D.C. private school voucher program to help more low-income children

The Washington Post’s Emma Brown revealed that the new group administering the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, Serving Our Children, announced last Friday that it expects the private school voucher plan available to low-income students to grow next school year by “hundreds of new students.”  The timing of the news was perfect as it came on February 24th, which is the birthday of Joseph E. Robert, Jr., the man who when he was alive championed the OSP as a civil right and whose group, The Washington Scholarship Fund, successfully managed it for years.

Ms. Brown states that “Kevin Mills, manager of family and community affairs for Serving Our Children, said in a telephone interview that the organization is expecting to expand because of new federal resources. He declined to say how much additional money the organization is expecting to receive, saying that they won’t have a firm number for another week or two.”

An inside source tells me that the resources to which Mr. Mills is referring come from the rollover funds that are sitting unspent from eight years of the Obama Administration’s efforts to restrict the number of kids that could participate.  Congress allocates $15 million a year for the vouchers in addition to equal amounts going to D.C.’s traditional schools and charters as part of the Three Sector Approach that Mr. Roberts utilized to get the original legislation passed and signed by President George W. Bush.  Approximately 1,100 scholars are currently enrolled in the OSP,  however with an estimated $20 million in surplus money  obviously many more pupils could certainly be helped.

The time is finally right for such a move with Donald Trump in the White House and Betsy DeVos as the U.S. Secretary of Education.  Also on the agenda is the five year re-authorization of the OSP, something Speaker Paul Ryan failed to do at the end of 2015.

School choice advocates such as myself are hoping that at long last the tide has finally turned regarding the continuation and expansion of this life preserver for families living in poverty.

Mayor Bowser builds on funding inequity for D.C. charter schools

Last Friday D.C. Mayor Bowser announced that beginning with the 2017-2018 school year an additional $6.2 in supplemental dollars will be provided for DCPS in an effort to improve the offerings in the traditional middle schools and high schools.  According to Ms. Bowser:

“These investments will transform the middle and high school experience for students throughout DC, and ensure that we are setting more students up for success,” said Mayor Bowser. “In Washington, DC, we value public education, and we know that investments in our schools are really investments in the future of our community. By adding more extracurriculars, more STEM classes, and additional college and career support, we will be able to engage more students and keep them on track to succeed beyond high school.”

The only problem is that this money will not “transform the middle and high school experience for students throughout DC” because once again charter schools are left out of the sharing of the wealth.  Moves such as this are why there is currently an unresolved lawsuit brought by the DC Association of Chartered Public School, Eagle Academy PCS, and Washington Latin PCS that was engineered by FOCUS against the city regarding inequitable funding for DCPS compared to charter schools.  By law, Ms. Bowser and the Council cannot simply add resources to the schools they control without doing the same for charters through the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula.

The situation is now completely out of control.  Before this latest gift by the Mayor, and at the time the lawsuit was brought, FOCUS estimates “this illegal under funding has amounted to $770 million from 2008 to 2015, which amounts to $1600 – $2600 per student every year for the last seven years.”

The Washington Post’s Alejandra Matos rubs it in by explaining what new DCPS chancellor Wilson aims to do with the cash:

“The school system plans to increase extracurricular activities in middle schools to give every student the option to participate in at least one program outside the regular school day. The new programs will include coding clubs, lacrosse, wrestling, rugby, archery, and hockey, as well as wheelchair track and field and basketball for students with disabilities.

DCPS plans to purchase 750 new computers and add engineering and computer science electives to its middle schools. All DCPS middle schools also plan to offer algebra in the 2017-18 school year.

For high schools, DCPS will hire college-and-career coordinators to help students create a personal plan for their future after graduation. It also plans to put more resources into its four alternative high schools, which enroll students who once dropped out or are far behind in traditional school.”

According to the Post reporter, “The proposal would be in addition to at least $25 million in spending growth in the next fiscal year to cover enrollment increases and other costs, school officials say. The current year’s spending plan totals $910 million.”

