Have D.C. charters cooperated with traditional schools to the point of mediocrity?

The leadership of the D.C. Public Charter School Board touts at every opportunity the collaborative relationship they have with the traditional school system.  For example, just recently a joint letter signed by Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, and Anston Wilson, Chancellor DCPS, was sent out regarding the events in Charlottesville, Virginia.  In addition, Jennifer Niles, the D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education has established a Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force.  But one has to question whether this strategy has now led to the academic achievement of these alternative schools being at the same lower level as DCPS.

There are now clear symptoms that this is exactly what has taken place.  A Washington Post editorial appearing in their newspaper yesterday touts the progress of the regular public schools without hardly mentioning charters that educate 46 percent of all school children in the nation’s capital.  No mention of the years of sweat and battles that charter leaders have endured for equal funding and the acquisition of facilities that have been a major distraction to a concentration on pedagogy.  No credit was given for schools that attracted the kids of so many parents, to the point that DCPS had lost about 30 percent of its population, that public school advocates finally woke up to the fact that something had to be done.  It was then, 10 years ago as the Post editors point out, that Adrien Fenty was elected to head the city’s government,  Mayoral control of the regular schools was instituted, Michelle Rhee was named the first Chancellor, and school modernization projects were started.

Charters did the best they could by fighting with commercial banks and landlords to lease space in their buildings, to obtain closed DCPS classrooms and renovate them at their own expense, and to put on a happy face each and every day while the traditional sector received a million dollars a year more than they did to teach children from the poorest wards in town.

So where has cooperation landed the charter sector?  We have PARCC standardized test scores at par or lower than those of DCPS, there is no solution to the funding inequity issue, and the facility acquisition problem is as intractable as it has ever been.  And the academic achievement gap?  It has grown to over 60 points.

I think its time for a new approach.

D.C. charters start new school year in most perilous environment in decades

Yesterday many D.C. charter schools began the new term along with the traditional schools.  This year marks the most difficult environment for these alternative public schools since they were first created more than 20 years ago.  Allow me to provide a snapshot of what I am seeing.

Let’s start with the release of the PARCC standardized test scores last week.  For the first time since public schools began mandated testing under No Child Left Behind, DCPS actually beat charters in academic achievement.  Readers may assume that this is due to the fact that more affluent families are moving to the District, but the regular schools bested charters in the categories of English Language Learners, economically disadvantaged, and for those students with disabilities in the subject of English Language Arts and for most of these subgroups in math.  Serving these groups of pupils was the justification for creating charter schools in the first place.

Next we had the first school vote to become part of labor union in the case of Cesar Chavez Public Charter School Prep Campus.  Some have argued that with a name like Cesar Chavez it was only inevitable that this would transpire, but how in the world a charter brings innovation and spontaneity to operations negotiated across a boardroom table beats me.   This took place only after Paul Public PCS came close to adopting the same union in the aftermath of the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board writing that the introduction of unions in D.C. charters would increase the diversity of the portfolio of schools it regulates.

By the way,  the union that Chavez joined, the American Federation of Teachers, is headed by an individual who recently equated school choice with Jim Crow laws.  The NAACP has also joined the fray calling for an end to the expansion of charters across the country. Back in the nation’s capital we have a lawsuit against the city brought by Eagle Academy PCS, Washington Latin PCS, and the D.C. Associated of Chartered Public Schools engineered by FOCUS that charges that for years DCPS has received around $100 million in revenue illegally outside of the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula.  No solution to this controversy is in site.

Charters are also being criticized by the very organizations that have strongly backed their creation.  Jeannie Allen, founder and chief executive officer of the Center for Education Reform, has accused the movement of isomorphism, which she defines as the “constraining process that forces one unit in a population to resemble the others who face similar environmental conditions.”  She asserts that charters more and more are resembling the very schools they were meant to compete against for students.  One symptom of this isomorphism to which she points is the increasingly bureaucratic nature of our own DC Public Charter School Board, a body often highlighted as doing the best job at overseeing charters in the country.

But the board has had a tough time of it lately.  It had great difficulty deciding whether the Latin American Youth Center Career Academy should be shuttered and that uncertainty led to the school losing its leased space.  It demonstrated agonizing ambiguity over the expansion plans of DC Prep, a decision which should have been as uncontroversial as the staff originally described it to the charter.

