Trinity Lutheran Supreme Court ruling is not the final verdict on allowing private school vouchers

Last April I called your attention to Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc., vs. Comer which had been argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.  Here’s what I wrote:

“The case revolves around the church’s desire to participate in a Missouri state program that recycles used tires for material that provides rubber surfaces for playgrounds. The local Department of Natural Resources refused Trinity’s request for a $20,000 grant to be spent on the resurfacing of its playground because of the state constitution’s Blaine Amendment, which reads ‘No money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion.’”

In a seven to two ruling, the court found yesterday that because the Trinity Lutheran Church was trying to obtain a public service that non-sectarian organizations were also getting it could not be discriminated against because of its religious affiliation.  As the CATO Institute’s Neal McClusky points out “This should have been a simple decision: It is clearly unequal treatment of religious Americans under the law to say “the reason you are ineligible for this benefit for which anyone else is eligible is that you are religious.”

The opinion of the majority stated that “the exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution all the same, and cannot stand.”  But, as the Center for Education Reform points out, the finding was narrow in scope and did not directly address the Blaine Amendments that are found in the constitutions of 37 states.  This will have to come on another day.  For now, we will simply have to continue to fight for parents to have the freedom to send their children to the school of their choice.

D.C.’s charter board is not having a good year

Things just don’t appear to be going well this year for the DC Public Charter School Board.  It started 2017 with a debate over whether to begin charter revocation proceedings against the Latin American Youth Center Career Academy.  The move resulted in the school hiring attorney Stephen Marcus, the same lawyer handling the FOCUS coordinated lawsuit against the city regarding inequitable funding of charters compared to the traditional school sector.  In March, the board did vote to proceed only to reverse course over an aggravatingly long five months and decide that conditionally the school that bravely serves severely disadvantaged adults can continue to operate.

At the same time that this was going on, Mayor Bowser surprised the charter sector by introducing a plan for a walkability preference for student admission.  The idea represents the first step in satisfying Ms. Bowser’s notion that charters should look more like DCPS in giving a first right of refusal to access to classrooms to those students living closest to these facilities.  Despite the fact that this suggestion flies in the face of the main component of  charter schools, namely school choice, Scott Pearson, the executive director of the PCSB, called the idea an “interesting enrollment proposal that addresses real issues families face.”  So far no final determination has been reached.

Moving on to February, the teachers at Paul PCS sought to unionize, which would have made the school the first charter in D.C. to take this step.  Across the country only 10 percent of charters have union representation of teachers.  The activity came 60 days after an article by Mr. Pearson suggesting that charters could benefit from a union presence.  The leadership of Paul fought back, and a vote to join a group affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers went down in defeat but not before the school’s executive director of ten years, Jami Dunham, decided to retire.  The union, however, did not give up trying to get a foothold in our city, and just this month the teachers at Cesar Chavez PCS’s Prep campus decided to become part of the AFT.

In March, the State Board of Education approved an education plan for the District of Columbia as part of the national Every Student Succeeds Act that ranks all of our city’s public schools under the same accountability system administered by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.  This came as a huge surprise to those of us used to seeing charters graded under the PCSB’s Performance Management Framework tool.  The PCSB’s executive director issued a statement supporting the uniform assessment of schools; the Center for Education Reform has a different opinion.

In April, it was announced by the PCSB that D.C. charter school student wait lists has risent to nearly 10,000 students.

Finally, there was the debacle around DC Prep’s request to open new middle school and elementary school campuses.  Despite being assured by the PCSB staff that the vote was only a formality, the charter faced an onslaught of criticism over its above average out-of-school suspension rates.  The additional campuses were defeated, which resulted in the former executive director of FOCUS Robert Cane calling out the board for taking an action not authorized under the School Reform Act during his acceptance speech after being inducted into the organization’s Hall of Fame.   Six weeks from its original vote, the PCSB changed its mind and is letting DC Prep go ahead with its expansion plans.

