Mayoral control of D.C.’s traditional public schools is in deep trouble

D.C. education observers thought the news could not possibly get any worse.  A National Public Radio and WAMU investigation found that at-risk students attending the city’s traditional schools received high school diplomas despite being absent from class for significant periods of time while recording passing grades for courses they should have failed.  The graduations came as a result of pressure from administrators on teachers to socially promote these kids.  It was discovered that these problems had previously been revealed to Chancellor Antwan Wilson who took no action until the report became public.

Then the once highly respected Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles, founder of the high performing E.L. Haynes PCS, was forced to resign after it was found that she colluded with the Chancellor to have one of his children transferred from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts to Woodrow Wilson High School without having to participate in the school lottery.  The discretionary enrollment violated a new rule preventing this type of action by the head of DCPS, a policy that Mr. Wilson created and signed.  The school to which his daughter was moved has a waiting list of over 600 students.  The Chancellor was asked to leave his post last week.

Yesterday, a new bombshell broke.  City officials looking into the student body at Duke Ellington have found that more than half of the pupils live outside the District of Columbia, with their parents or guardians falsifying their permanent addresses to show they reside in the city so they don’t have to pay the $12,000 a year tuition to attend the school.  Now here’s the part that makes me sick.  The Washington Post article by Peter Jamison, Valerie Strauss, and Perry Stein includes the following accusation:

“That finding was shared in December at a meeting attended by representatives from the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education — which was managing the investigation — and the office of the D.C. attorney general, the officials said.

Shortly after that, a lawyer in the state superintendent’s office told those handling the case in that office to slow-track it because of the risk of negative publicity during a mayoral election year, said the officials with knowledge of the probe. It is unclear how far the investigation has progressed since then.”

So now we have the third and final position comprising Mayoral control of the regular public schools, the State Superintendent of Education, shoulder deep in scandal.   At a news conference yesterday Ms. Hanseul Kang, the State Superintendent, and Mayor Bowser denied that anyone had been asked to delay the review.  But even if this is true, why didn’t anyone know about these findings for almost three months?

Following the resignation of the Chancellor I questioned whether Mayoral control of the traditional public school should continue, a viewpoint that upset the editors of the Washington Post.  I wrote:

“We need to replicate the success that the charter sector has had on the regular school side.  Perhaps there needs to be a DC Public School Board composed of volunteers named by the mayor.  The board would then open and close neighborhood schools based upon a charting system mirrored on the PCSB.  The timing could not be better, as the Office of the State Superintendent of Education is rolling out a five-star rating system for all public schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act.  Schools scoring lower than at least a three could be shuttered.  I’m not sure if this new organization is the answer. Maybe all schools should simply report to the charter board. But I do know that with so much power in the hands of the Mayor, priorities become one person’s prerogative. When it comes to the future of our children, I’m afraid we need something more.”

Now I’m especially convinced that those responsible for our public schools, the DCPS Chancellor and the State Superintendent of Education, need to be independent positions that act as a check and balance to the power of the Mayor, similar to our three branches of government established under the U.S. Constitution.  Perhaps these individuals should report to a non-partisan organization in the model of the DC Public Charter School Board.  Whatever the final structure looks like, inaction is no longer an option.

Rick Cruz elected chair DC Public Charter School Board

At last night’s monthly meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board, Rick Cruz was named the new chairman, replacing Dr. Darren Woodruff.  Traditionally, the vice-chairman has transitioned into the chair position when the current leader’s term is up, but in this case that role was being played by Don Soifer, who is now employed out of state as the president of Nevada Action for School Options.  Saba Bireda was elected as vice-chair.  It will be interesting to see how Mr. Cruz handles matters regarding Prep PCS in his new post, and whether he recuses himself when issues concerning the charter come before the board.  Remember that for a little over a year Mr. Cruz was the CEO of the school with the intent of replacing Emily Lawson, but that arrangement did not work out.  In the recent past as a member of the board, Mr. Cruz has weighed in on decisions regarding DC Prep.

The other extremely interesting aspect of yesterday’s session was not on the official agenda.  When the floor was opened for public statements at the beginning and end, a string of disgruntled parents and teachers came forward to relate negative situations occurring at City Arts and Prep PCS.  Remember that City Arts is the renamed William E. Doar, Jr. Public Charter School for the Performing Arts, of which I was a founding board member and chair.  The school has been going through a turnaround of late, for a time working with Ten Square Consulting and Charter Board Partners to attempt to raise its academic performance.  Look for more fallout from the clearly unstable environment over there.

