D.C. Council sends misleading letter to members of Congress

Today, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight & Government Reform is scheduled to take up re-authorization of the SOAR Act, which contains within it the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.  In response, yesterday D.C. Councilman David Grosso, chairman of the education committee, penned a letter along with seven other council members to Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the house committee, opposing expansion of the private school voucher program for children living in poverty beyond those already participating.   The letter contains several inaccurate claims.

In the first paragraph the authors write, “. . . the voucher program should be phased out because participation in the program and similar initiatives has not only failed to improve students’ academic performance, but worsened it, as found in a series of recent studies.”  Let’s look at some data.  Here in the nation’s capital for the 2015-to-2016 school year the percentage of pupils enrolled in the OSP graduating from high school was 98 percent.  This compares to a 72.9 percent high school graduation rate for charters and a percentage of 69.2 percent for those attending DCPS.

The misinformation contained in the letter by Mr. Grosso only gets worse.  It states, “We appreciate your interest in providing support to public education for our constituents, but we strongly believe that financial resources should be invested in the existing public education system – both public schools and public charter schools – rather than diverted to private schools.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The federal legislation, through the Three Sector Approach, provides $15 million a year for vouchers plus an equal amount for DCPS and charters.  Money for the scholarships does not take away revenue for the other sectors.  As Michael Musante, director of government relations for FOCUS, states in a Washington Post story by Aaron Davis and Jenna Portnoy that appears today, “it was hard to fathom why ‘any Council member would put at risk a future $225 million dollars in federal funds over five years given to the District alone with little to no strings attached.”

I could go on all day, but I’ll draw your attention to one more line from the document.  The letter reads, “. . . if fully funded, the authorization would provide many more dollars per student for vouchers than is allocated per student in public schools and public charter schools.”  Mr. Grosso has to know that this claim is simply false.  According to its fiscal year 2017 budget DCPS is spending an average of $18,554 per student.  Charters get an average of $9,682 per pupil through the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula plus an additional $3,124 per kid enrolled to pay for facilities for a total of $12,806.  Alternatively, the OSP scholarships are currently set at $12,679 each for high school students and $8,452 for elementary and middle school scholars.

A telephone call to Mr. Grosso’s spokesperson to discuss these discrepancies was not returned.

Both Mayor Muriel Bowser and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson recognize the value of the Opportunity Scholarship Program to our city and that is why they are urging Congress to re-authorize the program.  It is the ethical action to take for the benefit of the most vulnerable children in our community.  There is no time to waste.

Paul PCS CEO Jami Dunham resigns

Jami Dunham, the chief executive officer of Paul Public Charter School, announced on March 2nd that she has resigned from her position effective at the end of the 2016 to 2017 school year.  Ms. Dunham has been in her position for a decade.  I interviewed the Paul CEO back in 2014.

In her announcement, Ms. Dunham states that she and her husband made the decision for her to leave her job last November so that she could spend more time with her family.  She stated that she is proud of the accomplishments at the charter over the last 10 years which include:

  • The expansion of Paul into a high school, and a beautiful campus modernization that celebrates our scholars.
  • Our international studies program, which has enabled our scholars to travel to Japan, Costa Rica, Zambia, Jamaica, Paraguay, Panama, London, Ghana, Cuba and Italy.
  • The improvements we have made to our teacher compensation package. Over the past two years we implemented the first phase of our two-part plan and increased teacher salaries to the 50th percentile among all DC charter schools.  For the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 school years, we implemented merit-based pay to increase base salaries. As I announced in January, this month we expect to roll out the second phase of this package with the issuance of contracts for the 2017-2018 school year. The second phase of this plan will move the average salary of our teachers from below the 30th percentile to at least the 50th percentile.

The news comes as word spread that teachers at Paul are seeking union representation after expressing that their displeasure with working conditions and a lack of responsiveness to their concerns by management.  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.

Roberta Colton, the chairman of the school’s board of directors, explains the process for the selection of a new CEO:

“The Board of Trustees is prepared to have a seamless and smooth transition from Jami’s leadership to our next CEO. The Board has a Succession Plan that was developed a couple of years ago and is already being applied to begin the search process. We have begun putting together a Search/Transition Committee to be comprised of five voting Board members, one or more key staff members, a teacher, and a member of the Executive Leadership Team. Sterling Ward, Board Vice Chair and Paul alum, is serving as chair of the Committee. To date, he has appointed five Board members to the Committee. Now that Jami’s pending departure has been announced, the next step is to begin filling the open positions in order to complete the search committee team.

