Shutting Down Unneeded D.C. Public Schools

D.C. Mayor Fenty and Schools Chancellor Rhee have put forth a plan to shut down 23 public schools. As is the usual case, families and activists are fighting back.

It doesn't matter how few kids are in a particular school, there are some who never want to see a public school closed. The student population of DC public schools has fallen from about 150,000 in 1969 to less than 50,000 now. Yet, every attempt to shut down public schools has met resistance. If some parents had their way, there would be a similar number of schools open today.

Just a few years ago, former city council member Fenty was leading the charge to spend billions renovating schools. Now as mayor Fenty, he is leading the charge to shut down schools.

In a briefing paper I wrote for the Cato Institute a few years ago, I suggested that Mayor Williams should appoint an independent commission to recommend which public schools should be shut down. That's because I didn't think a D.C. mayor would ever have the political will to shut down surplus schools--but Mayor Fenty and Schools Chancellor Rhee have made it clear that they are willing, ready, and wanting to do so.

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From a Briefing Paper I wrote for the Cato Institute in 2003: "School Choice in the District of Columbia: Saving Taxpayers Money, Increasing Opportunities for Children," Cato Briefing Paper No. 86, September 19, 2003.

According to C. Vanessa Spinner, acting director of the D.C. State Education Agency, the District’s public school system is barely operating at half capacity. The system can accommodate 120,000 students. There are about 66,000 students currently in the system.21

Numerous underutilized facilities are being kept open, even when they are not economically feasible. Superintendent Paul L. Vance said at a December 2002 news conference that the public school system had 14,000 open work orders and needed money to pay for repairs.22 The D.C. public school system needs to consider closing its most decrepit schools rather than continuing to spend money on repairs to schools operating under capacity.

With almost 150 public schools in a system that has been losing students, the D.C. public school system could merge several schools to save taxpayer money. In October 2002 Mayor Anthony A. Williams suggested establishing a commission to determine whether some schools and other city buildings should be closed because of underuse.23 Sixty school buildings have been declared surplus within the last few years, yet the District is building more schools.24 Instead of closing or merging schools operating at half capacity and cutting back on operating costs, city leaders have sought to renovate every school, at a total cost of $2 billion over the next 10 to 15 years.25 The city and the school system should close schools with the fewest students and most in need of renovation.

Charter schools in the District, which must currently acquire their own facilities, could use buildings currently underutilized by the public school system. Other facilities could be given to or auctioned off to private entrepreneurs who agreed to operate them as schools. Because of the political sensitivities that come with closing schools, army bases, or fire stations, an independent group should determine which schools should be closed.

21. Connie Spinner appeared as a guest on WOL 1450-AM, discussing the impact of vouchers in
the District of Columbia, June 11, 2003.
22. Yolanda Woodlee and Justin Blum, “NE School’s Woes Leave Staff, Pupils Cold; Balky Boiler, Broken Windows Make for Chilly Conditions at Taft Junior High,” Washington Post, December 3, 2002, p. B3.
23. “D.C. Schools Get a Lesson in Economics; Cost of Renovations Is Far above Projections,” Washington Post, October 2, 2002, B1.
24. “Mayor Illegally Blocks Schoolhouse Door,” Washington Times, September 18, 2002, p. A16.
25. Justin Blum, “Despite Sinking Enrollment, Proposal Calls for Rebuilding,” Washington Post, December 7, 2000, p. B2.