One other aspect of the proceedings caught my attention.  Usually a section of these gatherings which I don’t follow closely is the PMF policy and technical guide updates.  But prior to opening up for comment the standards for the current school year, the board’s staff made a startling discovery.  From the meeting’s supporting documentation:

“In September 2017, the Board approved the 2017-18 PMF Guide per DC PCSB staff recommendation.  At the time, DC PCSB staff simulated the recommended changes using data from school year 2015-16 (the most recent data available at the time). We projected the PK-8 campuses would lose an average of 0.7 PMF points. Since then, we simulated the approved changes using the newly available school year 2016-17 data. We now project that PK-8 campuses would lose an average of 1.9 PMF points.  Additionally, we determined that some schools would lose as many as 7.7 PMF points, while others would gain as many as 2.2 points.  Appendix B shows the impact analysis for every school based on 2016-17 data with the previously approved floors and targets.  While DC PCSB staff recommend adjustments to the PMF Guide almost annually, we have not recommended changes that result in such dramatic performance shifts.  The Framework is most valuable when it has stability, allowing stakeholders to rely on its outputs over multiple school years.  On January 18, 2018, DC PCSB staff met with the PK-8 task force to share our findings and discuss proposals. An overwhelming majority (87.5%) of schools approved our proposal to revert to the 2016-17 PARCC weights, floors and targets, and to hold the School Environment floors and targets steady for one more year.”

Since the failure of the board to revert back to the 2016-17 PARCC weights, floors, and targets could have a tremendous impact on PMF scoring, schools may want to weigh-in on this proposal.  Comments will be accepted until March 19, 2018.

In other actions, a visibly irritated PSCB deputy director Naomi Rubin DeVeaux read into the record a letter received from Excel Academy PCS announcing its decision to become part of DCPS.  In addition, Latin American Montessori Bilingual PCS (LAMB) received a renewal for another 15 years, but not before Dr. Woodruff read a prepared statement detailing that despite the exemplary academic results at the school, parents of children enrolled at the facility have expressed severe frustration over leadership changes, a perceived lack of communication, and the situation involving the teacher sentenced a year ago to eight years in prison for sexually abusing six students at the charter.  There was much discussion between the board and school representatives over these issues.

Finally, Maya Angelou PCS was up for its 20-year review, and was granted permission to continue operating under a long list of conditions.  I have been following the history of this alternative education charter for years and the up-and-down trajectory of its standing with the PCSB continued last evening unabated.




Exclusive interview with Dr. Darren Woodruff, chairman DC Public Charter School Board

Note on the interview:  My meeting with Dr. Woodruff took place shortly before the resignations of the D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles and DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson, and a few days prior to Excel Academy PCS announcing that it would become part of DCPS next school year.

I had the privilege of sitting down recently for an conversation with Dr. Darren Woodruff, chairman of the DC Public Charter School Board.  I have interviewed Dr. Woodruff a couple of times in the past, and sadly, this will be the last one as PCSB chair since his term is ending in the spring.  He has been on the board for the last nine years.  I began by asking Dr. Woodruff for his viewpoint on the situation at Ballou High School.   He had clearly already formed an opinion.

“I think the problems at Ballou are not unique to that school,” the PCSB chairman informed me.  “It is important to me that we not throw the teachers, administrators, and most of all the students under the bus.  I view what took place at Ballou regarding high student absenteeism, and the pressure placed on teachers to graduate these kids, as an opportunity.  If the Mayor, D.C. Council, DCPS Chancellor, and other public education stakeholders take this seriously then we have a chance to improve the situation.  We know we are dealing with an extremely challenging environment with these kids.  We need to figure out a way to support them.  The question is what as a city are we going to do about it.  We should not be talking about these issues two years from now.”

I pointed out to Dr. Woodruff that the same consultants who investigated Ballou on behalf of the Office of the State Superintendent of Education also looked at D.C.’s charter schools and did not find the same pattern of irregularities around high school graduations.  I asked him for the reason behind this finding.  “I think we are not seeing these things,” the PCSB chairman opined, “because we have an established a consistent metric for school quality in the Performance Management Framework.  Our sector has persistently and unapologetically focused on quality.  In addition, the PCSB has had consistent leadership.  We look at school transcripts.  I sign all high school diplomas.  We have an infrastructure in place to monitor student academic progress.  The PCSB executive director Scott Pearson and his staff continue to search for ways to further evaluate the advancement of our charter school pupils.  At the same time, I have to give credit to our school leaders that adhere to high standards.”

A controversial topic that came up recently in our local charter movement was the placement of John Goldman, the PCSB’s senior manager, finance, analysis and strategy, on administrative leave after it was discovered that he had written material associated with discriminatory views of the Alt-Right.  I wanted to know from Dr. Woodruff if a final decision had been made about his continued employment.  “I’m not exactly sure where we are with this to be frank,” Dr. Woodruff revealed. “ I know that we are in the middle of an investigation.”

I then requested from Dr. Woodruff to understand his overall impression of how charters are doing at this point in their 22-year history.  “Overall, very well,” Dr. Woodruff commented without hesitation. “We now have 51 Tier 1 schools as ranked on the PMF.  With the exception of Ward 3, we have a variety of quality campuses in each of the city’s wards.  Fully 40 percent of our schools are Tier 1.  We have waiting lists at most of our schools.  There are exciting schools opening in the fall.  I contend that we should be celebrating how far we have come.  Families are now at least considering sending their children to charter schools when this was not the case not all that long ago, and we want to see them get even better.  I’ve been exceedingly privileged and blessed to see the improvements in our portfolio of schools.  We must remember that there is no finish line.  We can continually raise our performance.”