Additionally, the Board sought bids from a number of search firms well-versed in the DC Charter School community to help us identify qualified and interested candidates for the position of our new CEO. The Committee is now in the process of finalizing its engagement of one of those firms. As part of its process, the selected search firm has interviewed both parent Trustees and intends to interview several faculty members to solicit their thoughts about the qualities and experience they would like to see in the new CEO.”

It will be interesting to see the impact of Ms. Dunham’s decision on the move toward the formation of a new teacher’s union at the charter.

D.C. voucher program gets a jolt in enrollment

As predicted, the number of pupils participating in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program is going up, by a lot.  Serving Our Children, the group selected in 2015 to administer the private school voucher plan, is wasting no time taking advantage of the strong support of school choice of the new occupant of the White House and the recently confirmed woman heading the U.S. Department of Education.

SOC has determined that in the past the Department of Education has been misinterpreting the legislation contained in the SOAR Act in two critically important ways.  First, brothers and sisters of those already admitted into the program should have been provided with a sibling preference for admissions.  My understanding is that this preference is extended not only to blood relatives of those using a voucher but to anyone living in the same household as a OSP student.

In addition, and extremely importantly, kids who are already attending a private school that meet the residency and income requirements are also eligible to receive an OSP award.  Finally, there is one more crucial change in management.  The scholarships will now be granted on a rolling basis.  Gone will be the day of the grand announcement of who got in and who did not make the cut.

These modifications have already had a drastic impact.  On Friday, February 24, 756 parents who completed the application requirements were notified that their scholars had received an OSP scholarship for the 2017 to 2018 school year.

But Serving Our Children is not done here.  The organization is now contacting participating private schools to request that they increase the number of OSP kids being admitted.  Then there is the legislative side.  Look for Congress to now quickly reauthorize the SOAR bill for another five years.  There is also some talk of making this legislation permanent.

The bottom line is that many more low-income parents are about to be provided with choice about where their children can get a quality education.

At long last, a U.S. President talks about school choice before a joint session of Congress

It took almost 250 years, but finally a President of the United States spoke passionately about the power of school choice before a joint session of Congress.  Here is what Mr. Trump said:

“In fact, our children will grow up in a Nation of miracles.

But to achieve this future, we must enrich the mind — and the souls — of every American child.

Education is the civil rights issue of our time.

I am calling upon Members of both parties to pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African-American and Latino children. These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school that is right for them.

Joining us tonight in the gallery is a remarkable woman, Denisha Merriweather. As a young girl, Denisha struggled in school and failed third grade twice. But then she was able to enroll in a private center for learning, with the help of a tax credit scholarship program.

Today, she is the first in her family to graduate, not just from high school, but from college. Later this year she will get her masters degree in social work.

We want all children to be able to break the cycle of poverty just like Denisha.”

Those of us advocating for a marketplace in public education desperately want all children to be able to break the cycle of poverty.  This is why since 1998 I have been fighting for private school vouchers in the nation’s capital.  It is the reason that my wife Michele and I for the last 11 years have been volunteering on Saturday mornings to tutor low income Hispanic scholars through the Latino Student Fund.  And it is how I met Joseph E. Robert, Jr. in my desire to do whatever I could to have his back in his battle to create, maintain, and expand the Opportunity Scholarship Program.

We all believe in public schools and would prefer that everyone could have access to a good one close to where they live.  But terribly unfortunately, any monopoly gets diverted from a sole focus on its primary mission which is serving its customers day-in and day-out.  That is why school choice is so crucial.  It creates a competition for students that drives educational excellence.

Let’s all commit to doing everything we can right here is Washington D.C. to provide all children, especially those living in poverty, a quality seat.  We can expand the number of well-regarded charter schools operating in our city.  We can shutter schools of all kinds that are simply not working.  Finally, we can increase substantially the number of pupils helped by the Opportunity Scholarship Program.