Washington Post editors exasperated over Congressional failure to reauthorize OSP

The editors of the Washington Post wasted no time in reacting to the failure by Congress to include a five year reauthorization of the Opportunity Scholarship Program in last week’s $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill.  The also did not hide how they feel:

“However, the failure to include a measure that would have safeguarded millions of dollars in funding for public education in the city is both disappointing and exasperating. For that, the District can thank its supposed allies on the hill, the Democrats.”

The editors also point out what the Soar Act containing the OSP has meant to the District since it contains equal amounts of money for private school vouchers, the traditional schools, and charters.  They state:

“The program was created in 2004 as part of a three-pronged investment in D.C. public education that funds the vouchers and provides extra allocations of federal dollars to the public school system and public charter schools. Indeed, the three-sector federal approach has brought more than $600 million to D.C. schools, with traditional public schools receiving $239 million, public charter schools $195 million and the voucher program $183 million.”

But the most important reason that the OSP should be continued has nothing to do with cash.  Affluent families already have school choice.  They can reside in an area with high performing public schools or elect to pay for a private education for their children.  Those living in poverty, the very people served by this program, do not have these options.  We should as a society extend the same right to those on the low end of the economic scale.  It is the only moral thing to do.



Charter school representatives on Cross Sector Task Force offer no surprises

This week D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser finally announced the 26 members of her Cross Sector Collaboration Task Force.  This is the group that is to determine over the next two years where charters and the traditional schools can coordinate their efforts to improve public education in the city.  The list was supposed to come out at the end of September.

Representing the charter sector are, of course, Dr. Darren Woodruff, chairman of the DC Public Charter School Board,  Scott Pearson, executive director of the PCSB, and Irene Holtzman, executive director of FOCUS.  Emily Lawson, founder and executive director of DC Prep is a member, as is Lars Beck, chief executive of Scholars Academies, Shantelle Wright, founder and executive director of Achievement Prep PCS, Ariana Quinones, who used to work for FOCUS and Fight for Children and whose child has attended a charter school, and Melissa Kim, secondary school chief academic officer of KIPP DC.   These names are no real surprises.  However, I might have included Michela English, CEO and president of Fight for Children, Katherine Bradley, president and co-founder of the CityBridge Foundation, and Maura Marino, managing director of NewSchools Venture Fund.

If you eliminate people in the Bowser administration, the body includes the same number of supporters of charters and DCPS.  This may be the first and only time there is true equity between the two sectors.   Now, according to my agenda, it is up to this team to figure out how to increase the speed in which high quality charters are replicated, how to attract more good charter operators to the District, how to bring revenue for charters up to the DCPS level, and how to free up surplus DCPS buildings for charter school use.  As you can see it is an extremely tall order.

What this effort is not about is limiting the amount of charter school growth or deciding where charters can and cannot locate.  It will be fascinating to see if the charter representatives can pull all of this off.


Opportunity Scholarship Program not reauthorized by Congress

In a devastating blow to the children of parents living in poverty in the nation’s capital, yesterday the United States Congress failed to reauthorize the twelve year old D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program as part of the approved $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill.  Now, about 1,500 families will have to find a new school for their children.

The total annual cost of the OSP is $15 million.

As I’m sure you remember, reauthorization for five years of the private school scholarship plan contained in the SOAR Act legislation was one of the last accomplishments of Speaker John Boehner in the House before he left office.

In previous cycles in which the SOAR Act was extended, Mr. Boehner made its continuation a nonnegotiable part of omnibus spending bills with President Obama, who has been desperately trying to shutter the program since he first came into office.  It appears that we have witnessed the first casualty of Mr. Boehner’s retirement.

Definitely not helping matters was the call of D.C.’s non-voting Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton to end it.  Also strongly contributing to this terrible outcome was a letter sent to the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform by eight D.C. Councilmen, including the head of its education committee, opposing the measure.  Sadly, many of the members who were signatories to this document said before it was produced that they would stay neutral on this subject.