But with all of this circulating in the air above our students heads there are still some real positives out there.  For example, D.C. charters have never instructed more children. During the 2016 to 2017 term over 41,000 students attended schools in this sector, equating to 46 percent of all public school students.  This year could see us approach equity with those enrolled in DCPS.  In addition, the facility allotment was recently increased by Mayor Bowser and these dollars, together with the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula revenue, represent the highest level of support charters have ever experienced.  Finally, despite the earlier comments about standardized test scores, some schools such as DC Prep and KIPP DC are demonstrating that the academic achievement gap can be closed.  Now its time for the rest of the group to follow their fine example.


Based upon release of 2017 standardized test results, D.C.’s charter school experiment may be wilting

The Office of the State Superintendent of Education released the 2017 PARCC standardized test results yesterday and the findings were sobering.  For all students, including those attending both charter and traditional schools, those scoring in the college and career readiness categories of four and five are just 30.5 percent in reading and 26.9 percent in math.  However, to put a positive spin on the findings, the results are an improvement over last year overall and for all subgroups.  Especially noteworthy is that economically disadvantaged students in both sectors increased in proficiency rates by 5.3 percent in English and 3.8 percent in math.

But it was former DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson who pointed out yesterday on Facebook that for the first time since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2002 and since schools were required to make standardized test scores public, the traditional schools led charters in these findings.   For example, in English, charter school students in grades three through eight overall showed 29.5 percent of students at the four and five level while 32.1 percent of DCPS pupils were in this range.  A similar pattern exists in math with 30.6 percent of charter students earning fours and fives while 32.8 percent of DCPS students are in this category.  When it comes to testing in high school, charters do lead the traditional schools slightly in math but the proficiency rate is so low that its nothing to brag about.  For high school English the trend of DCPS leading charters continues.

But charters, which concentrate on teaching poor students, are better than DCPS in this category, aren’t they?  Not according to the 2017 PARCC.  For economically disadvantaged students, in reading DCPS leads charters in proficiency rates 23.7 percent to 23.5 percent. For English Language Learners, DCPS is ahead 17.7 percent compared to 13.7 percent for charters, and for students with disabilities, DCPS is ahead 6.8 percent to 5.8 percent.  Only in math are low income charter school students ahead slightly of those of DCPS but for the other two categories the traditional school students score higher.

A couple of areas where charters do outperform DCPS are the categories of At-risk students and those that are black.  For the first category, charters lead in English 18.2 percent compared to 14.1 percent proficiency for DCPS, and 17.8 percent compared to 11.9 percent in math.  For African-American students, charters scored higher, 24.4 percent to 19.9 percent in English, and in math charters have 22.5 percent of students proficient while DCPS has this statistic at 15.0 percent.

Some charters did post some extremely impressive results.  The following proficiency rates are from the DC Public Charter School Board press release:

English Language Arts

  1. BASIS DC PCS (High School) – 71%
  2. Washington Latin PCS – High School – 71%
  3. Washington Latin PCS – Middle School – 65%
  4. Latin American Montessori Bilingual PCS – 58%
  5. Washington Yu Ying PCS – 58%
  6. BASIS DC PCS (Middle School) – 57%
  7. District of Columbia International School – 55%
  8. DC Prep PCS – Edgewood Middle School – 54%


  1. BASIS DC PCS (High School) – 75%
  2. KIPP DC – Promise Academy PCS – 74%
  3. KIPP DC – Heights Academy PCS – 65%
  4. KIPP DC Spring Academy PCS – 65%
  5. KIPP DC – Lead Academy PCS – 61%
  6. DC Prep PCS – Edgewood Middle School – 57%
  7. BASIS DC PCS (Middle School) – 57%
  8. Early Childhood Academy PCS – 54%

But overall this was not a great report for D.C.’s charter school sector.

DC public schools modernization could learn from charter sector

The Washington Post’s Joe Heim reports today that DCPS’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts will re-open next week after the completion of a renovation project that is $100 million over budget and a year behind schedule.  The total cost of construction is a staggering $178.5 million.  Only 575 students attend the school.

The newspaper goes on to explain that cost overruns such as the one at Ellington are more the rule than the exception when it comes to modernization of the traditional public schools, as was documented in a 2016 study on the issue by D.C. Auditor Kathleen Patterson.  From Mr. Heim’s story, “As Ellington’s budget surged to $178.5 million, spending plans for 35 other DCPS school modernizations grew from $586 million to $1.4 billion.”

