D.C. traditional schools increase four year high school graduation rate to 64 percent

DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson enthusiastically announced on Facebook yesterday that in 2015 the four year high school graduation rate for her system increased to 64 percent.  Her goal is to get to 75 percent by the year 2017.  The rate represents a six percent jump from last year’s 58 percent.  I was at a Fight for Children event last night that Ms. Henderson also attended and I can attest that she was thrilled about the news.

The number is definitely moving in the right direction but is still seven points below the overall rate of 71 percent for the city’s charter high schools, which is a sector that serves primarily low income minority children.  In addition, the statistic is far below the 90 percent graduation rate of Opportunity Scholarship Program scholars comprised of kids living in poverty.

But DCPS has seen a consistent rise in this number since it was at an astonishing low 53 percent in 2011.  It appears that public education reform is continuing its steady climb in the nation’s capital.

National charter movement needs to take criticism of funding seriously

The Washington Post’s Lyndsey Layton has a story today revealing the Federal Government’s plan to award $157 million to charters mostly by providing grants to States so that they can finance expansion of these alternative schools.  There is only one problem according to Ms. Layton:

“The inspector general discovered dozens of charter schools received federal dollars but never opened their doors to students. The schools received millions in federal funds, but there was no record of what happened to the equipment, supplies or anything else purchased with the federal dollars for schools that never opened, the audit said.”

Those interested in the success of charters need to take findings such as these with the utmost seriousness.  If anything can stop this movement that is helping children overcome the impact of living in poverty it is financial irregularities.  The Post reporter points out that since fiscal year 2005 the U.S. Department of Education has provided charters across the country with over $5 billion.

It would be better in my opinion if government funding went to charter school authorizers instead of to the States or to individual schools.  Authorizers are better equipped to track dollars and academic performance. Perhaps the Center for Education Reform or the National Alliance for Public charter Schools can make this argument at the federal level.

The Obama Administration and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have consistently been strong supporters of charter schools through the Race to the Top Competition and through the waivers that have been offered to the No Child Left Behind Legislation.  Let’s not let this support hurt the very schools that they are intending to help.

House Speaker Boehner invites OSP students to Pope’s address to Congress

On the occasion of the historic address by Pope Francis to a joint meeting of Congress, U.S. House of Representative’s Speaker John Boehner had as guests 10 students participating in Washington, D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program.  Mr. Boehner is one of the authors of the legislation creating the first in the nation federal private school voucher plan and he has been a passionate advocate for re-authorization of the legislation that provides scholarships to kids in the nation’s capital living in poverty.

Among those in the audience were Milady Carcamo, who is in the 4th grade of Sacred Heart School; Edgardo Gonzalez, a 5th grader at Sacred Heart; Jasmine Mayfield, who is in the 8th grade at St. Anthony School; Ne’Miya McNight who attends Francis Xavier School and is in the 7th grade; Samuel Merga, an 11th grader at Archbishop Carroll High School; Genesis Romero, currently in the 12th grade at Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School; Jaden Roundtree, attending St. Francis Xavier School who is also in the 7th grade; Nadia Souleymanou, in the 8th grade at St. Anthony School; Theotric White, who is in the 8th grade at Thomas More Catholic Academy; and Travis White, a 7th grader at St. Thomas More Catholic Academy.

Some of the comments from these students about their visit are simply amazing because of how perceptive they are for men and women of such a young age.  Milady Carcamo wrote, “Pope Francis inspires me because he is good and brave and he cares for others.”  Jasmine Mayfield stated, “I am excited for Pope Francis’ visit because there is a lot of negativity in the world, and I think his visit will bring more positivity.”   Nadia Souleymanou captured a theme in her remarks that I heard often about this Pope.  She reflected, “Pope Francis teaches us that no matter what your position in life always be humble and forgiving.”

With students such as these there is great hope for the future of our country.

