Originally published in Washington City Paper on March 13, 2020.
In an effort to mitigate the growing threat of coronavirus, D.C Mayor Muriel Bowser announced Friday morning that she would be closing D.C. Public Schools between Monday, March 16 and Tuesday, March 31. The news sparked immediate questions for families and students who rely on public schools for food, internet access, and basic childcare during the workday.
But the mayor notably did not close the city’s 123 charter schools, which educate roughly 44,000 students. On Twitter Bowser wrote that “charter schools are advised to conform with this directive and reopen on Tuesday, April 1; however, teacher professional development, remote learning preparation, and spring break determinations may vary by local education agency.”
While many charter schools are planning to follow suit, they don’t have to, and in D.C. these publicly funded schools are permitted to design their own public health response to the global crisis.
A spokesperson for the Deputy Mayor of Education said they’re working to support charters and provide them with resources and guidance, but suggested the mayor does not have the legal authority to actually tell charters what to do.
It’s not clear if this is true. Bowser has the legal authority to close city agencies under a section of the D.C. Code that outlines her powers in a state of emergency. (She declared a state of emergency on Wednesday.) One provision says the mayor has the authority to “exercise operational direction over all District of Columbia government departments and agencies during the period when an emergency executive order may be in effect.” Another provision says the mayor can “reduce or otherwise alter the hours” in which any person or group “conduct business or similar activity at premises established and maintained for a business.”
Bowser’s interpretation of the law is in contrast to many other cities and states, where leaders have been exerting greater control over their charter schools as fears of the pandemic grow. On Thursday Ohio Governor Mike DeWine announced that all K-12 schools—including traditional public, charter, and private—will close for three weeks beginning on Monday. Shortly after Ohio’s announcement, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced all schools across his state will close for two weeks, until March 27, a move that also includes charters. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer followed suit late Thursday night, saying all schools—traditional public, charter, and private—will be closed until April 5. New Mexico joined in, too, announcing closures for all traditional public and charter schools until at least April 6.
Other leaders of big urban cities have also taken steps to close schools. In Washington state, four large school districts announced on Wednesday their plans to close down all schools (Seattle, Bellevue, Northshore and Lake Washington). The following day Governor Jay Inslee announced via executive order that all traditional public, charter and private schools in King, Snohomish, and Pierce Counties will be closed through April 24.
City Paper has reported before how D.C.’s charter sector has an unusual amount of autonomy from city laws and rules, even more so than charters in other states. Autonomy in exchange for academic results has long been regarded as the grand bargain of charter schooling, and many D.C charter advocates balk at any attempt to take away their powers, insisting that any reduction could lead to a slippery slope.
Bowser’s resistance to closing charters is also different from her actions around D.C. public libraries, which, like charters, are publicly funded and managed independent of local government. (The library system, created by an act of Congress in 1898, is run by an unpaid board of D.C residents appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the D.C Council for a maximum of two five-year terms.)
On Friday morning, Bowser announced that she would be closing D.C. public libraries beginning on Monday. They will reopen on April 1.
Texas, meanwhile, is adopting a similar approach as D.C. At least as of Thursday, Texas officials told individual charters they have the authority to decide whether or not they remain open.
The DC Public Charter School Board is keeping a running list of what each individual charter is planning to do with respect to closures. But not all schools have shared their plans, and it’s not clear yet if all will follow the mayor’s order.
The announced school closures in D.C will impact at least 52,000 students across DCPS. The mayor also moved up DCPS’ scheduled spring break from April to March 17–23. The other days of the school closure will be dedicated to “distance learning” or virtual education.
Iris Bond Gill, a parent of two at Washington Latin Public Charter School told City Paper that “As a taxpayer and parent, I’m looking to the mayor to show leadership around schools as we are a city under mayoral control. That she only wants to show leadership over one [DCPS] is a system failure.” Bond Gill added that parents are in and out of charters and DCPS all the time, and “right now, it is no one’s job to publish a list of all of services [local education agencies] will continue running while kids are out of school.” Her children’s charter, Washington Latin, sent out an email at 9:55 a.m. Friday morning saying it will (voluntarily) follow the mayor’s directive and close from March 16 through March 31. KIPP, the city’s largest charter network, also announced Friday it would honor the mayor’s recommendation.
Etai Mizrav, a D.C. resident, parent, and educational consultant said he was surprised the mayor was not exerting control over charters. “Charter schools are public schools, and abiding by government guidance at especially at a time of crisis is just sensible, and is more important than any politics of autonomy,” he said. “Breaking the management of the city to almost 70 independent districts is inefficient and unhelpful for the improvement of the city school system any day, but the reluctance to assume the necessary governance over these schools during this public health crisis is especially troubling.”
Christian Herr, a former charter school teacher at Cesar Chavez Public Charter School and now a DCPS teacher at McFarland Middle School said his students on Friday were “really stressed” by all the news.
“If a charter can keep their kids at school while we send ours home, what good will it be for us to be closing when their older brother or younger sister will come home exposed to the virus?” Herr asked. “We need to have accountability where someone says this is how all schools across the cities will respond.”