This is quite different from the situation I learned about last summer while visiting Denver, Colorado.  In this city, thanks to a Denver Public Schools and Charter Schools Collaboration Compact, the two sectors share revenue on an equitable basis.  From the agreement:

“[District schools] commit to ensuring equitable resources for charter schools. This includes not only per pupil revenue, but, to the greatest extent possible, an equitable share of all other district resources including Title funds, existing bond funds, application opportunities for future bond funds, mill levy funds, curriculum and materials purchased with federal funds, and grants for programs that could benefit charters. This would also include an opportunity for the charter schools to play a meaningful role in shaping expenditures of funds made on their behalf.”

Mr. Wilson spent more than a decade as a leader in Denver Public Schools.  Perhaps he will be the one to recognize the blatant cruelty of what public school financing has become in the nation’s capital.

Teachers at D.C.’s Paul PCS resort to a union to get administration’s attention

News broke yesterday afternoon that the teachers at Paul Public Charter School intend to form their own union entitled the District of Columbia Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (DC ACTS) under the umbrella of the American Federation of Teachers.  This would be the first time a charter in the nation’s capital elected to become part of a teachers’ union.  Rachel Cohen of the American Prospect reported that 75 percent of teachers at Paul have signed a petition to join the new collective bargaining unit.  It is not a positive development.

Perhaps it is fitting that this effort is happening at Paul PCS, the only traditional school to become a charter.  As the story goes Cecile Middleton, the principal of Paul Junior High when it was under DCPS,  became so frustrated that she had to go through the central office to do simple things like get a light bulb changed, that she decided to form her own school.  Josephine Baker, former executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, explains in her book The Evolution & Revolution of DC Charter Schools, that it took the leaders of Paul three application cycles of the PCSB to get the project off the ground.  Then, in 1999, the union came in:

“The announcement of the approval of Paul’s application to convert to charter school status was the beginning of intense activity to thwart the conversion.  First, teachers’ union members of Paul’s faculty organized a student walk-out to protest the conversion. The students, who may or may not have cared about the implications of the school changing its governance structure, seemed to offer little resistance to the opportunity to ‘spontaneously’ leave their classes at the suggestion of their teachers.  At least one teacher who helped facilitate teacher signatures of the conversion petition reported being harassed by the teachers’ union representatives” (p. 49).

Ms. Cohen indicated in her story that there were two primary factors that led to the charter school teachers currently at Paul embracing a union.  From her article:

“The first is that administrators brought in a consultant at the start of the 2015-2016 school year to launch a committee with teachers dedicated to discussing school improvements.  After a series of meetings, teachers submitted a list of proposals to their administration, including such recommendations as more transparent staff evaluations, caps on class size, and increased time for teacher planning.  But the suggestions went nowhere.”

Then at the conclusion of last year’s term the well-respected high school principal was not offered continued employment and the staff could not get an explanation for the change.  The instructors banded together to reverse the decision but apparently their viewpoint was ignored.

Four year history and government teacher Dave Koenig expresses the sentiment of the employees, again from Ms. Cohen’s piece:  “In my time here I’ve seen people who are really good, dedicated teachers shown the door because they have personality conflicts with someone above them.  I’ve also seen really good people leave on their own because they feel underappreciated or overworked to the point of developing [a] nervous breakdown.”

WAMU’s Martin Austermuhle explains that conversion to union representation is not a given:

“Though charter schools are publicly funded, they are exempt from the D.C. law requiring the government to enter collective bargaining agreements with public employees. An organizing effort in 2012 by the Washington Teachers’ Union — which represents teachers in DCPS — fizzled due to legal and political obstacles.

A decision last year from the National Labor Relations Board means the teachers’ attempt to unionize will come under the federal law that applies to private sector workers. That gives the school’s management two choices: willingly recognize the teachers’ request for a union, or call an election in which staff would have to vote on whether to unionize.”

If the drive goes through these teachers will be in for a tremendously rude awakening.  In my experience injection of a union creates silos between the front line staff and management.  Modifications to the work environment, from everything from working hours, pay, benefits, and evaluations, must be contractually negotiated.  As I related to Mr. Austermuhle, it is certain to diminish the ability for the charter to rapidly react to the needs and desires of students and parents.

Still, and we have to realize that we are hearing only one side of the story, when management does not effectively listen to staff it invites the introduction of union activity.  The move comes in the aftermath of the Public Charter School Board’s executive director Scott Pearson, publicly inviting unions into our schools.

