D.C.’s charter school movement needs to look at itself in the mirror

On Monday Mayor Muriel Bowser, Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles, DC Public Charter School Board member Rick Cruz, DC Public Charter School Board executive director Scott Pearson, and school representatives celebrated charters in the nation’s capital that have been ranked at Tier 1 on the 2016 to 2017 Performance Management Framework.  The affair was held at the swanky W Hotel, you know the one with the rope line used to queue people up to the rooftop bar overlooking the White House.  Apparently there were smiles and congratulatory pats on the back all around.

But across town it was a very different story.  News has come out recently courtesy of WAMU and NPR that the one hundred percent 2017 graduation rate reported at DCPS’s Ballou High School was a sham. From the piece by Kate McGee:

“An investigation by WAMU and NPR has found that Ballou High School’s administration graduated dozens of students despite high rates of unexcused absences. WAMU and NPR reviewed hundreds of pages of Ballou’s attendance records, class rosters and emails after a DCPS employee shared the private documents. The documents showed that half of the graduates missed more than three months of school last year, unexcused. One in five students was absent more than present — missing more than 90 days of school. . . Another internal email obtained by WAMU and NPR from April shows that two months before graduation, only 57 students were on track to graduate, with dozens of students missing graduation requirements, community service requirements or failing classes needed to graduate.”

We do not know how many of the 164 seniors really should have been held back.  This is because the administration of the school apparently pressured teachers to pass students who should have failed courses.  The previously highly regarded Ballou principal Yetunde Reeves has now been reassigned.

Yes, while the 51 school leaders were gathered around sipping coffee and receiving trophies, I’m confident not one word was spoken about our collective avoidance of even talking about the situation at Ballou.  Not one of these public charter schools or the 23 that already operate in Ward 8 where Ballou is located, or the leadership of the DC PCSB, has even hinted that they would like to help these kids that have been abandoned.  Is it because of who they are or where they live?

The charter gathering comes on the heels of news that the United Medical Center board of directors has decided that it will not re-open its maternity ward that was shuttered not too long ago by  the D.C. Department of Health.  This leaves women living in Wards 7 and 8 without a hospital where they can give birth.  In the report by the Washington Post’s Peter Jamison, D.C. Councilman Vincent Gray reacted this way to the decision:

“D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), chairman of the council’s health committee, said the board’s action ‘sends a powerfully negative message’ to the poor and predominantly African American residents of Southeast Washington.

‘It says that in terms of the allocation and equity of services, the people on the East End of the city are seen as not sufficiently worthy to have available to them one of the most important services a population can have.'”

So what message does the charter sector’s ignoring of the situation at Ballou sent to these same members of our community?   It’s just tough luck, not our problem, not our kids.

This is not why charters were created in D.C.

A private school scholarship for every child living in D.C.? That’s what Senator Cruz and Representative Meadows want

The Washington Post’s Moriah Balingit revealed on Thursday that Senator Ted Cruz and Representative Mark Meadow have introduced a bill in the United States Congress called the Educational Freedom Accounts Act that would offer a private school scholarship to any child residing in the District of Columbia.  Currently, D.C. has America’s only federally funded private school voucher plan, the Opportunity Scholarship Program, but it is limited to those families living in poverty.  About 1,100 pupils currently participate in the OSP.  This legislation would permit any student in grades Kindergarten through 12 to take advantage of a private school scholarship, and depending upon family income, it would provide 80 to 90 percent of the money allocated annually to teach kids through the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula.  The dollars would be deposited in individual educational savings accounts.

The timing of this news comes as an interesting coincidence.  Yesterday was the sixth anniversary of the passing away from brain cancer of Joseph E. Robert, Jr.  When he was alive Mr. Robert created the Washington Scholarship Fund that awarded private school tuition for low-income children.  When the federal voucher program was enacted the same organization became the administrator.  He was a steadfast fighter for the continuation of the OSP, even in the face of eight years of effort by the Obama administration to shut it down.  Fortunately, with Serving Our Children now running the OSP, it is expected to at least triple in size.

The only problem I can see with the bill is the proposed funding level.  Ms. Balingit points out in her article that today’s per student funding is equal to about $9,500 a year.  Therefore, a middle class family with a child in the sixth grade, for example, would receive 80 percent of this amount which equals $7,500; lower than the $8,653 currently paid under the OSP.  Moreover, the existing OSP scholarship levels are already too low considering the high cost of many private schools in D.C.