An ironic part of the efforts of these individuals is that now the District of Columbia stands to lose $150 million in revenue for charter schools and DCPS.  The federal three sector approach to improving education in the city, which included money for the voucher program as well as for charters and the traditional schools, is dead.

Did anything positive come out of the drive to renew the OSP?  Yes.  There was uncertainty about support from local political leadership for the program.  But it turns out that Mayor Muriel Bowser and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson sent a joint letter to Speaker Paul Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi requesting that the plan continue.  In addition, when it looked like reauthorization was in danger, both offices called Democratic and Republican members of Congress seeking inclusion of the SOAR Act in the trillion dollar spending bill.

But in the end these efforts proved futile.  Funds were allocated to continue the OSP for one additional year; it actually does not expire for another 12 months.  After that the scholarships will disappear.






The future of parent choice in Washington D.C.

Yesterday I was able to attend a fascinating discussion over at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute entitled “The Future of Parent Choice in Washington, D.C.”   The conversation featured Scott Pearson, executive director of the Public Charter School Board.  On the panel to provide commentary regarding his remarks was Abigail Smith, the past Deputy Mayor for Education and chair of the E.L. Haynes PCS board of directors, and Cassandra Pinckney, founder and executive director of Eagle Academy PCS.  I had the pleasure of visiting Eagle Academy back in 2014.  The moderator for the afternoon’s talk was Michael Petrilli, Fordham’s president.

Mr. Pearson spent much of his allotted time speaking about how his organization is trying to increase transparency to the public regarding public school options in the nation’s capital.  He explained that one of the main tools that is now available for this purpose are the equity reports created by the PCSB, DCPS, the Office of the State Superintendent of State Education, and the Deputy Mayor for Education that document many of the key indicators regarding performance of our local educational institutions.  Using the report from Cesar Chavez Prep PCS for Public Policy as an example, Mr. Pearson took the audience through the document which provides information and statistics such as the ethnic composition of a school’s student body, math and reading proficiency rates, and the number of suspensions and expulsions.

I have found that the most interesting part of many conferences is the question and answer period, and in this regard this session did not disappoint.  I asked the speakers whether they thought charter schools should back fill available seats, and Ms. Smith had an extremely strong opinion on this subject.  “Anything that makes charter schools appear to be a little less than true public schools should be avoided.” She went on to indicate that E.L. Haynes admits new students through the twelfth grade and stated that as an organization the leadership believes this is an important characteristic for the school to uphold.  In response to my point that at yesterday’s monthly meeting of the PCSB it was revealed that DC Prep PCS does not admit students in the seventh and eighth grades, Ms. Smith explained that school founder and executive director Emily Lawson is currently re-examining this policy.

It was then Ms. Pinckney’s turn to comment, and her take was extremely interesting.  She explained that the reason many charters do not back fill vacant spots is that they are concerned about the quality of education that these students have received in the past.  Of course, many pupils enter charters two or more years behind grade level.  The worry is that there will not be sufficient time to catch them up.  But Ms. Pinckney’s contention was that it was the regulatory environment that encourages schools not to accept new students.  When you are being held to particular standards, she related, it provides a disincentive to enroll kids who will impact accountability measures.  Ms. Smith hoped that there could be a way to take into account the admission of students who have spent a relatively short time with an individual school.

I have thought deeply about Ms. Pinckney’s words since the forum ended.  She was able to highlight one of the main conundrums facing charter schools.  These institutions are supposed to be fountainheads of innovation in the way we teach inner city kids.  But at the same time, when they are held strictly accountable through report cards such as the Performance Management Framework, the impact can be to  dissuade leaders from deviating from past methods of pedagogy.   It is, unfortunately, something that these education pioneers face on a daily basis.



Controversies emerge at Charter Board monthly meeting

It has been awhile since I’ve observed the monthly meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board, and even more time has elapsed since I’ve sat through one in person.  So last night I traveled to the campus of Cesar Chavez Prep Public PCS for Public Policy to see the action up close.  It was a highly worthwhile decision.