The charter board voted last month to close Excel Academy PCS at the conclusion of this school year.  I had heard from some Excel teachers at this year’s FOCUS Charter School Conference that KIPP DC PCS and Friendship PCS were vying to take over the charter.  I asked Dr. Woodruff if he had the same understanding.  The PCSB chair asserted, “I hope someone does continue its operation.  We don’t want to scatter more than 600 students to the wind.  We hope a strong school will take it over, especially since this is an all-girls school.  It is up to the Excel board, not us, as to the organization that would eventually lead the school.”

During the discussion about the future of Excel, that school and Somerset PCS made the case that the PMF is biased against charters that teach a large percentage of at-risk students.  I wanted to know from Dr. Woodruff if he agreed with this assessment.  He responded immediately.  “No, I don’t believe that there is a bias.  Every year our staff does a validity check to determine whether the tool is predisposed against any group, whether it is at-risk kids, African-Americans, boys, or girls.  We have not found a significant correlation that this is occurring.  But based upon the recent testimony by those schools we will take another look.”

Dr. Woodruff continued, “There are charters in Wards 7 and 8 that as part of their heroic missions are taking in the most difficult to educate children.  We should be rewarding these schools with special recognition.  It is an exceptionally difficult population to teach.  These pupils are different from those in Ward 1, for example.  We should highlight the work of places like KIPP DC PCS, Friendship PCS, DC Prep, and other schools whose strategies are working with these children.  We can dive deeper and see how they are doing it, and then hopefully share that information with other charters.”

Next, I brought up a couple of points that attorney Stephen Marcus had addressed in my interview with him.  First, he alerted me to the fact that schools are required by the PCSB to earn a PMF score of at least 45 percent at the 10 year mark of operation and 50 percent at 15 years of teaching.  He related that the PCSB puts pressure on schools to adopt the PMF as their goals, and then eventually raises its floors.  The attorney contends that this action is equivalent to the charter board setting charter school goals which is a violation of the School Reform Act.  I asked Dr. Woodruff to react to these assertions.  “There is nothing particularly magical about a score of 45 or 50,” Dr. Woodruff explained.  “What we want to see is that there is improvement.  We did not establish the expectation that a school would score a 65 percent at a particular period in time which is at the Tier 1 level.  We give schools flexibility to earn Tier 2 but we don’t believe schools should be Tier 3 after being open for 10 or 15 years.  As to Mr. Marcus’s point about the floors, yes, they have gone up, but so has the academic track record of our charters.  It is like grading on a curve.  If all schools had recorded lower performance levels, then the floors would be lowered.  I don’t want to apologize for our increased expectations for student learning.  We want to see all schools do their best for the children they serve.”

The last topic I wanted to raise with the charter board chair was his vote last year against the expansion plans of D.C Prep because of its higher than average student suspension rates.  The board’s initial decision on this matter to not approve the charter amendments caused much controversy as people accused the PCSB of exceeding its authority under the SRA.   I asked Dr. Woodruff to react to the above statement, and that is exactly what he did in a highly emotional manner.  “Here’s the thing,” Dr. Woodruff said.  “I respect the SRA as much as anyone else.  As I mentioned earlier, the board’s primary focus is school quality.  My interest in raising school quality is the reason I joined this board.  What we have found is that school discipline is not being administered uniformly.  Consider these statistics.  During the 2016-to-2017 school year 17 pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade charter schools had zero suspensions.  40 pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade LEA’s suspended less than 10 percent of their pupils.  67 pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade charters, or 60 percent, saw less than 10 percent of their kids suspended.

The average suspension rate is about 9 percent.  Therefore, here’s what we did as a board.  We took the nine percent figure and tripled it, considering that any school that had a suspension rate three times the average was an outlier.  Schools such as D.C. Prep PCS, Democracy Prep PCS, KIPP DC PCS, Monument Academy PCS, National Collegiate Preparatory PCS, Paul PCS, and Seed PCS are in this category.  11 campuses were outliers that represents only 7 charter school LEA’s.  Moreover, it is not that these suspension rates are leading these schools to become Tier 1 institutions because several are Tier 2 or Tier 3 schools.  I’m personally concerned about these schools and the impact of suspensions on their students.”

Dr. Woodruff had much more to say on this topic.  “The vast majority of our schools, such as Kingsman Academy PCS, Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom PCS, and DC International PCS, are doing an amazing job in this area.  But the ones that are outside the norm are suspending African American students and students with disabilities.  What I’m concerned about is exclusionary discipline on kids that are already at-risk.  I believe strongly that we should fix this problem internally.  We have tools such as the Equity Reports, and conferences on topics such as restorative justice to help us in this area.  But we desperately need to do more.  I’m baffled by the push back on this subject.  In addition, while I admire Councilman David Grosso’s leadership on this topic, I do not believe legislation is the way to fix it.  I would love to see schools come up with their own solutions.  I feel like we have a board that understands the nuances of this area and can help move the issue forward.”