On a positive note, three new charter were given the green light to open during the 2018 to 2019 school year.  Eight schools originally applied.




Exclusive Interview with Maura Marino, CEO Education Forward DC

I had the great opportunity recently to sit down for a conversation with Maura Marino, the chief executive officer of Education Forward D.C.  Ms. Marino started our discussion by relating to me the mission of her organization.  She explained that Education Forward DC “accelerates the work of visionary education leaders to foster a city of high-quality, equitable public schools for every DC student and family..”  I asked Ms. Marino about the founding of Education Forward.

“Education Forward DC  began as the DC Schools Fund, an investment area under NewSchools Venture Fund. I joined NewSchools in 2008, and served as the DC Schools Fund’s managing partner from 2013 until we spun off to become a separate entity in 2016.  Originally, the DC Schools Fund was a three-year project that eventually extended to eight because of the incredible work happening in DC.”

Last July, after 18 months of planning, the DC Schools Fund team began this new endeavor, supported by a $1 million grant from NewSchools. The effort came out of a strong desire to uplift educational opportunity in Washington, D.C. and to strengthen the ecosystem for school quality and equity.  In many ways, Education Forward DC continues the work of the D.C. Schools Fund, including managing the remaining grants made under that fund.

As one example, Education Forward DC will continue to fund the production and analysis by local partners of school-by-school Equity Reports, a project the DC School Fund first underwrote.

As background, I asked Ms. Marino about the founding of NewSchools Venture Fund.  She detailed that NewSchools came about 19 years ago as a result of Vice-President Al Gore approaching entrepreneur Kim Smith and venture capitalists John Doerr and Brook Byers about bringing about transformative change in public education the way that Silicon Valley businessmen and women revolutionized other industries.  When I inquired about a major accomplishment of NewSchools, Ms. Marino pointed to the creation of the concept of the Charter Management Organization.  “In 1998, Aspire Public Schools was in one location and wanted to open one hundred more in California.  NewSchools Venture Fund invested in them and assisted in building its capacity to replicate, and Aspire then led the field as others created non-profit organizations designed to scale effective school models.  Other significant grantees have included Achievement First, Noble Street Network, Uncommon Schools, The Achievement Network, Urban Teachers, NewsELA and Goalbook.  In Washington, D.C., NewSchools was the first outside investor in the Fellowship for Race and Equity in Education, Charter Board Partners and many others.”

Now I have just one note about the interview.  Ms. Marino started her career as a high school teacher at Aspire Public Schools in Northern California after obtaining her undergraduate degree at Stanford University.  She then went on to earn a Master of Arts in Teaching from Columbia University’s Teachers College and a Master in Business Administration from Harvard Business School.  Her online biography from the Education Forward website states that “During graduate school, Maura worked on the Network Growth Team at the KIPP Foundation, implementing their national growth strategy.”  The point I’m attempting to make, in case you have not already noticed, is that Ms. Marino is exceedingly intelligent.  The trait came across from the moment I started talking with her.  In addition, as she mentioned to me, she thinks about public education and how to improve it one hundred percent of the time.  To give you an idea of the brain power of Ms. Marino, during our session she indicated that she doesn’t consider our public schools classified simply as being charters or traditional.  She sees them as being in one of four categories that include neighborhood, citywide, selective, and specialized, with both DCPS and charter schools playing various functions in our educational ecosystem.

NewSchools’ DC Schools Fund has supported many of the leading charters in this town, among them D.C. Prep PCS, Friendship PCS, KIPP D.C. PCS, Mundo Verde PCSIngenuity Prep PCS, Inspired Teaching PCS, Appletree PCS, DC International, and D.C. Scholars Academy PCS.  The Fund also played a major role along with the CityBridge Foundation, now CityBridge Education, in bringing Rocketship PCS here.  But Education Forward DC wants to do more.  The group’s five-year goal is aggressive:  double the number of underserved pupils who score four or above on the PARCC Assessment.  The Fund plans to accomplish this feat through three core areas of work:

