Mayer Bowser takes first step to allow charters to become neighborhood schools

Yesterday, at a ceremony at D.C. Bilingual PCS as part of a celebration of D.C. Education Week, Mayor Bowser took the first step in her long-held desire to have charter schools offer a neighborhood admissions preference.  Calling her concept a “walkability preference” the announced change in policy would allow the city’s charters to provide partiality to elementary school children who live within a half mile of a charter when their normally assigned neighborhood traditional school is more than this distance from their homes.

This is a terrible idea.  For 20 years charters in this town have driven the rise of quality for all schools through the competition for students and the per pupil revenue that is associated with their education.  The arrangement instantaneously transformed parents into customers because their decision as to where to send their kids has powerful consequences for school budgets.  Before the forces of school choice were unleashed in the nation’s capital the traditional schools were wastelands of educational malpractice in facilities that were literally falling apart all around them.

Anything that interferes with an educational marketplace takes away from the clout of parents.  Under Ms. Bowser’s proposal, and it is really only a proposal because its implementation would take amending the School Reform Act through approval of the D.C. Council,  parents could be provided access to charters not because they like the curriculum, or the principal, or the standardized test scores, but simply due to its location.  We would be turning our backs on the incentives that turned around a deplorable situation.

Do you think I’m exaggerating the impact of all this?  Under a walkability preference an operator can open a charter in Ward 3, the most affluent part of town, strategically locate it more than a half a mile from a regular school, and then fill it with children living steps from its door, thereby blocking access by low-income kids from Wards 6, 7, and 8 that this charter movement was created to serve.  Mayor Bowser would effectively be providing a private school education on the taxpayers’ dime.

The fear of diminishing the availability of charters to at risk kids was a primary reason that a Neighborhood Preference Task Force rejected the notion of a admissions preference back in 2012.  The Mayor could have been reminded of this finding if she had consulted with FOCUS or any other public leaders of the charter movement before making this decision, but the information I have is that she failed to take this step.  As the Washington Post’s Alejandra Matos

The preference came sandwiched between a flurry of other dictums.  The Mayor stated that she would include in this year’s budget request a two percent increase in the charter school per pupil facility allotment which would raise it to $3,193; closer but not quite up to the $3,250 that charter leaders had begged for in 2016.  She also announced that D.C. Bilingual will be allowed to stay at the Keene School and that the P.R. Harris School will be provided to Building Hope’s Charter School Incubator Initiative for the eventual home to two Ward 8 charters.

The Washington Post quotes D.C. Council education committee chairman David Grosso as stating that he has “already heard some ‘vocal uproar'” regarding the walkability preference concept.  Let’s hope that he along with others can stop this revision to the SRA before one child is harmed.

The Democrats opposition to Betsy DeVos says more about them than it does about her

The headline of this article comes from the words of Senator Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, spoken yesterday from the Senate floor as quoted by the Washington Post’s Emma Brown.  He is absolutely correct.  The fierce opposition toward Ms. DeVos is from those that want to preserve a status in public education that, as she stated during her confirmation hearing, is one in which one size fits all when it comes to teaching our kids.  Unfortunate for those on the fringe of the political left, including the teachers’ unions, school choice has already broken through the clouds and is shining its bright light on communities throughout this nation.

Ms. Brown describes a Capitol Hill event in which families were represented who send their children to charter schools and who take advantage of the Opportunity Scholarship Program, the federally funded private school voucher plan here in the District for those living in poverty.  She mentions that it was one of 21,000 events across the United States currently taking place as part of School Choice Week.  The reporter writes that “Malik Washington, a senior at Archbishop Carroll High School in the District, said that the voucher program had been a gift for him and his sister, who were raised by a single mother working a minimum-wage job.”  From Ms. Brown’s piece:

“For our families to have the same opportunities that wealthier families have when it comes to school is beautiful,’ Washington said.”

In fact, it is the same experience that President Obama’s children have had since Sidwell Friends, where his kids go to school, also participates in the OSP.  So does Georgetown Day School, Gonzaga College High School, The Jewish Primary Day School, The National Cathedral School, The National Presbyterian SchoolSt. Albans School, St. Johns College High School, St. Peters School, and The Field School, among many others.

Unfortunately, Mr. Obama went along with the unions and throughout his eight years tried to end the scholarships.  We now have a chance to greatly expand the number of scholars who can take advantage of these great educational institutions.

Do I wish that Ms. DeVos had done a better job at her confirmation hearing?  Of course I do.  But here is the bottom line.  During her career she has done more through our schools to help those that are less fortunate than 99 percent of our population.  In the face of education reform at the federal level that has been going on since the 1950s without much to show for it except billions of dollars being wasted, it is time for something new.

Former Mayor Anthony Williams supports her and that is good enough for me.  The Senate should confirm Betsy DeVos.

Charter board delays vote on LAYC Career Academy PCS closure

When I tuned in last evening to watch online the monthly meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board I immediately noticed an interesting sight.  In attendance was Stephen Marcus, the lead attorney on the FOCUS coordinated lawsuit against the city regarding inequitable funding of charter schools, and the gentleman who I worked with as board chair to negotiate the original building lease for the William E. Doar, Jr. Public Charter School for the Performing Arts.  It is not entirely out of the ordinary for me to see Mr. Marcus at one of these sessions; he has been there many times before.  I just could not imagine what would bring him there on this cold and damp January evening.  It did not take long for me to discover the reason for his presence.

