D.C. Charter School Planning Debate Continues

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By: Victoria Jones
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Traditional schools in D.C. feel as though charter schools are now taking over the neighborhoods that they have already been established in. As charter schools continue to expand, they are now in fierce competition with the neighborhood schools in order to attract students.

A recent situation which reflects this competition is the relocation of charter school, Harmony School of Excellence-D.C., to being right across the street to Langley Elementary. Both schools serve the same grade levels and are science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) focused.

Harmony’s move came as a shock to Langley Elementary Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, who learned about it on Twitter. In an interview with the Washington Post, Henderson calls Harmony’s move an inefficient use of tax­payer dollars and the choice of whether D.C. wants to plan the coexistence of charter schools and neighborhood schools. If D.C. doesn’t make a decision soon regarding the conflict between charter and traditional schools, Henderson believes that it could give rise to a “cannibalistic environment” in which “somebody gets eaten.”

Either we want neighborhood schools or we want cannibalism, but you can’t have both,” Henderson said to the Washington Post. “A citywide conversation about how many schools do we need, and how do we get to the right number of schools, as opposed to continuing to allow as many schools to proliferate as possible, is probably a necessary conversation to have at some point.”

Henderson is one of many people who believe that there needs to be joint planning between traditional and charter schools or at least a limit on the number of independent charter schools on the District. Parents and politicians have questioned as to how the District can redraw school maps without considering the increasing number of charter schools, which enroll almost half of the city’s schoolchildren.

Currently, charter schools do not have to specify or propose a location when they apply to the D.C. Public Charter School Board for approval. The school board considers all applications on merit and do not take into account the impact the new carter school might have on nearby existing schools. Once a school becomes approved, it then finds a permanent location and notifies to school board of its location before it opens its doors to students.

Charter schools have long advocated that location shouldn’t be a factor when getting approved because it very hard to find real estate.
Officials with Harmony, a ­Texas-based chain that specializes in STEM education, said they conducted an extensive search and found only one workable place for their new elementary school, an old parochial school building on T Street Northeast directly across from Langley Elementary.

Soner Tarim, superintendent of the Harmony charter network, told the Washington Post, “I’ve never spent this much time during my 14 years of charter schooling. This was the most intense search.”

Tarim said he didn’t realize that Langley was a STEM school and the shortage of options led him to sign the lease to the old school building. He also said that since charter schools enroll students from across the city, Harmony students will come from outside Langley’s school zone.

McKinley Tech middle and high school, which are both STEM-focused, are also across the street from Harmony. Tarim plans to eventually expand hard to be a K-12 school, but the older grades will be placed in another building since the school is too small to accommodate them now.

The advisory committee overseeing the boundary overhaul has recommended that D.C. address the lack of coordination between charter and traditional school, but stopped short of making specific recommendations because of the resistance of charter advocates.

Charter advocates said the District could help guide charters’ locations by some of the many empty school buildings. They also said they were open to sharing more information with the school system. However, they oppose getting rid of their independence to government officials in the name of joint planning.

Henderson said to the Washington Post that she would like a process that would allow city and charter board officials to identify which neighborhoods most need new, good schools and which neighborhoods would benefit from specialty programs. The charter board would then use that information in determining which new schools should be approved, she said.
Ramona Edelin, executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools, said it is not surprising that the chancellor of the traditional school system would want to regulate which charters are approved and where they’re allowed to open.

Edelin’s response to Henderson’s comment that charters are cannibalizing traditional schools was “competition should be good for the neighborhood.” She also states that the school system’s struggles to maintain enrollment are “not just because there’s a charter school nearby.” She said, “It’s because they’re seen as better, and parents are voting with their feet.”

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