  • A great school for every student in D.C.
  • Schools led by excellent principals and teachers, and
  • A school system designed for D.C. families

There was much Ms. Marino had to say under each of these goals so here are some highlights.  In reference to having a great school for every student she revealed that her organization is prepared to assist 35 new or redesigned charter or district schools in order to reach this target.  So that schools are led by excellent principals and teachers, her group is focusing on supporting high quality teacher and leader pipelines and improving talent management.  The Education Forward CEO was also quite eloquent in elaborating on the need to have a school system designed for D.C. families.  Ms. Marino wants to amplify parent voices so that there is a much better match between what parents want for their children’s education and that which is provided.  For example, she referred to a commonly expressed need for bilingual schools east of the Anacostia River.

I then explained to Ms. Marino that last summer I had the fantastic opportunity to travel to Denver and get an understanding about how school choice operates in this city.  One of the most intriguing aspects of the environment there is the presence of a District-Charter School Collaboration Compact.  I mentioned that the document spells out specific actions the district schools and charters will take to increase cooperation between the two sectors.  D.C. has taken a different but similarly collaborative approach, Ms. Marino noted. While there’s no formal compact, there’s close and collegial communication among DCPS, the DC Public Charter School Board, and the Deputy Mayor for Education. For instance, district and charter school principals are jointly pursuing a master’s degree in leadership from Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. For families, My School DC, the one-stop resource for selecting and applying to DC district and charter schools, is another outgrowth of citywide collaboration, Ms. Marino pointed out.

In closing she expressed excitement about Antwan Wilson becoming the new DCPS Chancellor.  “I don’t think he would have been selected if he hadn’t not come from cities like Oakland and Denver that have collaboration agreements between charters and traditional schools in place,” she commented.  “Having the two sectors increase their level of working together I believe is one of the primary reasons that he was picked for this role.”




Charter board reverses itself on DC Prep expansion plans

In a stunning move, the DC Public Charter School Board reversed course and voted to approve the two charter amendments for expansion for DC Prep PCS to add an elementary and middle school that it just rejected during its April meeting.  In fact, the entire exercise was exceptionally strange in that the decision to consider this item was added at the last minute by board vice chair Don Soifer as amendments to the evening’s agenda.

Obviously, the dramatic change in heart came because in the face of public criticism the board realized that it had rejected a charter’s replication request due to concerns over a higher than average out-of-school student suspension rate which is not one of the established criteria used to make this decision.  It didn’t hurt that DC Prep’s Emily Lawson, the founder and chief executive officer, provided a passionate and rational explanation of the reasons behind suspensions at the school together with the fact that among the representatives of the school was Michela English, a DC Prep board member who it was announced would become chair in the fall.  Ms. English, is of course, the recently retired C.E.O. and president of Fight for Children.  The video of their presentation is definitely worth watching.

All board members agreed that Anacostia middle school should be allowed to open.  By a four to three vote, the same ratio that a couple of months ago turned down these charter amendments, the new elementary school as also approved.

In other business, although there was way too much discussion taking up way too much time, a full complement of DC Public Charter School Board members voted Monday night to greatly expand additional numbers of high quality seats available to students living in the District of Columbia.  In fact, it was like traveling back in time to see once again this body approving charter amendment requests unanimously, which stood in stark contrast to recent ballots among the group.

Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom PCS, now in its nineteenth year, got the green light to open a second campus serving pre-Kindergarten through fifth graders in the 2018 to 2019 school year.  Enrollment at the charter will grow from its student body of 350 scholars to 750 students by the 2023 to 2024 term.  There are currently 1,595 kids on its admissions wait-list.

KIPP DC PCS is allowed to add 900 pupils, growing to an astonishing population of 7,484 by the 2024 to 2025 school year.  It will do so in part by adding a second high school beginning in the 2019 to 2020 term. The 2017 wait-list to get into one of this charter management organization’s 16 campuses in the nation’s capital is 2,430 students.  One of the highlights of the testimony from Susan Schaeffler, the school’s founder and chief executive officer, is that KIPP will back-fill all grades for which it has space, although this might not be possible for a student wanting to enter the twelfth grade due to having to fulfill graduation credit requirements.