On the evening’s agenda was a vote to begin the revocation process of the Latin American Youth Center Career Academy’s charter.  Mr. Marcus is serving as its legal council, and the fact that he joined the representatives of the school in opposing the proposed action was not the only thing that struck me as unusual.

In the past, when the PCSB has sought to close a school it is usually a binary choice.  The board members are given the option of saying yes or no.  Sometimes, in negotiations between the school and the authorizer, a compromise is reached to shut particular campuses or to stop teaching certain grades in order to keep the school going.  But this time was different.  The PCSB staff came with a set of conditions the charter would have to meet if the vote was to continue to allow the facility to operate.  It came across to me as the first indication that the board’s staff was itself uncertain as to what the proper course should be.

All of this came about because LAYCCA is up for its five-year review.  The Latin American Youth Center has been around for about 50 years helping low income Hispanic young people in a variety of areas such as education, healthcare, and housing.  The organization has opened four charters in D.C. that as well as LAYCCA include Latin American Montessori Bilingual PCS, YouthBuild PCS, and Next Step PCS.  LAYCCA focuses on adult learners who have not succeeded in traditional school settings and often suffer from the effects of homelessness, poverty, and incarceration.  The charter currently enrolls about 200 students between the ages of 16 and 24.  It is ranked Tier 2 on the PCSB’s Performance Management Framework tool, an improvement over last year’s Tier 3 assessment.

Almost all of the evening’s discussion revolved around data analysis of student progress.  The school insists that in the past it has utilized narrative assessments as indicators as to whether it is reaching its goals, while the PCSB demands that there be quantitative measurements.  But to me the entire case by the charter board seems a little strange.  LAYCCA has worked closely with the CityBridge Foundation for the last two years on individualized learning plans for its students and recently won a $200,000 Breakthrough Schools grant from the group.  Please allow me to quote from the CityBridge website as to how this money will be utilized:

“Latin American Youth Center Career Academy (LAYCCA) will reevaluate the performance management framework used to measure student outcomes at schools serving particularly high-need populations in order to encompass more expansive measures of student success. LAYCCA will recruit a professional research partner to gather information about benchmarks and norms used by schools that are effectively serving these youth around the country. Armed with this research, LAYCCA will create a networked improvement community (NIC) of schools, funders, advocates, and regulators to rewrite performance measures for these schools to capture the complexity of their work.”

In other words, the school is attempting to do exactly as the PCSB wants.

Now back to Mr. Marcus.  He appears more than ready to bring the revocation issue to court.  He believes that the school’s  constitutional due process rights have not been followed.  His contention is that LAYCCA  was only informed by the PCSB four years into its existence that its goals had to be externally validated.  Mr. Marcus also makes the argument that in the past the goals agreed to by the board and the charter were vague.  However, as part of its revocation decision the board is now imposing its own numerical quotas that the school needs to meet.  The last allegation the school’s attorney makes is that the revocation decision is arbitrary and capricious.  He asserts that the PCSB is considering certain evidence that the school is meeting its goals but is leaving out other important facts that demonstrate they have been reached.

In the end the voice of reason on the board appears to be Steve Bumbaugh, who called a couple of the recommended PCSB conditions for continued operation of the school, such as lowering enrollment by 40 percent and ending the medical academy, “backdoor revocation.”  It was his motion to delay a decision on revocation to the February meeting that eventually passed, but only by a highly unusual four to three split.  Look for the board to reverse itself on the move to close LAYCCA over the next 30 days.

Opposition to Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary reflects interests of adults over children

Those of us who follow education reform have seen this scenario time and time again.  Someone comes along who supports making parents the customer when it comes to deciding where kids can attend school and the opposition rallies as if it is time to fight World War III.

Perhaps this analogy is only slightly too extreme.  The teachers’ unions will do or say just about anything to protect the power they have to maintain the status quo of an educational delivery system which treats every child the same no matter what their individual needs or desires.  They proclaim load and clear that it is the bureaucracy that knows best how to teach young people and if parents try to buck the system their offspring will be relegated to classrooms with the lowest performing instructors where the trouble making pupils have been assigned.

Our family faced this scenario when our kids were growing up in Reston, Virginia, and although they are now adults it comes back to me only too clearly.  We had an elementary school principal who went with fads.  Our first grade daughter had phonics removed from the classroom to be replaced with the whole language approach.  My wife had to teach her to read at home.  Simultaneously, with our older daughter in fourth grade the school turned to a math textbook bent on raising the self-esteem of girls and minorities.  When you looked inside there was almost no math present.  We taught her the multiplication tables using flashcards.

Fortunately, those days are gone and for millions of people across this country school choice has resulted in parents being able to vote with their feet as to which educational institutions are best for their children.  Here in the District of Columbia only 25 percent of scholars attend their neighborhood schools.  Charters now educate 41,677 individuals representing 46 percent of all public education students.  In addition, we are fortunate that there is another local option for our kids.

The Opportunity Scholarship Program provides private school scholarships for students living in poverty.  The plan was approved during the George W. Bush Administration and due to union pressure President Obama has tried to close it throughout his term.  It helps about 1,200 pupils a year but now with a new group, Serving our Children, running it the hope is to enroll thousands more.  When the battle was being fought to get this life preserver for poor kids passed by Congress the effort was funded by Betsy DeVos along side Joseph E. Robert, Jr.

Ms. DeVos must be confirmed as the next Education Secretary of the United States.