If school choice complicates Promise Neighborhoods then perhaps program should end

The Washington Post’s Michael Allison Chandler wrote an article recently blaming school choice in the nation’s capital as a reason that the U.S. Department of Education’s Promise Neighborhood Program is not working the way it was designed.  She writes about the $25 million plan in Northeast D.C.:

“But the children of Kenilworth-Parkside aren’t all benefiting from the ‘Promise Neighborhood’ program. Less than a third of the 1,600 students who live there attend neighborhood schools; the rest are enrolled in 184 others, scattered across a city that has embraced school choice more than almost any other.”

Promise Neighborhoods were the brainchild of Harlem Children’s Zone’s founder Geoffrey Canada who created the first one in New York City.  What is so interesting about this fact is that after he came up with the notion to provide family support to low income individuals he realized, as he explained to CityBridge co-founder Katherine Bradley, that he would not be able to make true progress in turning around the lives of kids until he opened a school.  He then created the Promise Academy Charter.

The impact of school choice has had a major positive impact on the very students that Promise Neighborhoods are trying to help.   As FOCUS discovered regarding the 2014 DC CAS results:

“The most interesting public charter school news is the widening gap between how well public charters and DCPS students who qualify for free or reduced price school lunch are doing. The gap is now over 15 percentage points in math and almost 13 percentage points in reading. To put this into perspective, if DCPS were able to match DC charters’ performance with economically disadvantaged students, about 2,000 additional poor children within the District would be able to read and do math on grade level.

Among African American students, charters now outperform DCPS by almost 17 percentage points in math and 12 percentage points in reading. Again, if DCPS were able to match charter performance, there would be about 2,000 additional African American students able to read and do math on grade level. For special education students the gap widened to almost 10 percentage points in math and over 5 percentage points in reading. Again, if DCPS were able to match charter performance, there would be about 250 additional special education students able to read and do math on grade level.”

If we would have to give up these gains because school choice complicates Promise Neighborhoods then guess which program should go?

Low performing DCPS schools should be turned into charters under Charter Board

The Washington Post’s Michael Allison Chandler wrote recently about a study released by the Progressive Policy Institute that concluded that low performing DCPS schools should be turned into charters.  The reason for this recommendation is that the report found that reading and math proficiency rates are higher for charter schools in Ward 8, and other areas where there are larger concentrations of people living in poverty, compared to the academic performance of traditional schools.  The idea is that converting these facilities to charters would grant them the flexibility, such as creating a longer school day, that would boost standardized test scores.

The Post reporter then goes on to relate past efforts by DCPS Chancellor Henderson to obtain the power to create charter schools.  But here Ms. Chandler misses the point.  The solution to fixing what is wrong with these schools is not to devise some new governance structure to run them.  Why in the world would we do that when we have sitting in our backyard the best performing charter sector in America?

As I’ve advised for years, educational institutions demonstrating math and reading proficiency rates in the 20’s and 30’s should be immediately turned over to the DC Public Charter School Board.  The PCSB would then identify leading charter operators to run these facilities.

However, this move creates a new problem in that in all likelihood there would not be a sufficient number of top performing charters to take all of these students.  But there are a couple of ways to get around this difficulty.

First, charter management organizations would be given the facility where these kids currently are taught.  Of course, securing permanent facilities is the biggest challenge charters face, and the guarantee of a building would probably be enough of an incentive to have experienced charter operators from around the country come to the nation’s capital.

In addition, we need some mechanism for encouraging Tier 1 charters in town to replicate.  One idea to bring about this step that I’ve mentioned before is to give these schools that open a new campus a one year pass on the Performance Management Framework grading, something new charters already receive.  A more aggressive means for driving expansion could be that for schools to achieve and maintain their Tier 1 status they need to be growing their student enrollment.

We are approaching 20 years of school reform in this city and there are still far too many kids not being educated.  Its time to try a different approach.

The debate over whether Washington State charter schools are public is not the right argument

The Washington Post’s Emma Brown has a follow-up story today about the recent Washington State Supreme Court decision finding that charter schools are not public schools because their governing boards are not elected by local citizens.  Her piece characterizes the competing arguments over whether these alternative educational institutions truly fit the definition of a public school.  I believe the whole controversy misses the point.