Most of the night’s conversation revolved around Mundo Verde PC’s request to replicate, adding a second campus of 600 pre-Kindergarten to fifth grade pupils to its current student body of 635 kids beginning in the 2018 to 2019 school year.  The charter is only in its six year of operation but already has a wait-list of 1,435 pupils.  In the end the charter amendment was approved with the condition that the school be accredited by the time of the expansion.

All of this is extremely good news for parents wanting to get their children into one of these stellar programs, but as is obvious, the new seats in no way keep up with demand.




Cesar Chavez Prep Campus approves union, board fights back

Last Thursday, in a highly misguided decision to insert a third party between themselves and their administrators, the teachers and instructional staff of the Cesar Chavez Public Charter School’s Prep Campus voted 31 to 2 to form the District of Columbia Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff through the American Federation of Teachers.  It is the first charter school in the District of Columbia to approve a union, and follows the failed effort in April to bring the same group to Paul PCS.  The move fulfills the call last December by Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, to add a unionized charter school to our city as a way of increasing the diversity of his portfolio.

The WAMU’s Kate McGee quotes science teacher Christian Herr’s  reaction to the vote:

“We’re excited for the opportunity to work alongside our school board and our principal to make a school that we’re really proud of into the envy of the district. . . We’ve ready to get to work on a contract that makes our school an even better place to teach and learn.”

But the board of directors over the middle school is not so thrilled.  From its statement:

“Chavez Prep must continue to improve to meet the high accountability expectations in the District of Columbia.  We know we cannot succeed without the support and full commitment of every individual on the school’s faculty and staff.  We expect everyone who joins our school community to uphold our mission and contribute.  By entering Chavez Prep after two years of campaigning, the AFT is responsible for ensuring the success of the school now, too.

Next, the Chavez School’s board anticipates entering a collective bargaining process with the new union at Chavez Prep that will reflect the values of the school and our network.  We believe that what is good for teachers can-and must-be also good for our scholars.  When there are updates of interest to the broader Chavez community we will share them.

The first Chavez school opened in 1998 with 60 students in a grocery store basement.  Our mission has always been to prepare students to succeed in competitive colleges and empower them to use public policy to create a more just, free and equal world.  None of our schools would exist today without the freedom, flexibility and creativity that being a public charter school allows.

We know what distinguishes Chavez Schools from many other schooling choices for DC families and employment options for talented educators, and we are determined to preserve those distinctions as we strive to be among the city’s highest-performing schools.”

Perhaps preserving those distinctions will result in the closing of this campus.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s remarks at the 2017 National Charter School Conference

It’s great to be here with so many pioneers and champions who are fighting to give our nation’s families more quality options in their children’s education. We each have a different story of how we got here. Here’s mine…

Defenders of the status quo like to paint me as a “voucher-only proponent,” but the truth is I’ve long supported public charter schools as a quality option for students. I worked with many others to get Michigan’s first charter legislation passed in 1993 — the third state to do so. And my husband founded a charter high school in Michigan that focuses on aviation, educates kids in the STEM fields, and prepares them to contribute in significant ways to our 21st century economy.

Whatever your own journey looks like, we’re here because we came to the same conclusion that, as a nation, we are simply not doing a good enough job educating our kids.

We all saw too many kids languishing in schools that did not work for them. We knew that if given choices, these students and their families would find an environment that suited them and challenged them.

Let me be clear up front: This is in no way an indictment of the great teachers working every day on behalf of their students. In fact, they should be honored, celebrated, and freed up to do what they do best. If there are any teachers — past or present — here today, will you please stand up? Thank you for all that you do.

But they — and we — all live with the fact that the current structure of education is outdated and ultimately is not geared toward what is right and best for students.

