School Planning in DC Limited by Data Secrecy

Where to locate schools in D.C. shouldn’t be hard, but rational plans for building and remodeling have eluded city officials for years. And even when the D.C. Council stepped in a few years ago with a new Planning Actively for Comprehensive Education (PACE) Facilities Act setting a new process based on public data, all is not well. Plans to be released this week rest on suspect foundations because a bunch of data is still secret.

Rachel Cohen’s 4,000 word cover story in today’s City Paper shows what’s happened. “A number of glaring obstacles to comprehensive school facility planning have emerged,” she reports, “and elected officials, reluctant to confront tough politics, have worked to reinterpret or simply ignore the intent of the law that they themselves authorized.”  

Emails obtained by the Open Government Coalition through the Freedom of Information Act play a role in part of Cohen’s story. They show how education officials agreed charter schools could evade the law’s data requirements--that each facility would be assessed and a master plan developed from all the assessments with underlying data made public.

Instead, the emails show that staff in the deputy mayor’s office ghost-wrote a funding proposal for a D.C. nonprofit to submit so that the charter-friendly Walton Family Foundation could make a grant to the nonprofit that would pay the engineering firm doing the surveys of any charters in private space -- with a grant rider saying the resulting data could be secret. (Both the foundation and the nonprofit pass-through told City Paper the scheme wasn't their idea.)

The public records obtained by the Coalition show not a single document explaining the plan, justifying it, or offering a legal review of this apparent defiance of a Council directive for public data (even fines for noncompliance). To the Coalition's appeal, the deputy mayor looked again and said there were no such records.

The essay brilliantly shows the story of planning school facilities when the two sectors co-exist under very different oversight. It’s also a new chapter in the long history of transparency limits enjoyed by the charter school sector in D.C., where the dozens of schools enrolling almost half of local students at a cost of hundreds of millions, are already exempt from open meetings and open records laws (unlike in most states). And now this.

Worth your read.