Is it time for D.C. charters to get help from Congress?

Over the weekend the editors of the Washington Post raised the issue of D.C. Mayor Bowser’s Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force complete with all of the dangers for charter schools I had identified when the group was first announced.  But there is one other point that needs to be addressed.

The Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles explained that the Task Force will meet for a couple of years before a report will be created.  Really?  This means it could be another 24 months before additional excess facilities are turned over to charters.  Another 24 months before some sort of resolution is reached over the FOCUS-coordinated funding inequity lawsuit?  Two more years to determine if these alternative schools will have to provide a neighborhood admissions preference?

Two more years to find out if DCPS will have to adopt the same high academic standards that charters face?

Perhaps this is the moment when school choice advocates approach Congress to obtain the policy prescriptions that cannot be achieved locally.  As the gap between white and black and rich and poor students grows this may be the time to say enough is enough.  It appears that a new injection of passion is in order, an emotion sadly absent in the Wilson Building.

We can sit back and do nothing and the situation we are in today could go on for another two years or another two hundred years.  Or, we can take a different path.

Inequity in D.C. charter school fundraising caused by inequity in city financing

The Washington Post’s Michael Allison Chandler this morning focuses on fundraising in D.C.’s charter movement and brings to our attention what she describes as “a serious inequity between schools that raised millions of dollars and many that raised little or none.”  In fact between 2012 and 2014 just three charters, E.L. Haynes, KIPP DC, Maya Angelou raised a total of $14.5 million, almost half of what all 60 charter schools brought in during this period.

I know what the leaders of all the other schools are saying to themselves because I have mouthed these words as well.  “We should be so lucky.”

Running a charter school in the nation’s capital is like being placed into jail for helping a senior citizen cross the street.  You start out with no place to begin operating.  Shuttered DCPS facilities are off limits.  Commercial space is too expensive and frowned upon as an option because it is seen as lining the pockets of private developers with public money.  After you have gone through the seemingly requisite failure of three potential deals you face neighborhood opposition to the building you have identified.  In addition, you better not locate near an exiting traditional school due to the fear that you will steal their kids.  This total lack of faith in the programs being offered by DCPS is all you really need to know about education in Washington, D.C.

Of course, the structure you find will need to be renovated.  Here you have to convince a bank that the $3,072 per pupil is sufficient to borrow $20 million.  These days that amount of money doesn’t go nearly as far as you would think when you have to replace air conditioners and water lines.  This is why charters often have to open without gymnasiums, or libraries, or sufficient space for teachers to be able to plan their lessons.  Also do not forget that no charter opens with their final enrollment and you have an all encompassing puzzle that can only be described as possessing an intractable solution.  Finally, the DC Public Charter Board states that academically you need to be Tier 1 on their Performance Management Framework on day 1.  The fact that so many school leaders have been able to figure out how to do all of this proves there is a heaven.

There is much Mayor Bowser and Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles could do to help this situation so that charters don’t need to resort to fundraising.  Can we reach a settlement in the FOCUS coordinated funding equity lawsuit so that charters receive the same operating dollars that the regular schools get?  The shortfall is estimated at about $100 million a year.

Could we please get access to closed DCPS facilities?  This is such an easy part of the solution that it is a total mystery why it has not already taken place.  People are confused because the Deputy Mayor directly faced this issue as the founder and executive director of E.L. Haynes PCS.

Lastly, we need to being some fairness to the dollars the city spends on school renovations.  Charters are public schools like the traditional ones and it cannot be that the Mayor and D.C. Council plan upgrades to their system’s schools in the hundreds of millions in cash while charters are restricted by the facility allotment tied to enrollment.

Perhaps if we tackled the problems detailed above charters would not have to ask anyone for an additional dime.

Failure of D.C. charters to back fill slots throws off Performance Management Framework ranking

A year ago Alexandra Pardo, the former executive director of Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS, wrote a guest editorial talking about the importance of measuring student Median Growth Percentile (MGP) as the best indicator of academic progress.  The D.C. Public Charter School Board also takes this number seriously as it comprises 40 percent of the grade charters receive on the Performance Management Framework tool for elementary and middle schools.  This number drops to 15 percent of the total score for high schools.