A few quick observations.  I know that the board is trying to get out in the community by rotating meeting locations but the space last night was not adequate for the number of people in attendance.  Second, the composition of the board has changed.  Gone is member Barbara Nophlin.  She resigned last month with no explanation, and my questions about this matter to the PCSB communications director failed to shed light on the subject.  Two new individuals have joined the group. Steve Bumbaugh, from the CityBridge Foundation, is now on the board as well as Ricarda Ganjam, who has worked with KIPP DC on a college readiness program through Accenture, the company for whom she is employed.  Ms. Ganjam has three children in public school, one at DCPS’s Brent Elementary and two at Basis PCS.  I have to say I enjoyed her comments from the perspective of a parent.

The evening started with a routine request from DC Prep for a student enrollment increase, the third over the last 12 months.  School founder Emily Lawson was on hand to testify and she immediately received well deserved praise regarding the stupendous academic performance of her now five campuses with a student body of over 1,500 children.  But the niceties did not last long.  Rapidly came inquiries as to why students are not enrolled after the sixth grade.  This was followed by questions about DC Prep’s higher than average student suspension rate.  Vice chairman Don Soifer, who ran the meeting in Dr. Darren Woodruff’s absence due to illness, even hinted that her desire for more pupils was somehow tied to kids being taken out of class for punishment.

Ms. Lawson did her usual admirable job responding to the board’s comments, stating that her team is having discussions around admitting students in the seventh and eighth grades, and detailing the many steps they have taken to reduce out-of-school suspensions.  Look for the enrollment increase to be approved.

There was a long discussion regarding a student enrollment increase proposal from Inspired Teaching Demonstration PCS.  A decision on this issue was tabled until the January session in the face of many people showing up to testify during the public comment period that parking around Edgewood Street, N.E., has become impossible since the charter relocated to its permanent location nearby on Douglas Street last year.

It was then announced that the PCSB was supposed to vote on whether to approve a new charter school applicant, Pathways in Education, which would have been part of a national network of schools serving at-risk students.  However, Mr. Soifer stated that the application had been withdrawn and the PCSB vice-chair seemed to be unaware of the reason behind the school’s action.

Next up was a consideration of the 10 year charter continuance of St. Coletta PCS.  Accolades were abundant from the dais for this institution that educates level four special education students.  Any contrary opinions  over this affirmative decision were avoided through the school’s cooperation with the PCSB  on separating the charter’s revenue and expenses from its private school parent company and thereby increasing its financial transparency.

Also on the agenda for a charter continuance vote was Richard Wright PCS.  Among those representing the school were my heroes, founder and chief executive officer Dr. Marco Clark and journalism and media arts coordinator Michelle Santos.  The discussion over whether to allow the charter to keep going past its first five years was much tougher than I thought it would be considering the tremendous academic progress this institution has made over its short history while teaching kids living in poverty.  The board was not happy with the math proficiency rates at the school and they let it be known loud and clear.  The staff, however, had obviously given this subject much thought and they demonstrated in clear and direct terms their efforts to infuse mathematics into every act of learning taking place at the charter.  The continuance was approved.

Finally came the moment the audience was waiting for, which was the decision regarding whether to start the charter revocation procedures against Potomac Preparatory PCS.  Many will remember that the board wanted to shutter the school last year for failure to meet its academic targets as identified during its 10 year charter continuance review.  The school convinced the PCSB that a serious turnaround effort was in place, and the charter was allowed to operate after a series of four specific targets were established for the 2014 to 2015 term.  The deal was that if these were not met the charter would have to be relinquished.  Last evening, Ms. Naomi Rubin DeVeaux, the board’s deputy director, announced that three out of these four goals had not been reached, adding that the board has been informed that the school had no intention of  voluntarily giving up its right to operate.

The atmosphere in the room was extremely tense.  Many of the attendees had already spoken earlier during the session passionately about their opposition to charter revocation.  Those testifying from the school strenuously disagreed with the board’s findings.  Shouts from supporters loudly permeated the discussion.