But the introduction of this act is still exceedingly good news.  After more than 20 years of aggressive public school reform in the nation’s capital, student proficiency rates for reading and math stand at a dismal thirty percent.  For people living in poverty those numbers are in the 20s.  I have been making the case for a supercharging of school choice in this town to get us out of this rut.  Thankfully, Senator Cruz and Congressman Meadows have answered my call.

 

Ballou High School principal reassigned

On Monday, the Washington Post’s Perry Stein revealed that the principal of DCPS’s Ballou High School, Yetunde Reeves, has been reassigned to another position outside of that facility in the aftermath of a WAMU and National Public Radio report about possible fraud around the handing out of diplomas.  When the story first broke last week, Chancellor Antwan Wilson said he stood by Ms. Reeves and that she should keep her job.  No information has been provided as to the reason Mr. Wilson quickly changed his mind.  There are at least three investigations now in progress regarding whether the school’s administration pressured teachers to pass students who should have failed classes.  Research by WAMU and NPR found, among other irregularities, that fifty percent of pupils were allowed to graduate in 2016 even after being absent for more than three months of the term.

But my reason for writing is not to rehash the problems at Ballou.  I’m interested in the fact that, without any public input, a major change in leadership was made at the school right in the midst of severe controversy.  I’m focused on this action because of my long-term involvement with charter schools.

For years I’ve heard the criticism that charters are privately run with public funding.  In her fine article about D.C. charters that appeared recently in the City Paper, writer Rachel Cohen repeats the bromide.  She writes:

“Charter schools are private entities authorized to provide public education, free of many rules and regulations that apply to traditional public schools. In D.C. all charters are nonprofits, though they can hire for-profit companies to run their schools.”

I think we need to stop saying things like the statement above.  Charter schools are public schools.  They have to accept all students that come to them.  If they are over-enrolled they need conduct a lottery to see who gets in.  They cannot have admission requirements and it is against the law for them to discriminate regarding enrollment, including the fact that a student may have a disability.

It is true, as Ms. Cohen states, that charters are nonprofits.  As 501(c)(3)’s they are governed by boards of directors that provide this service on a volunteer basis.  These individuals are responsible for the school’s performance. They are generally members of the community.  Of course, here in the nation’s capital, charter schools are ultimately accountable to the DC Public Charter School Board.

I would argue that the public has more control over a charter school than a traditional one.  If a parent has a complaint about something at a DCPS facility, how easy do think it is to reach Mr. Wilson?  I bet it’s practically impossible.  But if a parent has a problem with a charter, he or she can go right to the board chair.  During my years in this role I fielded many such concerns.  In fact, one of the roles of the DCPCSB has been to ensure that these issues are addressed.

Charter school parents also vote with their feet.  If they don’t like what’s going on at the school they can take their kids, and the substantial money associated with teaching their children, and enroll at another facility.  DCPS parents also have the power in our city to move their child but because these are neighborhood schools, there may not be another school located in close proximity to their homes.

The transfer of principal Reeves is highly instructional.  When it comes to oversight of our city’s schools they are both in fact public.  

 

As predicted, the unionization of Cesar Chavez Prep PCS is not going well

Last Friday, Liana Loewus of Education Week reported that on the day her story appeared the teaching staff of Cesar Chavez Public Charter School Prep Campus took to the streets during their lunch break with signs protesting  the administration’s failure to negotiate with them as is required now that they are part of a union.  Apparently, the school’s leadership has continued to make changes without including them as part of a collective bargaining agreement.

Ms. Loewus quotes Christian Herr, a science instructor who led the initiative to bring in the American Federation of Teachers affiliated union, reacting to the situation:

“By law after our vote, any changes to our working conditions have to be negotiated with us. Our board continues to make significant changes—adding job duties without additional compensation, things like that—without bargaining with us.”

The school’s principal Kourtney Miller disagreed with this assessment in an email:

“These are entirely their accusations, they haven’t been validated by the NLRB, and we disagree with their complaints.”

As author and philosopher Ayn Rand would state, in this situation both sides are acting perfectly consistent with their nature.  Charter schools are successful by moving with dexterity to rapidly adapt to fluctuating conditions so that they can provide the absolute best education possible for their students.  Unions, alternatively, fail when it comes to adapting to change quickly, instead institutionalizing modifications to work rules through a legal agreement.

This is exactly the reason that unions and charter schools should not be mentioned in the same sentence.  Because each side is operating according to their inherent nature, the environment will never improve.  As could have been easily anticipated, the Chavez union has filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board.

Since the reality over there will eternally not get much better, the Chavez board of directors should take a step emulating hero Howard Roark in Ms. Rand’s novel The Fountainhead and shutter the facility.  Now.