In fact, educators know that the longer a student spends in many of our charters the better they do academically.  This only makes sense.  A kid that arrives in a school years behind grade level will have a much more difficult time adjusting to the environment the first year in a new facility compared to the third term.

Charters that fail to back fill available slots after a particular year could gain an advantage regarding their PMF score over those charters that accept all comers.  In her article on this issue, Ms. Natalie Wexler points to the difference in student overall proficiency rates of Achievement Prep and DC Prep Edgewood, which do not take students after the sixth grade and E.L. Haynes, which does not have this restriction.  Moreover, Achievement Prep Wahler Place Middle PCS and DC Prep Edgewood Middle PCS are ranked at Tier 1 schools on the 2014 PMF while all three E.L. Haynes PCS’s campuses are at Tier 2.

For four years now the PCSB has ranked charters based upon PMF scores.  If this ranking is to be equitable for all schools then each should adopt a policy of back filling vacated seats.  In this way the PMF will have the legitimacy that the public has come to expect from this assessment.

Charter schools must back fill empty seats

Last week Natalie Wexler had a piece in Greater Greater Washington in which she revealed that a couple of high performing charter schools such as Achievement Prep and DC Prep Edgewood do not accept students after the sixth grade.  This is not what we as a movement should be doing.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I understand that at the high school level some charters, due to their specific curriculum, may not be able to accept kids at later grades because it would then be impossible for them to obtain the necessary classes to graduate.  But at the elementary and middle schools there is really no excuse not to enroll pupils that want access to the quality programs our portfolio of institutions offer.

Those of us involved in this alternative sector often claim that charter schools are public schools just like the traditional ones.  We offer this moral statement as a strong justification for funding and space on an equal basis to that of DCPS.  But if we are not going to take in students the way that the regular schools do than this ethical argument goes right up in smoke.

I know well the problem that charters have in enrolling additional kids mid-year.  Currently, there is no additional funding for teaching these students.  As I have argued before, this is a problem that desperately needs to be fixed.  But failing to add pupils at the start of the school term, before the October count, because they may have not benefited from starting a program from the beginning, is not what this school reform endeavor is about.

As a reminder, we fight like we do to create quality schools so that every young person in the District that can benefit from attending one of these facilities has exactly that opportunity.

Serving Our Children is the new administrator of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program

It was just made official that beginning this school year the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, the $15 million plan that provides private school vouchers to low income children in the nation’s capital, will be transitioned from being administered by the D.C. Youth and Investment Trust Corporation to a new non-profit entitled Serving Our Children.  Here’s the background.

From its inception as a federal program in 2003 under President George W. Bush, the OSP was run by the Washington Scholarship Fund, the organization created by Joseph E. Robert, Jr., the same individual who twenty five years ago founded Fight for Children.  From the time they came into office President Obama and U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan have been fierce opponents of the scholarships, seeking to end Congressional funding and limit the number of participants.  Mr. Robert gallantly and bravely opposed these efforts, even during his brave battle to beat the brain cancer that would eventually take his life.  But in 2009 the obstacles set up to stop those living in poverty from receiving a free private school education became too much, and the WSF decided to end its association with the OSP.

Since 2010 the program has been administered by the Trust.  While recognizing that there are people at this organization who have worked hard to support the program, voucher advocates have been critical of the management of the OSP by this group,  pointing out that its efforts to market the plan to eligible families should have been significantly stronger, and highlighting that much of the money that could have spent on scholarships has not been distributed.  For example, it is estimated that approximately $42 million in rollover funds is currently sitting unused.

This year the agreement under which the OSP was directed was up for renewal and the Trust informed the Department of Education that it was no longer interested in playing this role.  A Request for Proposal was issued and Serving Our Children responded, along with another entity entitled DC School Reform Now, whose executive director David Pickens worked under Mr. Duncan when he was CEO of Chicago Public Schools.

