Did the pandemic end the D.C. charter school facility crisis?

A few months before the lockdown caused by the Covid-19 virus, a fight was being waged between charter supporters and Mayor Muriel Bowser over her refusal to turn over surplus DCPS buildings to the alternative school sector. The call was to End The List, a reference to the approximately 12,000 students on charter school waitlists due, in part, to the inability of these institutions to replicate and grow because of a severe shortage of available facilities. The D.C. commercial real estate market was on fire and those schools needing buildings in which to open or expand had literally nowhere to go.

But as the virus was raging a glimmer of hope for resolution of the facility crunch emerged. Here is what I observed back in May:

“The last five charters that have been approved for new locations will open in commercial space. Capital Village PCS has taken over the former home of City Arts and Prep PCS, and Girls Global Academy PCS has settled into 733 8th Street, N.W., the site of the Calvary Baptist Church. Appletree Early Learning PCS will join the Richard Wright PCS for Journalism and Media Arts at 475 School Street, S.E. that was part of the campus of the closed Southeastern University. Finally Rocketship PCS will open in Ward 5 in a building owned by the Cafritz Foundation.”

Now, of course, the ecosystem around office space has completely changed. Remote work and Zoom meetings have become the norm. With people becoming vaccinated, and the spread of the virus diminishing, there are calls to bring life back to a new sense of normal. Some schools are open and others are seriously working to bring pupils once again to the classroom.

So the great question will become, when offices reopen will there be room for charters? I believe the answer is yes. My contention is that landlords, desperate for income, are beginning to realize that charter schools make great tenants. They hardly ever close, and their students equal a consistent revenue steam that is never interrupted even through the greatest of catastrophes.

However, the pandemic provides the traditional school system with an additional justification for holding onto empty structures. It will argue that physical distancing requirements translate into a requirement for more square feet for the same number of students. Alternately, I could see a system desperate for cash deciding to sell properties that can never be imagined to be needed again in the future.

In any case, my hope is that I no longer need to be concerned with this topic. The goal is to get more and more students into charter schools to offer them the best chance to learn and become successful in the future. We really could get to the point that there is a quality seat for every child who needs one. One piece of the puzzle in reaching this accomplishment may have been solved.

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