Charter schools would love access to this kind of cash.  However, when it comes to capital expenses, even though charters are public schools just like those of DCPS, they are on their own to raise the money for school renovation.  The Mayor and the city council do not provide a dime, leaving it up to the per pupil facility allotment to cover the cost.  This is true even when a charter takes over a shuttered traditional public school facility.

So here’s how it works in the nation’s capital.  A charter is approved to open.  Then it must scramble to find a building, competing for space with other businesses in D.C.’s outrageously expensive commercial real estate market.  If it is able to secure a closed DCPS building, that space has typically been decimated by years of neglect.  Then the charter must pay to fix up the classrooms at its own expense and then pay the city to rent the structure.

Charters are severely limited in the amount of money banks will loan them for this type of work.  There is nothing magical here.  A charter school receives $3,193 per student.  The average charter school has 400 pupils.  This equates to about $1.3 million a year it has to repay a bank for a construction loan.  Charters usually allocate around 100 square feet per child.  Therefore, it needs a building that is around 40,000 square foot and, according to Building Hope, typically spends $150 to $250 per square feet to renovate the space.  For example, when I was board chair of Washington Latin PCS we spent $20 million, the most we could get a bank to loan us, to renovate the former Rudolph Elementary School in Ward 4.  The gym would have to wait to be built at a later date since this was all we could afford.  Latin spent about $267 per square foot on Rudolph or roughly $33,000 per child.  When it comes to Duke Ellington, it cost the city $310,000 per pupil.

Something must be done to even the playing field between charters and the traditional schools when it comes to access to facilities and their renovation.  After 20 years of public school reform in this town, we are no closer to a solution.

New union contract for D.C. traditional school teachers is a boon for charters

The contract is retroactive to last October and includes a four percent pay increase for that year, a three percent increase for the following year, and a two percent raise for year three.  The Post points out that it amounts to a 1.3 percent bump in salary for each year from 2012 to 2019.  Most significantly, it raises the starting salary of new teachers to $56,313 a year, which the writers say is the highest teacher starting compensation in the country.  The agreement also apparently has the fastest route to earning over $100,000 and a new cap at $126,000 a year.

The additional dollars, which needs to be approved by union members and the D.C. Council, would be paid for out of the city’s surplus reserve.

The reporters indicate that because of the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula charters would get an additional $51.2 million over three years, roughly equivalent to the 46 percent share of students with DCPS getting $61.6 million.  It is encouraging to see the city comply with the law when it comes to the union agreement.  However, we still have no resolution to the FOCUS-coordinated charter school funding inequity law suit that has been going on now for three years.  As a reminder, when the legal action was taken, it was estimated that charters received over the last seven years $1,600 to $2,600 per student in less revenue compared to the regular schools.  With Mayor Bowser beginning to think about re-election this would be a fantastic moment to settle this matter once and for all.

On another subject, one of the authors of the piece on the DCPS teachers’ contract is Emma Brown.  Ms. Brown announced last week on Twitter that she will be ending her coverage of education to join the Washington Post’s investigative team. While I often strongly disagreed with Ms. Brown, especially regarding her views on private school vouchers, I have found her to be a talented and thorough writer.  Let’s hope that the Post’s educational reporting does not suffer with her transition.


D.C. charters: Don’t let yourself become another Chavez Prep PCS

Yesterday the Kojo Nnambi show on WAMU 88.5 featured Cesar Chavez Public Charter School Prep Campus science teacher Christian Herr discussing the decision by his facility to unionize.  I had the opportunity to call in to the program.

Mr. Herr did an admirable job relating his concerns for the students and parents at the middle school that led the staff to bring in the District of Columbia Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, which is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers.  He described massive teacher turnover, indicating that 11 of 36 instructors, or 31 percent, have left in just the last term.  In the five years that he has been with the charter they have had four chief executive officers, four principals and four assistant principals.  Mr. Herr explained that good teachers moved on not to change careers or relocate but to take other lateral positions in Washington, D.C.  He opined that it is impossible for teachers, scholars, and parents to get their feet on solid ground when they are essentially walking into a new school every year.  His effort to bring a union started when employees noticed a lack of transparency around the reasons certain policies and procedures were implemented.