Let me tell two stories that illustrate this reality:

I met Dan a few months ago. Dan and his wife weren’t happy with their children’s assigned school, so they did their research and found a school they thought would be a good fit for them. They had to stretch their family budget to buy a house in that school’s district, but they thought it was a worthwhile investment for their children’s futures.

Unfortunately for them, right after they closed on their house, the school board redrew the lines, and poof — Dan and his family were now assigned to a different school, this one with achievement levels much lower than the one they moved away from and the one they sacrificed their life savings for. When Dan took his case to the district, the response was, “Too bad.”

The second story: Sandy recently moved to Virginia. She was excited to be living in a highly regarded, high-performing district. Her son completed the local school’s assessments, and while he had just finished first grade, he tested at the fourth-grade level. Yet the school told Sandy they didn’t have anything to offer a gifted student like him and he would have to stay in second grade because of his age.

So while the school district is well regarded for its high performance, it shows that not even a great district is the best fit for every child.

I can’t justify either situation to these parents when they ask the same question each of us would ask: “Why?”

“Why can’t my children go to the school I chose?”

“Why isn’t there a program that meets my child at his level?”


The answer should not be “Take it or, literally, leave it.”

How can we be OK with an education structure that is so inflexible and so unaccommodating? Education is foundational to everything else in life, yet the process of acquiring it is based on a family’s income or neighborhood.

A system that denies parents the freedom to choose the education that best suits their children’s individual and unique needs denies them a basic human right. It is un-American, and it is fundamentally unjust.

Thankfully, you are among those who are working to give parents the freedom to find that education for their children.

It’s been more than a quarter-century since the first charter law was enacted in Minnesota in 1991. That law didn’t evolve out of a vacuum, and it wasn’t developed on a whim. It was passed in response to the stories of families like Dan’s and Sandy’s. Parents were desperate for more options, and they pressed for change.

What began as a handful of schools in Minnesota has blossomed into nearly 7,000 schools in 44 states and the District of Columbia, serving more than 3 million students nationwide.

Through your great work, you have proven that quality and choice can coexist. You’ve helped weave charter schools into the fabric of American education.

Charter schools are here to stay. We’re now seeing the first generation of charter students raising children of their own. They know the difference educational choice made in their lives, and now as parents they want the same options for their children.
But we must recognize that charters aren’t the right fit for every child. For many children, neither a traditional nor a charter public school works for them.

Charters are not the one cure-all to the ills that beset education. Let’s be honest: There’s no such thing as a cure-all in education. Even the best school in the country with the best-trained educators and the most resources will not be the perfect fit for every single child.

I suggest we focus less on what word comes before “school” — whether it be traditional, charter, virtual, magnet, home, parochial, private, or any approach yet to be developed — and focus instead on the individuals they are intended to serve. We need to get away from our orientation around buildings or systems or schools and shift our focus to individual students.

Today, the United States is third in per-pupil spending among developed countries, yet our students rank 19th in science, 20th in reading, and 24th in math. The problem is not how much we’re spending; the problem is the results we’re getting.

Charters alone are not sufficient. Private schools alone are not sufficient. Neither are traditional schools.

And that’s OK. Let’s humbly admit this fact and recognize that no top-down, one-size-fits-all approach will ever help us achieve the goal of giving every child an equal opportunity for a world-class education. When a learning environment is not the best fit for a student, it’s incumbent on us to facilitate their transition to one that does meet their needs.

I was in Miami a few months ago and saw firsthand how a community is acting intentionally to meet the diverse needs of its students by providing a wide range of educational options.

I visited three distinctly different schools: SLAM Charter School, Christian Academy for Reaching Excellence, or CARE, and Royal Palm Elementary.

SLAM charter school, founded by Armando Pérez – you may know him as “Pitbull” – serves a low-income community with a large number of English learners. Many of the students anticipate being the first in their families to graduate high school, and some even had to enroll themselves in the school. For these kids, SLAM is providing a state-of-the-art learning environment that embraces the arts and athletics.