Now what? Structural changes needed atop D.C.’s traditional schools

The Chancellor and Deputy Mayor for Education are gone, and in the Chancellor’s case he lasted only a year in his position.  It appears that pressure to increase high school graduation rates exerted on school leaders by the person who preceded Mr. Wilson resulted in kids receiving diplomas who did not attend class and who were given passing grades in classes they should have failed.  Mayor Bowser could simply name new individuals to fill these spots but we really cannot go through anything like this again.  It is simply not fair to our kids.

Today, the editors of the Washington Post assert that pointing the blame on Mayoral control of the traditional public schools is the wrong place to look:

“Such thinking is shortsighted. The school system that exists today is a far cry from the sorry state of affairs a decade ago when schools didn’t open on time, teachers went unpaid, expectations for students were low and parents fled the system. The seriousness of the problems related to inflated graduation rates can’t be discounted, but that does not negate what has been accomplished under school reform. In addition to building a prekindergarten system, rigor has been added to the curriculum, new instructional strategies have been introduced and the teaching force has been transformed into a performance-based profession. Enrollment is up, and test scores, including on the highly regarded ‘nation’s report card,’ show improvements in student achievement.”

Yes, the neighborhood schools are in much better shape than when they reported to the D.C. Board of Education.  But in reality what choice was there?  Charter schools were enrolling students from the regular schools in waves.  In fact, it was not until DCPS lost over 25 percent of its population that Michele Rhee entered the picture to try and turn things around.  If something were not done the neighborhood schools would be a ghost town.

Much more drastic improvements are still needed.  The achievement gap, now at about 60 points, is growing, not shrinking, after 20 years of school reform.  At least a dozen, and in reality many more, school buildings sit vacant that could be going to charter schools.  Many DCPS facilities are significantly under-enrolled.  Charters are receiving about $100 million a year less than the regular schools illegally outside of the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula.  Low performing neighborhood schools are allowed to continue operating in perpetuity, while charters that demonstrate poor academic results are closed.

We need to replicate the success that the charter sector has had on the regular school side.  Perhaps there needs to be a DC Public School Board composed of volunteers named by the mayor.  The board would then open and close neighborhood schools based upon a charting system mirrored on the PCSB.  The timing could not be better, as the Office of the State Superintendent of Education is rolling out a five-star rating system for all public schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act.  Schools scoring lower than at least a three could be shuttered.

I’m not sure if this new organization is the answer.  Maybe all schools should simply report to the charter board.  But I do know that with so much power in the hands of the Mayor, priorities become one person’s prerogative.  When it comes to the future of our children, I’m afraid we need something more.


D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education forced to resign; calls into question Mayoral control of traditional public schools

Last Friday the astonishing news broke that DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson skirted the city’s public school lottery to have one of his children enrolled at Woodrow Wilson High School where there is a wait list.  In transferring his daughter in this manner away from the Duke Ellington School for the Arts and bypassing Dunbar, his neighborhood high school, Mr. Wilson violated the new policy that prevents D.C. Chancellors from making discretionary placements.

The individual responsible for creating and approving this policy was Chancellor Wilson.

In his apology for his action, which the Mayor forced him to do and that has now been removed from the DCPS website and Twitter, Mr Wilson stated that “my decision was wrong and I take full responsibility for my mistake.”  But in reality, he has taken no responsibility at all for his behavior, instead throwing Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles so far under the bus that Mayor Bowser forced her to resign her position.  Apparently, as soon as Mr. Wilson’s action was discovered, he explained that he had his wife work with Ms. Niles to make the change.  The Mayor then dismissed Ms. Niles because she should have known it was against the rules.  The student is no longer attending Wilson.

All of this is so sad.  Ms. Bowser has explained on numerous occasions over the years that when she approached Ms. Niles about becoming her Deputy Mayor for Education she was turned down.  The Mayor has bragged that it took four requests before Ms. Niles changed her mind.  The reality is that Ms. Niles should have stayed at E.L. Haynes PCS, the high performing charter that she founded, and not had her fine reputation and integrity caught up with someone who needs an Office of Integrity to tell him that students who cannot read, write, or perform basic math should not graduate from high school.

The entire incident now calls into question the turning over of the traditional public schools to Mayoral control.  Michelle Rhee was fortunate that she resigned because citizens were ready to run her mean-spirited persona out of town.  Kaya Henderson was the reform-minded Rhee with a pleasant demeanor, and she was extremely well respected until it was determined that it was under her reign that there were discretionary placements for politically well-positioned friends which led to the development of the current policy Mr. Wilson ignored.   It was also while she was in office that high school students received diplomas who rarely came to class.  Now we have the Wilson mess.

Alternatively, pundits are pointing to the academic progress that students have made as a plea not to go back to the old days when the Board of Education was running the show.  However, and it really pains me to say this, I’m starting to have doubts about the validity of these results.

If the Mayor want to keep her schools she better move fast.  Mr. Wilson and anyone associated with the recent scandals need to go as quickly as possible.   Then Ms. Bowser needs to bring in someone who has a proven track record who the public can trust.  Someone like Jennie Niles.