Serving Our Children is excited to have been awarded the bid to run the OSP, as the board of directors is comprised of several prominent members who have years of direct experience with school choice.  Among these include past Mayor of the District of Columbia Anthony Williams, past D.C. Councilman Kevin Chavous, Friendship PCS founder and chairman Donald Hense, and Sheila Jackson, a community activist and OSP parent.  SOC’s executive director is Rachel Sotsky, who as Senator Joseph Lieberman’s deputy legislative director was one of the original drafters along with U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner of the SOAR Act which re-authorized the OSP in 2011.  The bill is part of a three-sector approach that provides money for private school vouchers as well as D.C. charters and the traditional school system.

Many important goals have been established by Serving Our Children for the OSP including building a stronger relationship with OSP families and with the Department of Education, establishing a more effective application timeline that will ensure wider participation in the plan, growing the number of participating schools, and perhaps most importantly, bringing the Opportunity Scholarship Program into the 21st century through a grant that will allow a major technology upgrade to the OSP database and application processing system.

It is truly a new day for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and for families living in poverty in the District of Columbia seeking a quality education for their children.

DME launches Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force with plenty of dangers for D.C. charters

D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles announced yesterday the creation of the long anticipated Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force that will investigate ways in which DCPS and the charter sector can collaborate on improving public education in the nation’s capital.

The group poses several dangers for our local charter school movement.

First and foremost, the committee may try and prevent new or replicating charters from locating near traditional schools where they could draw students away from Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s system.  Sure enough in the article about the Task Force by the Washington Post’s Allison Michael Chandler the reporter immediately brings up the controversy around Washington Global PCS.  She writes:

“Washington Global, a charter middle school opening this school year with an international program, drew criticism for opening its doors near Jefferson Middle, a traditional school that is working to build a similar program.”

There are other fears about potential conclusions of this group.  For instance, it could recommend, as Mayor Muriel Bowser has advocated, that charters be required to provide an admission preference to neighborhood children, thereby limiting school choice to those living in low income areas of the city as another task force determined.  It could codify the position of Ms. Henderson that no other shuttered DCPS facilities be turned over to charters because DCPS is growing in enrollment.  Finally, it could call for a cap on the number of charters as a way to decrease competition for students with the regular schools.

When I interviewed DC Public Charter School Board chairman Dr. Darren Woodruff recently he was looking forward to the work of the Task Force as a mean of spreading the high academic expectations of charters to all educational institutions across town.  Let’s sincerely hope for the future of our kids that he is correct.

Perhaps Ms. Niles should include me as a member so that I can support the PCSB chair.  I wouldn’t hold your breath on this one.

DC Public Charter School Board should encourage replication

The DC Public Charter School Board announced yesterday that it was conducting its first ever Back to School “Road Show” to highlight some of the quality offerings by our local charter schools.  PCSB chairman Dr. Darren Woodruff explained to me during our recent interview that among his objectives in his new position was to get out into the community more to show parents the exciting opportunities the education sector his Board oversees can provide to their children.  The “Road Show” appears to be the first such effort toward this goal.

One of the sites being visited is the new campus of Two Rivers PCS, the charter that for years had the longest wait-list of any school with over 1,000 names on it.  Another high performing charter that resisted growing, Thurgood Marshall Academy, is now planning to replicate.  But there are still other schools that could serve many more students.  For example, Washington Latin PCS has a wait-list of over 700 students, as does DC Montessori PCS, a much more recent addition to the charter school landscape.

A major reason that many great schools do not want to take on additional campuses is their fear that enlarging will cause a drop in the quality of the academic program, perhaps leading to the school losing its Tier 1 status on the Performance Management Framework.  This is where the PCSB could play a significant role in increasing the number of quality seats in the nation’s capital.

Let’s start by agreeing that even if some of our strong performers diluted the strength of their academics for a short period by replicating it would still provide almost all members of the student body a better education than they are currently receiving at another facility.  Therefore, in order to remove the obstacle of schools being stigmatized by being labeled as Tier 2, the Charter Board should suspend a school’s ranking for a year as it figures out how to educate more pupils.

There is a precedent for such a move.  Every new charter, or campus within an existing LEA, that opens is given a year’s grace period before it is publicly graded on the PMF.  Why not extend the same logical policy to schools that take the risk of opening another campus?