CARE serves elementary-age children with a focused outreach to those who are homeless or victims of sexual assault. Located in a homeless shelter in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Miami, CARE gives these kids, who often struggled in a larger school setting, a safe and nurturing environment that addresses their unique needs. The vast majority of students attending CARE do so at no cost to their parents through Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

Miami-Dade Public Schools’ Royal Palm Elementary serves children from its neighborhood and beyond. Led by a dynamic principal and a creative group of teachers who clearly love their work, it was evident why the parents of these students chose this experience for their children.

I celebrate the fact that each of these schools is helping students succeed in unique ways. The parents I met didn’t care that these were different types of schools; they cared that the school was working for their son or daughter. These schools are simply representative of what is possible in an environment of robust choices.

Education is not a zero-sum game. We should not think of it as such. There is no one right way to help kids learn, and just because a school educates children differently than you might propose to does not make them the enemy. Let’s applaud and encourage others who serve students well. It’s a both/and situation, not an either/or.

A zero-sum myth is continually perpetuated by the education establishment. We cannot — we must not — fall prey to that game. Charter schools were created to address the fact that for too many kids, their assigned public school wasn’t working for them. The early charter school leaders weren’t afraid to color outside of the lines, and in fact, they embraced the creativity, innovation, and flexibility charters represented.

But somewhere along the way, in the intervening 26 years and through the process of expansion, we’ve taken the colorful collage of charters and drawn our own set of lines around it to box others out, to mitigate risk, to play it safe. This is not what we set out to do, and, more importantly, it doesn’t help kids.

No one has a monopoly on innovation. No one has a monopoly on creativity. No one has a monopoly on knowing how every child learns.

Charters’ success should be celebrated, but it’s equally important not to “become the man.” I thought it was a tough but fair criticism when a friend recently wrote in an article that many who call themselves “reformers” have instead become just another breed of bureaucrats — a new education establishment.

We don’t need 500-page charter school applications. That’s not progress. That’s fundamentally at odds with why parents demanded charters in the first place.

Innovation, iteration, and improvement must be a constant in our work.

Today we have a great opportunity. While some of you have criticized the president’s budget — which you have every right to do — it’s important to remember that our budget proposal supports the greatest expansion of public school choice in the history of the United States. It significantly increases support for the Charter School Program, and adds an additional $1 billion for public school choice for states that choose to adopt it.

This administration has sent a clear message: We trust parents, and we believe in students. We will fight for every parent and every child, especially those who for too long have been forgotten.

The window of opportunity is narrow and the stakes are too high for us not to act. We must act boldly, and we must act now.

So let’s re-engage and recommit to the entrepreneurial spirit that gave rise to charters 26 years ago. Embracing more change, more choices, and more innovation will improve education opportunities and outcomes for all students.

Take a moment and picture a child whom you have helped get a great education.

For me, I picture Angie and Denisha…

Now think about Dan, and Sandy, and all the other families who need those same opportunities.

Drawing our own new lines won’t help those trapped inside them.

It’s time to put down the permanent marker and straight edge, and instead pick up your brush and palette and paint. Paint in bright, bold colors and continue to add to the colorful collage that was started 26 years ago.

We cannot let the opportunity go to waste.

Act — act now!  For Angie … for Denisha … for Dan … for Sandy … and for every parent and every child across America.

We owe it to them, and we owe it to our nation.

Thank you, and God bless you for all you do for America’s students.

The 2017 Richard Wright PCS Gala

My wife Michele and I had the distinct pleasure of attending last Saturday night’s Richard Wright Public Charter School of Journalism and Media Art’s sixth annual Black Tie Gala Film Festival.  What an elegant and inspiring evening.  The event, as in previous years, was held at the historic Warner Theater where over 1,000 men and women in evening attire gathered to celebrate the Reaching Our Excellence in Education (ROXIE) student productions.  The theme of the occasion was “Inspiring the Next Generation,” and I can attest that you could not walk out of that auditorium without wholeheartedly believing that the theme would be fulfilled.