Excel PCS to remain open; abdicate status as a charter school

News came yesterday about the future of Excel Academy PCS, and it was not the announcement that was expected.  The charter, whose operation beyond the 10 year mark was rejected by the DC Public Charter School Board last month, will remain open beyond this summer but will do so under the authority of DCPS.  It will continue to be an all-girls school.

I will remind you of the charter board’s assessment of the school’s academic progress which was made in November of last year:

“Excel PCS is a single campus local education agency (LEA), serving grades prekindergarten-3 (PK3) through eight, that adopted the Performance Management Framework (PMF) as its goals and academic achievement expectations.  Pursuant to the school’s Charter and Charter Agreement, Excel PCS has not met its goals.  Per its charter and charter agreement, the school committed to achieving an average PMF score of 45% for the past five years of operation. Excel Academy PCS’ average score is 41.4%, and it only exceeded a score of 45% in school year (SY) 2012-13, the first year of this five-year review. The school’s 2016-17 result, 36.7%, is the school’s lowest score yet, and reflects a downward trend, making the improvement provision in its charter agreement inapplicable to assessment of its goals. While the PMF number is an average, the low score reflects overall low academic achievement and school climate. Math results have been consistently poor – both absolute results as well as year-to-year student growth. English language arts (ELA) results have been higher than math, but are on the decline, with student growth now below the state average in ELA as well. Reading and math growth for grades K through two, as measured by NWEA MAP, has been below 50 for the past four years. Both attendance and re-enrollment rates have also been below DC averages in every year of the review period.  Separate and apart from the determination of the school’s goal and academic achievement expectation attainment, DC PCSB staff has determined that the school has not committed a material violation of law or of its charter, has adhered to generally accepted accounting principles, has not engaged in a pattern of fiscal mismanagement, and is economically viable. Based on these findings, DC PCSB staff recommends that the DC PCSB Board vote to initiate revocation proceedings of the school’s charter, with a final date of operation on June 30, 2018.”

Once the board voted to close Excel, the word on the street was that two high performing charter school networks, KIPP DC PCS and Friendship PCS, were interested in taking over the school.  This information was confirmed to me by teachers from Excel at the 2018 FOCUS Charter School Conference, and again just this week by Dr. Darren Woodruff, chairman of the DC PCSB.  Whenever there is a decision to revoke a school’s charter, it is the hope that the facility would come under the auspices of schools that have a solid track record of producing strong academic results.  Unfortunately, in this case, this is not the path that the charter decided to pursue.

It frankly saddens me that the Excel students of Ward 8 will not longer be held to the high accountability standards of the DC PSCB.

The move by Excel is not unprecedented.  In 2014, Hospitality High School joined DCPS after it decided to relinquish its charter in the face of low academic performance.  At the end of 2015 it was closed and its students dispersed to one of three traditional schools.

Now we will watch as students, parents, and educators, who were used to functioning under the framework of a charter, make the transition to a traditional school system.






President Trump proposes to end D.C. college scholarship program

News broke like wildfire yesterday that President Trump’s most recent fiscal 2019 federal budget submission includes in it the elimination of DCTAG.  Here’s a description of the scholarship plan by the Washington Post’s Danielle Douglas-Gabriel:

“Through the tuition program, tens of thousands of students have received $350 million to enroll at 578 colleges. Students can receive as much as $10,000 a year to attend public universities outside the city, or up to $2,500 to enroll in a private college in the D.C. metro area or at any historically black college or university across the nation.

The grants are available to all District students — except high-income families — but student advocates say the money makes the biggest difference for low-income residents. The annual family income cap has shifted in recent years; it once was $1 million but, in more recent years, has stood between $750,000 and $777,000.”

DCTAG was the brainchild of Northern Virginia Congressman Tom Davis, who believed that there were not enough high quality options for state colleges for children living in the District.  My wife and I helped Mr. David become elected to Congress in 1994, running his campaign in Reston.  The program costs the American taxpayer $40 million a year.  The Trump Administration, according to the Post’s article, made the proposal “because of a lack of a clear federal role for supporting the cost of higher education specifically for District residents.”  Ms. Danielle Douglas-Gabriel states that 26,000 students have taken advantage of the scholarships.

A school choice advocate close to the Administration explained to me yesterday that DCTAG is in no jeopardy of being shutdown.  He points to the words of U.S. Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, again from the Post article:

“Norton said in a statement that the two-year budget deal reached last week preempts the White House budget, rendering it ‘dead on arrival.’ The District’s only representative in Congress said she wants to assure D.C. parents and students that she does not believe they are in danger of losing funding for the tuition assistance program.”

Interestingly, even the CATO Institute’s director of educational freedom Neal McCluskey finds the move strange. “It strikes me as an odd candidate to target for elimination,” he comments to the Post.  “Surely there are targets far more ripe for elimination.”