The Illinois Facility Fund estimated in 2012 that Washington D.C. is in need of 40,000 quality seats.  Since the issuing of this study we have hardly made a dent in this number.  After 20 years of school reform there are far too many students starting school this term in institutions with chronically low proficiency rates in reading and math.

Waiving PMF rankings for 12 months while a charter replicates is just one small step the PCSB could take to provide a high performing school to every child who desperately needs one.

Exclusive Interview with Darren Woodruff, Chairman DC Public Charter School Board

I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down recently for an interview with Dr. Darren Woodruff, the chairman of the DC Public Charter School Board. I asked Dr. Woodruff how he first became involved with public charter schools in the nation’s capital. “I joined the Board,” the PCSB chair replied, “along with vice chairman Don Soifer and past PCSB chair John ‘Skip’ McKoy in December 2008 after being nominated by Mayor Fenty. I had become acquainted with Mr. Fenty through my involvement with my student’s traditional public school located in Ward 4. He was aware I had a background in educational research. “My two children went on to attend a DC public charter school and one is still currently enrolled.”

I then asked what lessons he learned upon joining PCSB. “It was a tremendous learning curve,” Dr. Woodruff answered. “I had never really given expanded school choice a lot of thought. I wanted to understand what it was like for parents to pick a school for their children that was not a neighborhood school and I began to contemplate the pros and cons of parents acting as consumers of education and how to be an effective authorizer in this environment.”

Dr. Woodruff continued, “Of course, I am still learning. But what I have realized over the years is that it is exceedingly important for schools to establish high academic performance standards. It is not acceptable for our children, here in Washington, D.C., to attend low performing schools or for public charter schools to set low or middle of the road expectations. The promise of public charter schools is that we see big things in the future for our students. We have been able to offer a variety of instructional models and our pupils have been able to excel in our offerings with many going to college, often the first in their families to attend an institution of higher learning. Parents have expressed sincere gratitude for what we have been able to achieve.”

Our conversation then turned to Dr. Woodruff’s opinion of the track record of the Public Charter School Board. “I think we have done a great job,” he answered almost before I could get the words out of my mouth.  “Just look at the significant number of children that are now attending high quality Tier 1 schools.” For example, Dr. Woodruff pointed out that comparing the 2014 to 2015 term to the 2010 to 2011 school year in which the Performance Management Framework was first utilized 4,667 more students, an increase of 59 percent, are attending Tier 1 facilities. In addition, Dr. Woodruff informed me that during the same time period 1,894 more students, a 15 percent increase, are enrolled in Tier 2 schools and perhaps most importantly, over these years we have seen 2,426 fewer students, a 74 percent decrease, going to Tier 3 institutions.

Dr. Woodruff was obviously proud of these achievements. “Academic proficiency in the charter sector is going up each year and the number of days students spend out of school on suspension is going down,” the PCSB chair emphasized. “These are crucial outcomes for parents. We have smaller numbers of students out of the classrooms, and an increase in the range of academic offerings. Students are now able to learn Mandarin, STEM, or take advantage of a classical college preparation curriculum and pupils are soaring under these options. We are setting the bar exceptionally high and now DCPS is responding. We are seeing academic growth in students that traditionally have not done well in public school. These children are going off to college while at the same time receiving millions of dollars in scholarships.   This did not happen before in D.C., and PCSB deserves much of the credit for what has transpired.”

“We have accomplished these mileposts,” Dr. Woodruff explained, “by insisting on strong academic results while simultaneously closing schools that are not meeting our benchmarks. We have provided resources to boost the practice at schools when we sense that they need help and, while we don’t like doing it, we have closed 13 public charter schools over the last three years. “

I then wanted to know from Dr. Woodruff where he thought the Board could improve. “I think,” Mr. Woodruff answered, “that we could do a better job getting our message out about our quality schools. I want to provide increased communication to parents about what they should be looking for in selecting a school for their children and how to go about making a good match for their offspring. As part of this effort I would like to see us utilize data more effectively to provide information about our portfolio of schools. This is especially important because many of the parents we serve do not have access to a computer. We want to get out more to interact with parents while we also seek ways to bring more parents and children into our meetings.”

