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.



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