Perhaps what makes this night so special has to do with the people who are honored.  These individuals included Bern Nadette Stanis, actress known for her role in “Good Times” and author; John Gibson, advisor for inclusion and multicultural outreach of the Motion Picture Association of America; Jim Watkins, WHUR-FM general manager; Denise Rolark Barnes, publisher of the Washington Informer; U.S. (Shadow) Representative for the District of Columbia Franklin Garcia; Renee Nash, WHUR-FM news and public affairs director; Ezekiel “Zeke” Dennison, Jr., third district representative for the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc.; Melissa Macaya, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists D.C. Chapter; and Reverend Tony Lee, founder and senior pastor for the Community of Hope A.M.E. Church.  In addition, a special Lifetime Legacy Award was presented to the Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.

I want to make a few observations about this portion of the program.  First, the awards were not given out all at once but were interspersed among the viewing of student films, which I thought was a nice touch.  Also, the two emcees, Mr. Joe Clair, host of the “Joe Clair Morning Show” on WPCG, and Dr. Renee Starlynn Allen, founder and chief executive officer of Star Entertainment Group, LLC, did an outstanding job of moving the agenda along at an upbeat pace, with Ms. Allen contributing the calming influence to Mr. Clair’s truly funny comedic antics.  The reaction by those receiving recognition of their careers in the service of others was uniform delight, and had the impact of providing the charter school with added credibility toward the creation, as stated by the charter’s board of director’s chairman Gregory Adams, “of endless possibilities within our school’s community, enabling our students to have the power to decide their futures with confidence.”

Guests could read detailed descriptions of the outstanding achievements of these awardees in the 45-page highly professional glossy brochure that was provided to each guest.  The booklet included declarations by U.S. House of Representative Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, At-Large Councilman and chairperson of the committee on education David Grosso, and six other members of the D.C. Council congratulating the school on reaching the milestone of its sixth annual ceremony.

There were nine student films.  Last year my wife and I had a conflict and could not attend the gala so the last time we were in attendance was in 2015. In just those two years the quality of the movies has gone up exponentially.  We were really blown away.  Immediately from the start of “Because I Love Him,” a piece about a woman who is being physically abused by her male significant other, we sat riveted before the screen.  Exceptionally moving and flawlessly written and produced was “The Perfect Child” which followed from her mother’s point of view the medical diagnosis, treatment, and recovery of her daughter, a Richard Wright student who had contracted stage four lymphoma.  She nearly died from the disease.  The young lady approached the podium at the end to speak to cheers and tears from the audience.

But I think the absolute highlight for us was the still-in-development documentary, “Reverend Jesse Jackson:  Keeping Hope Alive.  Mr. Jackson recently paid a visit to the charter and it is apparent he spent considerable time with the kids.  This segment followed Mr. Jackson as he took the pupils through his front-seat involvement in this nation’s civil rights movement, including the day he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968 when Martin Luther King was shot and killed.  Michele and I visited the hotel a year ago so the film was especially poignant to us.  Mixing news reels in with Reverend Jackson’s passionate reflections made you feel you were standing right next to him at the time.

At the conclusion of the film presentations and before Team Familiar, a high energy band that included vocals and a full horn section, entertained the audience, the founder and C.E.O. of the school and my personal hero Dr. Marco Clark addressed the guests.  But by this point there was little he had to say.  The students had already definitively shown the packed house the superlative progress in academics and character development being made by those attending Richard Wright PCS.


Cesar Chavez PCS fighting back against efforts to unionize Prep Campus

Writer Hamilton Nolan reports that the leadership at Cesar Chavez PCS’s Prep Campus is not sitting still while teachers attempt to bring in the American Federation of Teachers at the school.  According to Mr. Nolan, “Yesterday [last Monday], a letter from the school’s principal and assistant principal went out to all teachers and staff. They were informed that there will be an ‘important meeting’ today at 3:30 to discuss the union election, because ‘we are now placed in an accelerated process that has huge implications on ‘[sic]’ how we function as a school and a system.'”