The Ward 4 charter currently enrolls approximately 767 students in grades Pre-Kindergarten 3 to the twelfth grade.  Both the lower and upper schools are ranked as Tier 2 on the Performance Management Framework.

The FOCUS DC Charter School Conference

As I wrote about a few days ago, last week was the first annual DC Charter School Conference sponsored by Friends of Choice in Urban Schools.  Every since I attended the event last Thursday I have not been able to stop thinking about it.

I’ve already let you in on some of the action.  There were over 400 enthusiastic participants at this meeting made up of teachers, school administrators, and other public education stakeholders.  But how could they be anything other than excited when you start with a passionate Keynote Address by Dr. Howard Fuller, followed by perfectly choreographed dance recitals performed by pairs of students of Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School.

Once the general session was over it was time to attend the breakout sessions.  There were actually 38 of these that attendees could choose among and they were grouped into 11 various categories such as development, governance, data, communications, and of course, facilities.  Here is my next takeaway from the experience: everything was exceptionally well organized.  You never would have known that this was the first time something like this had been attempted.  From the refreshments in the morning to the audiovisual effects in the conference rooms, and the happy hour at the end of the meetings, it appeared that this was simply another iteration of a long-established tradition in our nation’s capital.

I had the great pleasure of sitting in on the first advocacy session.  This was a panel discussion featuring my hero Jack McCarthy, president, CEO, and founder of AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School; Dr. Ramona Edelin, executive director of the DC Association of Public Chartered Schools; and Stephen Marcus, an attorney with the Marcus Firm, PLLC and the lead council for the FOCUS-led charter school funding inequity lawsuit against the city.  The facilitator for the conversation was Jeanne Allen, the Center for Education Reform’s CEO.  Each member spoke in turn giving a brief history of our local charter school movement.  A common theme quickly emerged from their comments.  With the exception of Mr. Marcus, they argued that Washington D.C.’s charter schools have lost the autonomy that was guaranteed to them through the School Reform Act of 2005 as it was passed by Congress.  Mr. McCarthy stated that he knew that the situation had really changed when he had to hire his first compliance officer, a position he stated that almost all charters now possess.  The participants bemoaned the fact that charter schools were established to be the fountainheads of innovation in public education but due to the ranking of schools through almost the sole reliance on high stakes tests and the amount of information required to be submitted to the DC Public Charter School Board, they have begun to resemble the schools to which they were meant as an alternative.  This point was best expressed in a recent Education Week article by Ms. Allen:

“The operational freedom initially afforded to charters through law, in exchange for performance-based accountability, caught a regulatory fervor that its own advocates invited. Charters are slowly morphing into bureaucratic, risk-averse organizations fixated on process over experimentation. Such organizational behavior is called isomorphism, allowing once-innovative organizations to resemble those they disrupted. The root cause has been a regulatory push of laws at both the state and federal levels. These have empowered state agencies to micromanage everything from the approval to the authorization of charters. Some call it accountability. Others know it better as bureaucracy.”

Mr. Marcus disagreed with this assessment, stating that charters are afforded a bargain which he expressed as freedom to govern themselves in exchange for accountability of results.  He explained that there is a natural tension between autonomy and oversight, and he revealed that he often has to challenge the PCSB on its overreach of its authority.

This debate will not end anytime soon.  Anytime public dollars are involved in funding our schools there will be demands for a return on the investment.  The critical problem is that the groundbreaking improvements that come through the workings of the free market are diminished when regulatory chains are applied.

KIPP DC is making tough choices about changes to its program

The Washington Post’s Jay Mathews revealed yesterday that Susan Schaeffler, the CEO of KIPP DC, is making some difficult decisions about the structure of her program that ultimately could impact the academic success of the children in her network.

As Mr. Mathews explains, KIPP DC now teachers more pupils than any other charter school in D.C. with almost 5,800 students attending 16 campuses.  There are now five early childhood learning schools, as well as five elementary schools, five middle schools and one high school.  The charter is also one of the highest academically performing in the city although it concentrates on educating low-income kids.  For example, of the 22 schools listed by the DC Public Charter School Board as top performing, meaning that they score above the state average on the 2016 PARCC Assessment, four of those institutions are part of KIPP.  Moreover, five out of 16 schools recognized by the PCSB as having improved most in 2016 from the previous year’s PARCC scores for the number of children reaching the college readiness grade of a four or five, are part of the KIPP network.

