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Taking note . . .

Observations about public affairs in the nationís capital
by the editor of The Common Denominator

WHO’S MINDING THE KIDS? That’s what The Common Denominator began asking after critics of SEED school recently trotted out former students of the publicly chartered, privately run school who alleged some questionable goings-on – including gay bashing – in the residential quarters of the District’s only taxpayer-funded boarding school.

What we found is disturbing. Apparently, the nation’s capital – a jurisdiction with a history of allowing mistreatment of group home residents to occur – has no laws governing living conditions for children enrolled in boarding schools. Yet, Congress and the Williams administration are poised to turn over federal land to SEED to build a new campus near RFK Stadium that would expand its boarding school enrollment from about 300 to nearly 1,000 D.C. children.

Children first? Maybe a close second to bricks and mortar. Officials at the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs told us that D.C. laws govern the location of boarding schools as "dormitories." But they could find no laws addressing living conditions for children at boarding schools, including such things as space requirements or the number and qualifications of adult supervisors.

A spokeswoman for the D.C. Public Charter School Board, which issued SEED’s charter, said the board is empowered by law to oversee the school’s academic environment but not its living quarters. A spokesman for the District’s State Education Office said that agency, which falls under the mayor’s authority, also has no oversight duties involving boarding school conditions. We also contacted the offices of D.C. City Council members Kathy Patterson (who chairs the education committee), Jim Graham (consumer and regulatory affairs committee) and Adrian Fenty (human services committee) – but found no one with any knowledge of D.C. laws that regulate boarding schools.

Several stumped city employees suggested that the lack of large, formal boarding programs among the city’s many private schools – some of which informally board a handful of students – may be the reason no one thought about regulations for SEED’s residential quarters.

Yet, the stunning lack of public regulation over what happens to D.C. children when they enroll in private K-12 schools in the District leaves us wondering if local leaders just assume that private purveyors of educational programs are somehow inherently superior to public entities.

In the District, there is no public oversight body responsible for periodically checking up on the quality of educational programs offered at private schools, because D.C. law has no minimum standards for what private schools must teach children or who does the teaching. Get a business license to operate a private school in the nation’s capital and you get a free pass from the government for whatever you want to teach the children to earn their diploma.

If local elected leaders and members of Congress really care as much as they claim about the welfare of children in the nation’s capital, why are they not taking a closer look at what happens inside the walls of the city’s privately operated schools?

Copyright 2006 The Common Denominator