The notice then goes on to explain procedures as outlined by the National Labor Relations Board regarding the election of a union and concludes with the statement, “Over the next few days, there will be a series of events and meetings in an effort to inform all stakeholders of the position of our school and engage in discussions around what this election could mean and the effect it will have on not only our scholars and staff, but our entire Chavez community.”

In my last post on this subject I asked what Chavez founder and current board member Irasema Salcido thinks of this effort.  Now the answer is clear.  According to Mr. Nolan:

“Cesar Chavez Prep’s principal and assistant principal have not responded to a request for comment. But Claudia Andrade, an English Language Arts teacher at the school, told us, ‘Given that our namesake is Cesar Chavez, we expected the Cesar Chavez PCS board would have been more receptive towards our efforts to unionize. Instead, they decided to push back by hiring a law firm and holding a mandatory meeting today. This meeting will take away valuable time that teachers could be spending with scholars in the classroom improving grades.’ And Christian Herr, a science teacher, said ‘Despite our namesake, we never really expected our board to come to the table with us without a fight… Everyone I’ve talked to today has said something along the lines of ‘bring it on.’ We’re ready, and we’ll win.’”

Interestingly, a web search on the subject of efforts to organize at Chavez PCS turned up a Washington CityPaper article from 2010 stating that the charter settled with former Capitol Hill history teacher David Krakow for $15,000 in his claim that he was terminated from the school after he tried to form a union.  The school, however, denied that the teacher was fired over the unionizing issue, with then director of human resources Terri Smyth-Riding stating in the CityPaper piece that, “We did not want to incur any further legal expense.”

A vote by teachers at the Prep campus on whether to unionize is expected at the end of this month.  Let’s sincerely hope that the staff figures out that the introduction of a union will create a gigantic barrier between the needs of the teachers and students and the ability of the school’s leadership to meet them.

Teachers at Cesar Chavez PCS misinterpret contribution of school’s namesake

While I was away studying public schools in Paris, WAMU’s Mikaela Lefrak broke the news that the teachers at Cesar Chavez Public Charter middle school’s Prep campus are preparing to vote at the end of this month on their desire to join a union.  The plan appears to be a repeat of the failed effort at Paul PCS earlier this year to form the District of Columbia Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, which would be affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers.  In the case of Paul, the AFT called off the ballot after it was clear the measure would go down in defeat.  Let’s hope the same thing happens at Chavez.

Ms. Lefrak includes in her article the rationale for the move to unionize at the charter:

“’We’re a school named after Cesar Chavez, famous for unionizing migrant workers,’ said school librarian Jennie Tomlinson. ‘We just want teachers to have a say in decision-making.’”

What Ms. Tomlinson does not understand is that once a union is brought into Chavez, teachers will have less say at the school than they currently do since every major decision will have to be negotiated with management through a collective bargaining agreement.  Gone will be the day staff can walk into the principal’s office with an idea that can be tried on the spot.

I also have to say that the analogy to the lifework of Cesar Chavez is simply false.  A recent article by WAMU’s Maureen Pao about the contributions of Mr. Chavez recalls:

“Born into a Mexican-American family of migrant farm laborers and a life of grinding poverty, Chavez dedicated his life’s work to improving conditions for the legions of farmworkers who kept fresh food on the tables across America — while they often went hungry, living and laboring in abysmal conditions and being paid unlivable wages.”

I highly doubt similar circumstances exist for the educational professionals at Chavez.

At this point, according to Ms. Lefrak, about 28 of the charter’s 35 teachers plan to cast ballots to approve the union.  I wonder what Irasema Salcido, the founder of Chavez, who grew up on a farm tilled by migrant workers, thinks about the organizing effort.  I really wish Scott Pearson, the executive director at the DC Public Charter School Board, had never suggested that a unionized charter come to our city.