One way Dr. Woodruff imagines he can more effectively share knowledge about the sector is through the task force Deputy Mayor for Education Niles is about to establish which will investigate ways to increase cooperation between public charter schools and DCPS. “The task force will be another chance for us to press our emphasis on quality,” Dr. Woodruff asserted. “We hope to be able to discuss common strategies for increasing academic outcomes. We are hopeful that DCPS will decide to adopt the same goals that we have established.   Our aim in participating in this process is to protect the progress we have made and to see these advancements scale up across the city.”

I then inquired of Dr. Woodruff whether the end result of the task force could be to prevent public charter schools from being located in close proximity to DCPS locations as happened last year with Harmony PCS. Dr. Woodruff was quick to respond to my question. “We do not have decision making authority over where schools decide to begin their operation, although we can provide advice. The problem is that we do not have access to closed DCPS facilities. If we did the issue with Harmony would have never arisen. Harmony opened where they did after attempts to secure other sites fell through. It is unfair in this case to blame the authorizer or Harmony. What we need is a more equitable and transparent process for charters obtaining surplus buildings. This piece is really critical. Neighborhoods should not be the last to know a public charter school is moving in. There has to be a much greater focus on making space available relying on a clear and fair procedure.”

Although it is apparent that academic proficiency rates have been climbing in the city I asked Dr. Woodruff if he was satisfied with our process. “Not at all,” the PCSB exclaimed. “We need as an authorizer to insist that new charters are Tier 1 on day 1. My belief is that as we raise community knowledge of our schools there will be fewer acceptances of low quality institutions. We will continue to study leading trends in public education across the country. In addition, we will attempt to bring more high quality operators here locally but if they come we don’t want them to stumble.  As a Board we want to make sure that they are ready for D.C. and D.C. is ready for them.”

I then asked Mr. Woodruff if PCSB should have been quicker to identify the problems that were discovered regarding Options PCS and the Dorothy I. Height Community Academy PCS. “Yes,” Dr. Woodruff remarked, “We need greater transparency about what our school boards are doing with their vendors so that we can be sure this does not happen again. We will not be telling schools how to spend their money but we need to be able to ask questions. We have asked for this authority. We have to make sure schools are good stewards of tax dollars. But to our credit as soon as we realized that there were financial improprieties at these charters we acted quickly and we have seen positive resolutions from our actions. Kingsman PCS is taking over Options without interrupting the education of students with special needs there, and together with the great cooperation of the Deputy Mayor for Education, DCPS, Friendship PCS, and DC Bilingual PCS the children enrolled in CAPCS will all have the availability of quality seats for the upcoming school year.”

I also wanted to know what Dr. Woodruff thought of the FOCUS coordinated lawsuit against the city regarding funding inequities between DCPS and charters. The PCSB chairman was direct. “Unfortunately, it had to get to this point. I’m in support of the goals of the lawsuit but I’m not happy at all that this action had to be taken. We have a new administration now that Muriel Bowser is Mayor and I understand that she wants to see both education sectors, charters and DCPS improve, and so therefore I’m am hopeful that she will find a way to resolve this issue.”

Finally, I was interested in knowing what the PCSB chairman envisioned for the future of our local charter school movement. For example, did he wish to see charters expand well beyond the 44 percent market share of all public school children that it currently teaches? Dr. Woodruff turned this question on its head.

“I wish to go back to the original bargain of public charter schools that we would bring competition and innovation. That is what we need to put the gas on. If we have to do this by adding more public charter schools than so be it. But if DCPS can provide the same high expectations for academic achievement than that is perfectly acceptable. I predict that in the next ten years the city’s tolerance for mediocre schools will be nonexistent. The current fight is not over whether a child attends a public charter school or DCPS but whether he or she is in a quality seat. You can go to almost every part of town and see that public charter schools are doing an excellent job and consistently doing great things. The students have not changed but our expectations for what can be done with these students has been raised. Public charter schools are changing the lives of our children and we need the traditional schools to join us in this fight.”