Everyone wishes that traditional neighborhood schools provided the high quality education that children deserve.  But just look at what happened here in Washington, D.C.  Over time the school bureaucracy became completely detached from the children it was serving.  The result was that very little teaching actually occurred in classrooms.  Much more common was the presence of violence, gangs, and illegal drugs.  It became safer for parents to keep their kids home than to send them to school.  The buildings themselves were rotting from years of neglect.  When students did show up their textbooks were missing, as in many cases was the instructor.

In the 1950’s Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman wrote that if we provided every child with a voucher to attend the private or public school of their choice parents would once again become the customer of school systems.  This is exactly what charters have accomplished in this town.  What is so exciting about the turn of events is that this sector is being responsive to those at the lowest end of the economic spectrum.  Many charters in the nation’s capital are taking low income kids who enter schools years behind grade level and bringing them up to academic proficiency and beyond.  These individuals in the past might have landed in jail or perhaps been killed as a result of violent activity.  As Dr. Darrin Woodruff, the chairman of the Public Charter School Board remarked when I interviewed him, “charter schools are changing peoples’ lives.”

I say forget the phony controversy over whether charters perfectly fit the public school paradigm.  Instead let’s be eternally grateful for the competition they have provided that has resulted in all schools, traditional and charter, rising to levels of performance never seen before in this country.  I think this should be more than enough.

Washington Post editors miss the mark regarding Nevada school choice plan

Twenty five years ago I leveraged practically every cent our young family had and missed my younger child’s fourth birthday to attend a conference on libertarian political theory held at Dartmouth College organized by the CATO Institute.  There, I asked executive director David Boaz whether private school vouchers should initially be introduced to assist those living in poverty or whether their adoption should be offered to each public school student.  He advised that they should first be provided to low income students so that more of the general public would rally around their use.

Much has changed, in a positive way, for public education reform since that time.  The Friedman Center for Education Choice estimates that there are now 25 school voucher programs in 14 states and the District of Columbia that enroll over 148,000 kids.  In addition, the same organization reveals that currently 3,000 students take advantage of educational savings accounts in five states, with another 202,000 pupils benefiting from 20 tax-credit scholarship arrangements found in 16 localities.  Finally, the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools details that during the 2013 to 2014 school term over 2.5 million students attended charter schools.

Recently, Nevada passed an educational savings account plan available to almost all families, independent of income.  The editors of the Washington Post claim this is too much. “By subsidizing families who do not need aid, the state wastes public money that would be better directed to low-income students in academically struggling schools.”

The problem for the Post is that wealthy parents can afford to send their children to private schools so, according to the newspaper’s editors, it is not right to reimburse them up to $5,000 a child for the cost.  But this is actually an antiquated view of how public education is funded in America today.

For example, in the nation’s capital we provide all public school students essentially a scholarship to attend the traditional public or charter school of their choice equal to the amount dictated by the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula.  Could you imagine the outrage if we told taxpaying citizens that they had to cough up the money to send their children to some of our high performing facilities just because of how much they make?

This issue becomes even more relevant considering what took place just a few days ago in Washington State.  Their Supreme Court ruled that charter schools are unconstitutional, because, according to the Associated Press “charter schools don’t qualify as ‘common’ schools under Washington’s Constitution and can’t receive public funding intended for those traditional public schools.”  The decision creates chaos for the 1,200 kids already enrolled in the nine charters that have been established.  Our local charter school support organization, Charter Board Partners, opened a Seattle office in 2014.

The ruling by the Seattle Supreme Court came after a year of deliberation and was based upon the fact that charters are run by a non-publicly elected board of directors.  Instead of seizing on a particular governance structure or whether affluent families can take advantage of educational savings accounts we should re-focus our attention on the benefit of our children.  We should allow families to send their kids to the school of their choice.