In other words, Mr. Herr is describing many of the conditions that existed at Paul PCS when teachers at that institution were considering joining the same union.  As I’ve pointed out previously, when staff feel unappreciated and not listened to, and there is a perceived lack of transparency by superiors, the environment becomes ripe for union activity.

The charter school movement in D.C. has matured and with our growing knowledge of how to best teach under-served children must also come the strengthening of our skills around management.  Employee satisfaction and engagement have to rise to the top of our priority list.

Unfortunately for Mr. Herr, he will find that the introduction of a union will make matters worse not better.  The presence of a third party sandwiched between staff and administrators is never a good idea, especially at such a small place.  It is especially sad that this group of educators has decided to partner with the AFT whose president recently used racially insensitive language to characterize people who support school choice.  But perhaps others can learn from the experience at Cesar Chavez so that this situation will not be repeated in the future.



D.C.’s State Board of Education announces Every Student Succeeds Act Task Force members

Yesterday, the D.C. State Board of Education released the names of those whose nominations were accepted to serve on the task force overseeing implementation of the city’s plan around the Every Student Succeeds Act, the law that replaced No Child Left Behind.  The presence of pro-school choice individuals on this body is exceptionally important since the Office of the State Superintendent of Education will begin ranking both charters and traditional schools using a common grading system.  The resulting membership could not have been much better.

First of all, the task force is being headed by Dr. Lannette Woodruff, the SBOE Ward 4 Representative and wife of the chairman of the DC Public Charter School Board, Dr. Darren Woodruff.  Joining her will be my hero Donald Hense, founder and chairman of Friendship PCS.  The fact that Mr. Hense is involved will I’m sure let all charter leaders rest comfortably at night since the Friendship PCS founder is known to be direct.

Also part of this team will be Alexander Rose-Henig, Basis DC PCS dean of students; Anne Herr, the FOCUS director of quality; Deborah Williams, Inspired Teaching PCS head of school; Jacque Patterson, Rocketship D.C. PCS regional director; Julie Anne Green, executive director New Futures and previous long-time director of marketing at E.L. Haynes PCS; Ramona Edelin, executive director, D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools; Richard Pohlman, executive director Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS, and a representative from the DC Public Charter School Board.

While the charter presence is good I could not help noticing that of our ten people sitting on the Task Force, six of them are in one of ten non-voting slots.  But it really will not matter since I’m confident Mr. Hense will have us covered.  The only selection I would have included that is not on the list is someone from the think tank/advocacy world such as Mieka Wick, from CityBridge Education, or Keith Gordon of Fight for Children.

We will be monitoring the activity of this group here.  Let’s hope it makes more progress than the D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education’s Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force, although that sets the bar at an extremely low level.





It’s time for charter school supporters to ignore the NAACP and the AFT

Like so many other school choice supporters I am reading the email messages and blog posts combating the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Federation of Teachers attacks on the charter school movement.  Some are even using the assaults from these parties to fundraise for their employers.  My view is that it is time to stop giving these groups so much attention.

Fortunately for me, I follow many of D.C.’s local charters on Twitter.  The messages I’m seeing from schools such as DC Prep PCS, Friendship PCS, E.L. Haynes PCS, and Lee Montessori PCS, just to name a few, are ones of unbounded optimism.  The Flamboyan Foundaton is gearing up for another year of helping teachers engage with their student’s parents.  This week CityBridge Education is in the midst of re-imaging what classrooms of the future will resemble.

These organizations are closing the academic achievement gap, a feat that only a short time ago could not be put into words because it was so lofty a goal.  While others may wish to go back to a simpler period when kids went to their neighborhood schools; we know that many children, particularly those who are poor and those who are minorities, were not served under this structure.  We recognize that our only real hope for ending hunger and poverty is the power of public education that we are delivering with schools that make parents the customer.

People can always throw stones at those that disrupt the status quo.  But for the heroes that I meet in buildings across this town, those that spend ten or fourteen hours a day at work, that give up their weekends and holidays to build a better future for this country, there is only one way forward.  This path reignites when teachers gather for orientation and builds to a crescendo when young people with tremendous smiles on their faces arrive for the first day of school.  I will be there so that I can tell the stories of educators who are beating incredible odds.  It is frankly their unbelievable drive that keeps me going another day.