Only 3 D.C. charters now utilize for-profit management companies

The Washington Post’s Michael Allison Chandler wrote yesterday about the most recent financial review of the 60 charter schools operating in the nation’s capital, and her story included the recommendation by the A.D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute that the DC Public Charter School Board create a report card on each institution around their balance sheets similar to the tier system utilized with the Performance Management Framework.  The hope is that such a system would increase the transparency around how schools utilize their money.

I have long called for the financial performance of charters to be included in the same P.M.F. that is issued concerning academics.  My reasoning has been that a charter cannot really be graded as a high performer if their books are a mess.  In preparation for this story I then quickly scanned the individual school reports to see what they revealed.  What I noticed was fascinating.

With the closure of Options PCS and Dorothy I. Height Community Academy PCS our city only has three remaining schools that utilize for-profit management companies.  These are Basis PCS, Imagine Hope Community PCS, and Somerset Preparatory PCS.  One reason this information is important is that the firms associated with these schools do not have to file an Internal Revenue Service Form 990 that lists their highly paid employees.  The compensation of leaders of the for-profits associated with Options and CAPCS was a major reason that the charters they were associated with ran into serious trouble.

The 2014 Financial Audit Review details that Imagine for the year paid School House Finance Inc., their for-profit CMO, 18.9 percent of its total revenue or almost $2.8 million for rent.  Somerset, on the other hand, reimbursed CMO Academica 2.9 percent of its funding, or $93,000 in administrative fees.

The most interesting case to me concerned Basis PCS.  The report details that the charter pays 87.3 percent of its total revenue to CMOs.  Basis School Inc. received almost $2 million or 26.2 percent of cash, for rent, and another $1.5 million, or 20.1 percent of revenue, in management fees.  An additional 41 percent of revenue, over $53 million, went to the Basis Educational Group for leased employee wages and benefits.

The Post article goes on to explain the the PCSB is seeking authority from the D.C. City Council to examine the financial books of for-profit CMO’s.  I think with all of this taxpayer money going to these groups doing business with charter schools, and the recent experience with Options and CAPCS, that time has definitely arrived.

J.C. Hayward granted lenient exit from Options PCS legal case

The Washington Post’s Allison Michael Chandler revealed yesterday that former prominent WUSA Channel 9 newscaster J.C. Hayward has been removed from the legal case over the millions of dollars in public funds two private companies diverted from the severely disadvantaged and disabled children attending Options PCS in return for a payment from her of $8,500 to the charter.

At the time the story broke in late 2013 about financial regularities at Options it was revealed that Ms. Hayward was the board chair of the school during the period that contracts were signed between the school and two companies, Exceptional Education Services (EES) and Exceptional Education Management Corporation (EEMC), for exorbitant fees charged to the school for services.  From my article published in early January of the following year about the case:

Extremely unfortunately, we begin 2014 exactly the way we ended last year: with another news story revealing more sordid information about the financial irregularities regarding public funds and Options PCS. This time the Washington Post’s Emma Brown tells us, among other things, that while Jeremy Williams was the D.C. Public Charter School Board’s chief financial officer it is alleged he was paid $150,000 to hide the shenanigans that resulted in the school’s executives diverting three million dollars to their own pockets. New court papers claim that television anchor J.C. Hayward owned shares in one of the for-profit companies established by the school’s senior team as a tool to transfer money to them from the charter, and was paid $8,500 a shot to attend the firm’s board meetings. The Post reporter adds this finding about the team members:

‘In all, EES received $974,850 from Options for bus transportation, according to court documents. The company paid Deadwyler [Transportation]  $309,200 to run the buses, and it paid [Donna] Montgomery, [Paul] Dalton and [David] Cranford hundreds of thousands of dollars on top of the full-time salaries and bonuses they were already receiving for working at the charter school.'”

In all it is alleged that approximately $3 million dollars were diverted from Options to the private firms led by school management.

Ms.Hayward’s attorney Jeffrey Jacobovitz is quoted in today’s Post story as commenting about yesterday’s development that “Ms. Hayward is delighted that she will be able to leave a lasting legacy.”  Only time will tell.