Some of the ways that KIPP DC has been as successful as it has been are that it has a longer school day, going from 7:45 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and through its offering of Saturday classes and summer school.  But  as the Post reporter indicated some of these schedules are about to be altered.

“Many people still think of long days when they hear the name KIPP, but the nature of that extra time has changed at KIPP DC. Saturday classes have been shifted from the middle to the elementary schools. The July summer school has moved to August, just before the regular school year begins. And the middle school day has been cut by an hour, running from 8 a.m. to 4:15 p.m.”

In a conversation Mr. Mathews had with Ms. Schaeffler, she stated she had mixed feelings about the moves.  She commented, “’It is one of the things we struggle with now.  The market for classroom talent is very competitive in the District.’ She did not want to lose good teachers to schools that offered a shorter workday, no Saturday classes and no required assignment in the middle of the summer. ‘It was tough because I felt for the first time I was making a decision based on adults and not children,’ she said.”

This story brings me back to the book The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley.  In her excellent work Ms. Ripley discusses the fact that some countries such as South Korea elevate the value of education to such a level that teachers who tutor privately can become millionaires.  My hope would be that instead of Ms. Schaeffler having to modify her winning formula in order to compete for talent that we could as a society remunerate these instructors at such a level that they would not consider working for anyone else.

Dr. Howard Fuller at the FOCUS 2017 D.C. Charter School Conference

Yesterday was a truly amazing day.  Picture this:  over 400 charter school teachers, administrators, heads of schools, founders, and other stakeholders gathered standing room only in the elegant auditorium of the FHI 360 Conference Center participating in the inaugural 2017 D.C. Charter School Conference hosted by Friends of Choice in Urban Schools.  Representatives were in attendance from most of the 118 campuses making this the largest gathering of charter school representatives in the 20 year history of a local movement that now educates almost 42,000 children, or 46 percent of all pupils attending public schools.

I will have much more to say about this stellar event in the near future.  But for now I want to bring your attention to an early highlight of the meeting.  The Keynote Speaker was Dr. Howard Fuller.  I have had the great opportunity to hear Dr. Fuller on numerous occasions and he is always motivational.  But this was something different.  Dr. Fuller spoke as if every single atom in his body was united in a supreme battle to convey his beliefs to the guests.  In honor of this man’s passion and eloquence, for which he received a prolonged standing ovation at the conclusion of his address, I am reprinting his remarks in their entirety.

Dr. Fuller is a Distinguished Professor of Education and founder and director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  He served as the Superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools from 1991 to 1995. Dr. Fuller was a founder of the Black Alliance for Educational Options.  In the 1960s he became one of this nation’s most prominent civil rights leaders.  Dr. Fuller has received numerous awards and recognition over the years, including four Honorary Doctorate Degrees.

“Connecting Our Strengths”

I think our strength does not rest in the fact that most if not all of us in this room are here because we support charter schools. Our strength will be found in being clear why charter schools exist.

I will speak only for myself. I am in this room today because I care about the plight of poor children. And as a Black man who loves Black people down in the depths of my soul, I have a particular and special concern about Black children who come from low income and working class families.

I believe that education is one of the few levers of power that gives these children the possibility of being able to change the trajectory of their life chances while at the same time giving them the tools they need to engage in what Paulo Friere called, the “practice of freedom”- the ability to engage in the transformation of their world.

There is no way I can stand before you and talk to you about the education of our children and not acknowledge the national political environment that shadows all that we do right now today in America.

I have talked to many people of all races and ages since the election of Donald Trump as the President of the United States of America.  I want to put my view about this man on the table because it will frame some of what I have to say to you. I believe this man is a horrible human being.  I think he has said and done things that have been hurtful and painful to a lot of people. I believe the divides that were already in existence in our country have been and will continue to be exacerbated by President Trump.  He should read Thomas L. Friedman & Michael Mandelbaum’s book, That Used To Be Us. According to them there were five Pillars that made America great.  One of them was America used to have an immigration policy that recognized that America not only wanted immigrants with great minds but also people who just wanted to create a better life for themselves and their families.

