lists trying to get into charters which, due to lack of funds and space, are not able to expand to accommodate them. This shortage of space also imposes considerable burdens on new charter schools attempting to open in the District, reducing children’s educational opportunities and thereby preventing them from continuing to raise the quality of D.C.’s workforce.
It is scandalous that the city has sold off so many precious public assets like Stevens. Let’s hope that Mayor Gray insists that a public charter school be located in the building, avoiding the recent practice of selling to private real estate developers. Let’s put D.C.’s children first, and open up our former public school buildings to them.
This entry reposts an article written by FOCUS Executive Director Robert Cane and originally published in The Washington Business Journal. The original article is available here.