Mayor Bowser was incensed.  She wrote on Twitter: “#DidYouKnow that the college education of thousands of DC students is at risk? President Trump has completely eliminated the DC Tuition Assistance Grant program in his 2019 budget proposal. Urge Congress to reject Trump’s proposal. #SaveDCTAG today:

A petition has been started to protect the program which has been signed by D.C. Council education committee chair David Grosso, and he has encouraged others to follow his lead.  My question is why is the Councilmember so upset about DCTAG when he fought so strongly against Congressional renewal of the Opportunity Scholarship Program?




Trajectory of D.C.’s traditional schools is heading south; charters rising

Last week, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education released the audited student enrollment for the 2017 to 2018 school year and the news for DCPS complimented its recent accumulation of negative press.  The total number of pupils going to neighborhood schools dropped by about 0.9 percent from 48,555 to 48,144.  The last time that DCPS actually experienced a decrease in enrollment from the previous fall was the 2011 to 2012 term.

Charter schools, alternatively, continued to demonstrate a strong improvement in demand.  The number of students in this sector rose by 4.3 percent compared to a year ago, going from 41, 506 to 43,393.  The figure means that another percentage point has been added to the symbolically important market share statistic, with charters now teaching 47 percent of all students attending public schools in the nation’s capital.

Overall in the city the total number of those attending all public schools grew by 1.6 percent compared to the 2016 to 2017 school year.

But there was also groundbreaking news coming out of the DCPS Central Office.  In the wake of the controversy swirling about high school seniors being given diplomas who never should have graduated, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation joining the investigation, the Chancellor has taken the bold move to create, and I’m not making this up, an Office of Integrity to handle concerns or questions by teachers about the system.  The new Chief Integrity Officer (CIO) named to head the OOI is Dr. Arthur Fields.  Mr. Fields was DCPS’s Senior Deputy Chief of School Culture in which he was “responsible for ensuring that schools have the necessary supports to provide a safe and supportive learning environment for students.”  But I have to ask.  What supportive learning environment did Mr. Fields offer to the cheated kids of Ballou, Anacostia, and other high schools when they were deliberately socially promoted?

Sorry, one more question.  Isn’t integrity supposed to everyone’s job in DCPS, including the Chancellor’s?

Over at the charters the picture is much different.  We recently witnessed the DC Public Charter School Board voting to shutter Excel Academy PCS, as well as agreeing to close Cesar Chavez PCS’s Parkside middle school campus, and Seed PCS’s middle school.  In addition, the long-term future of Achievement Prep PCS is unpredictable.

Herein lies the most significant difference to our children, families, and community between charters and traditional schools.  Charters are held strictly accountable for their performance.  When they don’t meet established goals they are closed.

However, the regular schools, no matter the quality, just get to keep on going.








Testimony of Michael Musante, FOCUS senior director of government relations, at the Committee on Education for the Student Fair Access to School Act of 2017

One note about Mr. Musante’s testimony.  If you watch the hearing you will almost certainly notice the tension between Chairman Grosso and those who oppose this legislation.  At one point the councilmember cuts off the testimony of a physics teacher from Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS.  Mr. Musante, in his remarks, is calling attention to the manner in which the hearing was organized and the way in which those who disagreed with Mr. Grosso were treated.  

Good afternoon, Chairman Grosso, and members of the Committee on Education. My name is Michael Musante and I am the Senior Director of Government Relations at FOCUS.  FOCUS supports the diverse set of public charter schools in DC by advocating for and supporting school autonomy, equity, and quality.  Thank you for the opportunity to testify today.

The legislation being discussed today has been itself an opportunity, an opportunity to have the complicated conversation about how to ensure that schools are safe and that discipline is fair. This committee has missed an opportunity, however, in how you engineered today’s 90-person witness list.  Almost to an individual, the educators who welcome DC students into their school buildings every day, teach DC students in their classes, counsel DC students, coach them and otherwise guide them are last on your list. And almost to a person, those educators—in charter schools and in DCPS schools—oppose this legislation.

Instead, for a conversation supposedly about equity and fairness, you have inequitably devoted this committee’s prime time and attention to speakers who don’t stand in front of DC students every day.  It is clear that the voices you value most are out-of-town academics, and self-promoting authors.

DC’s school leaders and principals care deeply about this issue, and at least two dozen of them signed up to speak today.  Some can’t be here this evening because they’re preparing to be back at school tomorrow.

They would be offended to hear an earlier witness say that anyone taking issue with this legislation is prioritizing adult needs.  They would be offended to hear the suggestion that their schools are not spending UPSFF increases (Five years of COLA increases for which we fought tooth and nail) to cover additional supports.  And they would be offended that you chose to beam in witnesses from California, Illinois and Ohio today before hearing from school leaders and teachers in your own city.

The intention behind this legislation is noble–we know that students who are in school consistently have more positive life outcomes than those who are habitually absent or suspended. However, bans that tie educators’ hands will not improve student outcomes.

Further, the bill conflicts with the School Reform Act.  The SRA grants public charter schools in the district exclusive control over their expenditures, administration, personnel, and instructional methods, which includes discipline policies and procedures. That aside, the legislation, as proposed, will not ensure uniform data collection across LEAs, may have unintended consequences on school climate and culture, and fails to provide appropriate resources to equip schools to meet the needs of students who need the most support.