In the end the board voted unanimously, without comment, in fact, with an almost deafening silence, to begin the process of closing Potomac Preparatory PCS.  The school has 15 days to present their side of the story.  It looks like this fight is far from over.


Exclusive interview with Katherine Bradley, president CityBridge Foundation

Donald Hense to step down as Friendship PCS CEO

It was announced late yesterday that my hero Donald Hense, a member of the National Charter School Hall of Fame, will relinquish his role of chief executive officer of Friendship Public Charter School on June 30, 2016.  The founder of Friendship PCS will retain his title of chairman of the board of directors.  Patricia Brantley, the school’s chief operating officer, will assume the position of CEO once Mr. Hense steps down.

Mr. Hense created one of the first charters in the District of Columbia in 1997.  From the press release announcing the change:

“As chairman Hense has overseen the development and expansion of Friendship’s network of charter school campuses as well as the renewal of the school’s charter after its first fifteen years of operation.  Friendship now educates more than 4,200 students in pre-K through the twelfth grade at 11 charter campuses in the District, three of which are classified by the D.C. Public Charter School Board as Tier One, high-performing charter schools.  Friendship’s two D.C. high schools, Friendship Collegiate Academy and Friendship Technology Preparatory Academy, have on-time (within four years) graduation rates of 92 and 97 percent, respectively; outperforming the average rates for D.C. public schools (64 percent) and D.C. public charter schools (72 percent).”

Especially impressive is what Mr. Hense has been able to accomplish with a student population that has been one of the most challenging to educate:  99.7 percent are African-American; 75 percent are from Ward Seven and Eight; three out of four students qualify for free or reduced price lunch; and 15 percent have special needs.

The Friendship founder has also expanded his reach to two partnerships with Baltimore public schools, a campus in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and an online institute.  Mr. Hense was also instrumental in making sure that no child was disrupted in his or her education when the DC Public Charter School Board this year closed the 1,600 student Dorothy I. Height Community Academy.

I could go on and on about Mr. Hense’s accomplishments and his leadership regarding school choice in the nation’s capital.  At an event last night Linda Moore, the founder of the Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School, described the news regarding Mr. Hense as “the loss of a true pioneer of D.C.’s public charter school movement.”  The move comes as we have seen Irasema Salcido leave Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Pubic Policy, Martha Cutts announce her retirement from Washington Latin PCS, and Alexandra Pardo resign as the executive director of Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS.  Jennie Niles, who founded E.L. Haynes PCS, resigned her position as executive director to become Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Deputy Mayor for Education.  Ms. Moore stepped down as head of Whitlow Stokes a couple of years ago.

I recently wrote about the elegant Friendship Teacher of the Year ceremony, and I interviewed Mr. Hense back in 2011.





Quality seats trumps diversity as a goal for D.C. public schools

In yesterday’s Washington Post Michael Allison Chandler had a long and meandering article about the quantity of diversity found in D.C.’s charter schools.  The story focused heavily on Washington Latin PCS (I served on the Washington Latin PCS board of directors) and one paragraph stood out:

“As Washington Latin’s academic reputation has grown, so has interest, particularly among wealthier families. Last year, there were 1,600 applications for 119 available seats (including 46 seats offered to siblings of current students.)”

After removing the sibling preference seats the admission rate for Washington Latin was 4.6 percent.  I’m not sure that there are Ivy League colleges that have that low an acceptance rate, a statistic which is especially striking considering it is based on a random lottery for oversubscribed seats.

Not mentioned by Ms. Chandler is that fact that this school recorded some of the city’s highest PARCC standardized test results which for the first time measured student academic readiness for college based upon the Common Core Standards.  Overall, across all public schools in the nation’s capital elementary and middle school students scored in the 25th percentile for proficiency in math and reading.  Last year using the DC CAS the number was about half.

Therefore, it appears to me that we are never going to be a great place for public education until we grow those institutions that are providing a quality education for our students.

In all the talk about neighborhood admission preferences, priorities for low income students, increasing student body diversity, and helping kids of color, one mission stands out.

Let’s just remember to teach our children.