Writing in the Wall Street Journal a few days ago C.J. Szafir, executive vice president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, and Cori Peterson, a researcher and writer at the Institute, in a piece entitled “This Building Is for Sale, but Not to a Charter School” tell the exceedingly frustrating story of charters trying to obtain the use of vacant traditional school buildings in Milwaukee and other localities. They explain:
“The Milwaukee Public Schools currently have at least 11 vacant school buildings and 41 schools operating below 70% capacity—and, according to a report by a consulting group hired by MPS, empty seats are expected to increase by 63% over the next 10 years. Many parents have turned to the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, passed in 1990, which provides low-income children with vouchers for private schools. Over the past decade, enrollment has increased 45% at MPCP schools and by 47% at the city’s charter schools. Many charter and MPCP administrators would like to expand by acquiring vacant public-school buildings.
St. Marcus Lutheran, which has a student body of around 900 and ranks in the top 1% statewide among schools with a majority of low-income and minority students, offered $1 million in 2013 to buy Malcolm X Academy, a large public-school campus that had been closed since 2008. The Milwaukee Board of School Directors said no and instead chose to sell the site to 2760 Holdings LLC, a newly formed corporation registered to a pair of construction-business operators. That deal fell through, and in 2016 the school district opted instead to spend $10 million relocating the struggling Rufus King Middle School and its roughly 400 students to the Malcolm X campus.”
Sound familiar? It should. Last June D.C. Mayor Bowser announced that five surplus DCPS buildings were being turned over to developers. In the nation’s capital there is an estimated one million square feet of space that could be utilized by charters to grow and replicate. Yet, not one former classroom building has been offered to a charter for almost four years.
The authors of the Wall Street Journal editorial continue:
“In November 2016 Rocketship, a charter school that performs in the top 5% statewide, attempted to buy an MPS building. In the final stage of the negotiation, MPS demanded that Rocketship, which is chartered by the city, obtain a charter from MPS instead. This would allow the district more control over the school. In 2017, because of the ultimatum and protests by the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, the deal fell through. (MPS declined to comment.)”
On to Detroit:
“In 2017 Detroit ranked last in proficiency out of 27 large urban school districts with a measly 5% of fourth-graders proficient in math and 7% in reading. The Motor City is home to one of the largest charter systems in the country; more Detroit students are enrolled in charters than in traditional public schools. The Detroit Public Schools have 22 vacant buildings, but as in Milwaukee, the education establishment isn’t eager to sell.
In 2017 DPS did everything it could, even manipulating deed restrictions, to block charter school Detroit Prep from buying an abandoned building. ‘It seemed that Detroit Public Schools’ perspective was that they could use their size and power to wait us out and, ultimately, put us out of business,’ said Kyle Smitley, Detroit Prep’s co-founder and executive director. The sale was completed only this summer, after litigation, public outrage and the enactment of legislation to prevent deed restrictions on schools.”
Lastly they point to Indianapolis:
“In Indianapolis, only 1 in 4 students passed the state proficiency test last year. From 2006 to 2016, Indianapolis Public Schools’ overall test scores declined 22%. The district announced in June that it would close seven schools. Purdue Polytechnic High School, which is chartered by Purdue University, tried to buy the vacant Broad Ripple High School building but received pushback from Indianapolis Public Schools. Elected officials convinced the district to consider Purdue’s offer, but the school’s leadership announced in August that they were no longer interested.”
Just last month, New York City’s Success Academy called out Mayor de Blasio for severely curtailing the use of vacant regular school system buildings by charters. As reported by Selim Algar in the New York Post, “Citing a study from the Manhattan Institute, Success Academy said Thursday there are 192 DOE buildings with at least 300 available seats and that some schools have up to 1,000 empty spots.”
Back in D.C., Ms. Bowser offered this justification last summer to United States Senator Ron Johnson to explain her failure to comply with the law that states that charters get right of first offer for empty DCPS facilities:
“As you noted, District of Columbia law gives public charter schools the right of first offer when school facilities are designated as excess. However, the law does not require the District to designate every vacant or underutilized school as excess.”
But then what about the five buildings she sold? If you want to know why our children may become confused as to what constitutes the truth or a falsehood you just have to follow the twisted logic of our city’s chief executive.