Quality data collection and transparency both leverages changes in school behavior and enables good policy decision-making.  While the current version of the bill moves us forward in uniformly defining suspension and expulsion, it does nothing to improve the quality of data related to actual student behaviors.  Working with schools to create a uniform set of infractions will enable more accurate comparisons of school responses to student behavior.  School use of exclusionary discipline in both sectors has been on a steady decline despite this lack of comparability.  State equity reports, introduced in the-13 school year, provided the first uniform glimpse into school use of exclusionary discipline across subgroups.  Imagine how much more impactful this data reporting could be if it compared use of discipline across infractions and was interactive and sortable by school?  Collecting, disaggregating, and sharing data in this way would turbocharge the trend we started six years ago.  We encourage the Committee to consider improving data definitions, collection, and reporting before implementing any policy changes that limit schools’ available responses to student behavior.

While the body of research is clear there is a correlation between exclusionary discipline and other negative student outcomes, the impact on school culture and climate is unclear.  School leaders have the difficult reality of balancing what is good for each individual student with what is good for all students and their schools as a whole.  In My School DC’s recent analysis of reasons for mid-year transfers, student safety ranked just behind transportation challenges as the reason that a family was seeking a new school for their child.  Limiting school leader autonomy and flexibility in maintaining the delicate balance of high behavioral expectations, victim safety and well-being, and compassionate, therapeutic responses to students who exhibit troublesome behaviors is short-sighted and may ultimately result in a degradation of the very school culture and climate we wish to improve.

Our students and schools need resources not restrictions.  When speaking with school leaders, our organization has heard over and over again many feel ill-equipped to meet the needs of students experiencing the highest level of trauma.  Consider Camden City schools–in their high schools, they were able to cut suspensions by nearly 75% in one year. What did that take on the resource side? An additional four FTEs per school–one coordinator for school culture and climate, and three mental and behavioral health technicians working directly with students.  We are asking our leaders in the city do to the same thing without the guarantee of the appropriate resources to manage student behavior in the building.  Schools need funding for training in practices like PBIS and restorative justice. Schools need funding for additional mental and behavioral health professionals.  Schools need support from city agencies (CFSA,DBH, DYRS) in coordinating services for the students who are most traumatized and marginalized. Schools need additional staff and physical space to work with students whose behavior may be unmanageable in a classroom setting. Before we drop the hammer of banning suspensions–let’s listen to school leaders and ensure that students have access to the robust wrap-around services they need and that those services are coordinated seamlessly between schools, community-based organizations, and the city government.

Again, I think this Committee missed an opportunity today. We invite you to seek out the voices you may not hear from:  school leaders, teachers, students, and those who advocate on their behalf to ensure that this legislation improves data collection and reporting, allows leaders maximum flexibility in making decisions, and ensures schools are adequately resourced to serve their students.

Exclusive interview with Stephen Marcus, Attorney at Law

Recently, I had the honor of catching up with Stephen Marcus to discuss his legal representation of many of D.C.’s charter schools and other issues.  We began with a discussion regarding the charter school funding inequity lawsuit against the city.

Mr. Marcus reminded me that last October a District Court judge granted summary judgment against the plaintiffs, Washington Latin PCS, Eagle Academy PCS, and the DC Association of Public Chartered Schools, thereby dismissing the case.  The decison has been appealed and Mr. Marcus stated that the parties are waiting for the D.C. Circuit Court to approve a proposed briefing schedule.  I asked the attorney about the arguments the charters are making in the lawsuit.

“There are three main issues,” Mr. Marcus explained: “First, we believe U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan ruled incorrectly that under the D.C. School Reform Act that the District of Columbia can ignore uniform funding requirements in funding DCPS.  The School Reform Act makes clear that all operating expenses for D.C. public schools, DCPS and public charter schools, must be funded exclusively through the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula.”

Secondly, Mr. Marcus said “we regard the District’s use of projected enrollment to calculate the annual payment to DCPS, rather than the actual enrollment numbers used for charter schools, to be a violation of the School Reform Act.”

The third issue relates to the Supremacy Clause and the Home Rule Act.  “We contend that both the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution and the Home Rule Act prohibit D.C. from legislating or acting in conflict with the School Reform Act.”  Mr. Marcus made an interesting point about D.C.’s Home Rule Law.  “In passing this law, Congress did not want to have to decide which of the laws it enacted exclusively for the District should be revised or repealed.  So it decided that the D.C. Council could amend or repeal only those laws passed by Congress prior to the Home Rule Act.  Statues such as the School Reform Act, which were enacted after the Home Rule Act, cannot be repealed by the Council.  We believe that the District is therefore not authorized to amend or legislate in conflict with congressional post-Home Rule statutes such as the School Reform Act, which it has tried to do.”