But when I hear some people talk about the pain they are feeling, I am reminded of something Dr. King said in his book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community.

He said, “the central quality in [Black peoples’] life is pain-pain so old and deep that it shows in every moment of [our] existence.  It emerges in the cheerlessness of [our] sorrow[ful] songs, in the melancholy of [our] blues and in the pathos of [our] sermons.  Black people while laughing [are shedding] invisible tears that no hand can wipe away.  In a highly competitive world, [Black people] know that a cloud of persistent denial stands between [us] and the sun, between [us] and life and power, between [us] and whatever we need.”

Pain is not a new reality for Black people, particularly poor Black people. No matter who has been in the White House our poorest brothers and sisters have suffered. While it is true that President Obama cared about them and at a minimum represented the office in a way that made us proud, he was not able to alleviate the suffering that our poorest families endure every single day. Their situations could conceivably get worse under the current regime. But, let’s be clear: no matter who is the President, if we care about our low income and working class brothers and sisters we must be in a continual fighting mode. But political reality dictates that we must be able and willing to protest and where possible collaborate if it will benefit those among us who have the least.  They cannot afford for us to be political purists.  They need those of us who would exercise leadership to be clear that in a political sense we can not have permanent friends or permanent enemies -what we must have are permanent interests. We have to resist while at the same time seizing any opportunity to help our children and the families who need us the most.

Howard Thurman was one of the great African American preachers of the 20th century. He was an author, philosopher, theologian, educator and civil rights leader.

In his book, Jesus and the Disinherited he talked about the plight of the masses of people who live with their backs constantly against the wall.  They are the poor, the disinherited, and the dispossessed.  He said, there is one overmastering problem that the socially and the physically disinherited face. Under what terms is survival possible? The position of the disinherited in every age is – what must their attitudes be toward the rulers, the controllers of political, social and economic life?

But what must also be confronted by those of us who purport to care about the plight of the disinherited is what is our attitude towards them?

So, it is not just what you think about Trump or whomever you choose to direct your attention. The deeper question for me is what are you doing in your school to equip your children to be able to transform their world?

Are we screaming about Trump (not saying you shouldn’t) while we are not creating strong learning environments for our children that are immediately in our line of sight every day?

The strength of the charter school effort is not just our existence; it is understanding the purpose of our existence.  I support charter schools as long as they work for our children. If they don’t work then they have no value. Work for me is more than test scores: It’s treating our kids with respect; It’s understanding all of the issues that impact them before they ever get to school; It’s confronting the issues of race and class in our facilities and in our behavior towards our children; In the rules and regulations that we set up in so many instances to control our children because we are unable to manage them. It’s recognizing that as Paul Tough said in his latest book, that poor children are capable of deep learning.

Yes we must advocate for charter schools. Yes we must celebrate our strengths while acknowledging our weaknesses.  Some charter schools in DC have done and continue to do great work for our children. Those that are well-serving our children should be celebrated and supported. Those that with help can be of value to our children should get that help. Those that nobody’s children should be in should lose their right to exist. Of course I believe that about the traditional system as well.

So my message is simply this, our strength flows from our commitment to purpose and not to the method to get to purpose. Because the moment you get committed to the institutional arrangements to get to purpose as opposed to the purpose you are on the way to becoming the new protectors of the status quo.

I leave you with the words of William Daggett, “We must be committed to our childrens’ hopes, dreams, aspirations and prayers more than to any particular institutional arrangements.”

Looks like Virginia is about to replace one bad charter school law with another

The state of Virginia has almost no charter schools.  The reason is that their opening is dependent on approval by local county school boards.  Of course, no public body such as this would allow for one second an alternative to their monopoly over how kids are taught.

So now some charter enthusiasts are jumping for joy that a bill may reach Governor Terry McAuliffe‘s desk that would permit the Virginia Board of Education to form new regional public charter school divisions that could approve charters in localities with low performing schools.  The legislation is crafted so that charter schools could not be started n extremely small districts so the existing educational institutions in these areas are not harmed. In addition, in all jurisdictions no money for charters would be taken from existing traditional public schools.