I related to Mr. Marcus that I understood the finance stipulations under the School Reform Act, but couldn’t the Mayor or City Council still provide supplemental revenue to its own school system?  Mr. Marcus responded quickly.  “Yes, they can, but then the District must provide an equal amount on a per-student basis to charter schools.  Congress intended equal funding between DCPS and charter schools.  To achieve that goal, the SRA requires that the District establish a funding formula based on an objective determination of what it costs to educate a student and multiply that amount by the number of students attending DCPS or a charter school. Supplemental funding to DCPS without providing equal funding to charter schools defeats Congressional intent.”

FOCUS, the charter advocacy group that is coordinating the funding lawsuit, has estimated that between the years 2008 to 2015, DCPS has received $1,600 to $2,600 per student every year more than charter schools.  I inquired of Mr. Marcus if there have been attempts to resolve the funding equity issue outside of the courts.  “There were discussions,” Mr. Marcus stated.  “In fact, as part of the lawsuit, mediation was ordered.  However, the District continues to affirm that it has the right to provide additional funding to DCPS without having to provide the same funding to the charter sector.  In this case, they successfully persuaded the judge of their position.”

I have known Mr. Marcus for over a decade.  He was the lawyer that in 2004 negotiated the lease of the permanent facility for the William E. Doar, Jr. Public Charter School for the Performing Arts (now named City Arts and Prep PCS) when I was its board chair.  Moreover, when charters go before the DC Public Charter School Board on important matters, it is not uncommon to see Mr. Marcus in attendance as their legal counsel.  I wanted to understand from Mr. Marcus how he came to have charter schools as clients.

“WEDJ was the first charter school I represented,” Mr. Marcus informed me.  “I had been on the board of the Jewish Primary Day School.  In that role, I became involved in helping the school find a new facility after it was forced to vacate its existing facility. We were eventually successful in finding a school building.  I negotiated the purchase of the building and then a lease of the building back to the school that sold it to us so that it could remain in the building for the rest of the school year. This experience gave me invaluable technical expertise as well as a deep commitment to helping schools at risk of closure survive.”

Mr. Marcus continued, “I knew someone professionally who was on the WEDJ board, who recommended me to represent WEDJ in lease negotiations.  After the lease was signed, I continued to represent WEDJ.  Because of these efforts, Jerry Levine, a D.C. lawyer, recommended me to Josh Kern, who was then the executive director of Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS and was working on the securing of his school’s permanent facility.  Josh retained me to negotiate several leases, including a ground lease with the District.  Josh also introduced me to Robert Cane at FOCUS.  My colleague Sherry Ingram and I began advising FOCUS on charter school autonomy issues.   We have now been working with FOCUS for ten years.”

Mr. Marcus’s practice now includes helping charter schools on a wide range of issues such as charter application, compliance, charter review and renewal, and other matters up to revocation, closure and takeover.  He sees many of these efforts revolving around the interpretation of the School Reform Act.  A significant number of his interactions, naturally, are with the DC Public Charter School Board.  I asked him how he views the board.

“I have a lot of respect for them,” Mr. Marcus answered.  “I’ve come before them with schools such as IDEA PCS, the Latin American Youth Center Career Academy, Achievement Prep PCS, and Excel Academy PCS.  I see an extremely dedicated board of volunteers who spend many hours trying to get it right.  While I may not always agree with the board’s decisions, their level of attention and willingness to spend time to understand the facts is astonishing.  For example, with LAYC, the PCSB board and staff worked very hard to come up with an alternative to closure.  I believe they have tremendous integrity and are always trying to do what they think is best for the kids.”

I wanted to know from the attorney if he saw any weaknesses in their efforts.  This took him a little longer to answer but eventually he did have some exceptionally interesting comment to make.  “I thoroughly agree with the board’s emphasis on quality, but the drive to create metrics has pushed them to pressure schools to adopt the Performance Management Framework as their charter goal.  This is especially true when schools come up for their 5, 10, or 15 year reviews.  Schools used to have mission-specific goals, but these are difficult to benchmark.  But after a school adopts the PMF, the floors and ceilings of the PMF’s performance indicators increase over time.  The notion that a charter school’s goals can be changed unilaterally by the PCSB is contrary to the School Reform Act.”

“I have a couple of other concerns,” Mr. Marcus added.  “An internal PCSB study demonstrated there is a strong statistical bias that reduces PMF scores for charters that have a high percentage of at-risk students.  In addition, under the PCSB’s own rules, in order to continue operating, schools must earn an average score of at least 45 percent on the PMF at their 10-year review and 50 percent when they reach the 15-year mark.  But I am not aware of any studies that demonstrate a correlation between a 50 percent on the PMF and being a good school.”  I asked Mr. Marcus how he thinks these concerns should be addressed.  “What I would really like to see is an open and honest discussion about PMF bias with respect to at-risk students, the use of the PMF as a charter goal, and the lack of research that directly links a PMF score with quality.  This is my hope.”

Mr. Marcus concluded, “I think it is important that a school have legal representation when it goes before the PCSB, especially when high stakes decisions are going to be made.  The law imposes limits on PCSB’s authority through the SRA, administrative law, and PCSB’s own policies that constrain PCSB’s actions and discretion.”