It’s a really bad idea.  The bedrock of school choice is the competition for students.  Where good charter laws exist, like in the District of Columbia, the money follows the child.  Where is the strong incentive for the regular schools to improve if their budgets are not negatively impacted when a family decides to send their kids somewhere else?  I can see it now.  The teachers and administrators of neighborhood schools, faced with the loss of pupils, will justify the situation by claiming that the charter offers something they do not such as a robotics class or a chess club.  It will just be another day at the office.

If we as a society really want to jump-start an end to the status quo then the consequences of a scholar moving from one classroom to another needs to be extreme.  This is not a party where everyone gets along to get along so that feelings are not hurt.  This is a war against the dark stubborn mediocrity that has ensured that every country on the face of the earth is preparing their next generation to be more globally competitive than those living in the United States.  The situation is especially acute for kids in America living in poverty who today, right now, are performing academically two, three, four or more years below grade level.

We need to stop apologizing for asking politicians for school choice by crafting weak laws that create charter schools in name only.  Philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand pointed out that a thing is not a thing because it has a name.  An object is what it is because of its unique recognizable characteristics. It is much better to junk the proposed law in Virginia and start over with a bill that has guts and teeth.  You would think that it would be easier for legislators to be brave when it comes to the future of our children.

D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education tries to get ahead of the charter school walkability admissions preference debate

Jennie Niles, D.C.’s Deputy Mayor for Education, took some steps yesterday to rebound from catching the city’s public school stakeholders by surprise with Mayor Bowser’s announcement on January 30th that she would institute a charter school walkability admissions preference for the 2018-2019 school year.  Never mind that such a change would require an amendment to the School Reform Act by a D.C. Council caught unaware that the proposal was coming.  Also left in the dark were charter school leaders, FOCUS, the D.C. Public Charter School Board, the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools, and I am guessing the new DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson, whose first day on the job was to come within the next 48 hours.

Also not thought important enough to be part of the conversation was the Deputy Mayor’s own Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force, established almost exactly a year ago to look at, among other topics, cross-sector student feeder patterns.  When Ms. Niles was asked last week on WAMU’s The Kojo Nmamdi Show why the plan was not introduced in front of this body, she replied that everything that comes across her desk has cross-sector implications and therefore she cannot bring everything before them.

Now I guess Ms. Niles has changed her mind.  Yesterday at noon she held a conference call with the Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force members, and during the discussion she presented an analysis of the impact of the admissions preference.  There a lot of assumptions made behind the data contained in the document.  For example, parents would be able to take advantage of the preference as long as their neighborhood school is more than 0.5 miles walking distance from their homes and a charter is within 0.5 miles of their location.  However, the study bases the 0.5 miles “as the crow flies” which the authors admit slightly overestimates the impact of the change.  Other criteria used include the notion that all charters would agree to participate in the preference and that the schools would rank this preference below the sibling preference.  Those compiling this report state that both of these scenarios are not certain to be implemented in practice.

Using My School DC application data from the 2015 to 2016 school year, there were approximately 18,000 (37 percent) of elementary school students in the city that have a neighborhood DCPS school more than 0.5 miles beyond where they live.  Of this group 10,600 (22 percent of all elementary school students) have a charter within this distance.  Among those 10,600 pupils, 4,859 currently attend a DCPS school.  The document states that schools in Wards 5 and 8 would have the greatest impact on admissions due to the preference.

The numbers were then calculated for the current 2015 to 2016 term.  14,470 students participated in the elementary school lottery.  Of these 1,441 would qualify for the walkability preference.  Then, running a mock lottery, it was determined that 254 students would gain entrance to a charter through the new policy, 18 percent of those that qualify for the preference and 2 percent of total applicants.

The study goes on to say that most schools would see a change in admission of one to four children.  Of course, this means that there would be little impact regarding where special education and low-income kids go to learn.

As you can see the number of children impacted by the proposal is an extremely small number.  This is exactly why it should not go forward.  There is a tremendous chance for unintended consequences here which myself and others have highlighted.  It is not hard to imagine families gaming the system to get their kids into a better school, and there is also the chance that charter operators will figure out how to position their facilities in a location where they are able to craft a student body more to their liking.

As I’ve stated previously, the answer to more neighborhood kids in charters is to open and replicate those that are high performing.

The first action U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos should take

Ms. DeVos began her first day on the job yesterday explaining to about 200 education department staffers, according to the Washington Post’s Emma Brown, that her confirmation process “had been  a ‘bit of a bear.'”  In addition to bringing humor to the new position she also had this to say about how she views her organization’s work:

“Let us set aside any preconceived notions and let’s recognize that while we may have disagreements, we can — and must — come together, find common ground and put the needs of our students first.”

So where should she begin?  Since Congress has a unique constitutional role in its oversight of the District the answer is simple.  We need a five year re-authorization of the Opportunity Scholarship Program, the plan in the nation’s capital that provides private school tuition for low-income students in elementary and high school.  The Education Department under President Obama, bowing to pressure from teachers’ unions, attempted for eight years to shutter this life preserver for kids living in poverty.  It was protected in each and every budget cycle by past Speaker Boehner.  Now that we have a Republican House of Representatives, Senate, and President it is time to bring stability and growth to the OSP through the SOAR Act.  There are apparently sufficient unspent dollars to go from helping 1,200 scholars a year to an estimated 5,000.  We are extremely fortunate in that we have a new administrative body in Serving Our Children, a group that is more than capable to take up this task.  February 24th would have been Joseph E. Robert, Jr.’s sixty-fifth birthday if a brain tumor had not  tragically taken his life at the end of 2011, and I cannot think of a more fitting tribute to this local hero than the explosive expansion of his Three-Sector Approach that provides federal money to both traditional and charter schools and funds the private school vouchers.

After this is accomplished, it it time to fix a couple of seemingly intractable problems when it comes to our local charters that now educate almost 42,000 children or 47 percent of all of those who attend public school.  Congress has been absent from this movement since passing the School Reform Act over 20 years ago that first created charters here, and due to inaction from the D.C. Council it should get involved once more.  First, a permanent facility needs to be provided to any charter school that needs one.  I’m not partial to how this is accomplished.  Either the city can compelled to provide the buildings or the per pupil facility fund must be increased from $3,193 a student that Mayor Bowser recently proposed to $3,500, the approximate number it would be if the allotment had been tied to inflation.  Next, although the SRA stated that all public school funding needs to go through the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula, this has proved insufficient to stop the Council over the years from augmenting revenue to DCPS to which charters do not have access. Therefore, legislation needs to be approved that prevents the traditional schools from taking advantage of cash and services unless the other sector is provided the identical offerings.

This is a truly unique period in public policy when it comes to the public education of our children.  Please, let’s not let it go to waste.

The Center for Education Reform CEO Jeanne Allen on Betsy DeVos

There is much that can be written about yesterday’s confirmation of Betsy DeVos as the U.S. Secretary of Education, but the individual who said it best is Jeanne Allen, the CEO of the Center For Education Reform.  Here are her comments a day before the final Senate vote with a few of mine to follow:

“The ongoing protests over Betsy DeVos demonstrate a decades-old controversy among education leaders – is it better to have someone who has been inside traditional public education, or someone has watched and participated from the outside?  Because CER has always sought to ensure the adoption of innovation and policy changes that deliberately upset the status quo, we believe Betsy DeVos will make a fine Education Secretary. She brings a new and valuable perspective that would benefit American families and children. We also understand the concerns that have been raised, but do not believe those should disqualify her from the important role of leading a national commitment to making all schools work for all children.

The real issue at hand is not about the Secretary of Education at all, but the clear and present crisis in education and the lack of opportunities that exist for so many families who struggle against the inertia of a stagnant and 20th century system. While the world is filled with 21st century technologies, most schools still deliver lessons as if they were using the McGuffey Reader.

American education is struggling. Recent NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) scores show that considerably fewer than half (40%) of America’s fourth graders are proficient in math. Even fewer (36%) are proficient in reading. In fact, less than half of students at all grade levels are proficient in any of the nine curriculum areas studied.

We have a steep hill to climb, and it’s important that we put politics behind us and take the right road to get to the top.”

Here in the District of Columbia, after 20 years of tough thoroughly dedicated school reform, just around twenty five percent of our children are college and career ready.

As controversial as this candidate has been, it is time for doing something else.  Ms. DeVos has been fighting for greater educational opportunities for low-income students for more than two decades.  Now she can bring this struggle to the national stage.