D.C.’s charter school facility problem has reached the crisis phase

Yesterday, WTOP’s Rachel Nania chronicled the recent facility woes of Eagle Academy PCS as it tried to find a new location after being informed that its Capitol Riverfront campus would be turned into condominiums. According to Joe Smith, Eagle’s CEO/CFO:

“We tried for several years to find a location here in Ward 6, but all of that had been purchased by developers on speculation, so that even when we looked at a bare strip of land or a building we could knock down, somebody else had already bought it.”

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the impact of the facility hunt has on the quality of academics at charters. In 2018, Eagle Academy’s Capitol Riverfront campus went from Tier 1 the year before to Tier 2 on the DC Public Charter School Board’s Performance Management Framework tool. The impact was even greater on its Congress Heights location, which saw a drop from Tier 2 in 2017 to Tier 3. The amount of time and energy spent on trying to secure a permanent location cannot be underestimated.

Last week, Mr. Smith was given a one year extension for the school at its current location. But this only delays the problem for another 12 months. Ms. Nania quotes Building Hope’s Dominique Fortune as commenting about D.C.’s charter schools, “They’re not going to be able to afford to stay in the space that they’re in, but there isn’t really an alternative or any place for them to go.”

Another associate at Building Hope perfectly captures the issues now facing charters in trying to find space in Washington, D.C.’s hot commercial real estate market. Remarked Jerry Zayets, “So essentially, you need to convince someone that, ‘Hey, I’m going to put a tenant in the building that’s going to be loud, and there’s going to be noise and traffic and pickups and drop-offs. Oh, and I’m also going to pay you $12 less (per square foot) than market rent.’ That’s not a compelling argument to a commercial landlord.”

So with renting space in a commercial building out of the question, the only alternative is to set up shop in a surplus DCPS facility. But this too is not an option. Since Mayor Bowser came into office in January 2015, no former DCPS buildings have been awarded to charter schools. At least ten properties currently stand empty. Many more current DCPS classroom spaces are severely underutilized.

It looks like the anti-charter people may get what they want after all. There is now an effective moratorium on charter schools expansion in the nation’s capital for one reason only. There is no place for them to go.

Is there no one out there that can help?

WAMU joins the crowd as criticizing public school choice as antidemocratic

Last week WAMU reporter Jenny Abamu wrote a feature pointing out that all three current leaders of Washington, D.C.’s traditional public schools, Hanseul Kang, State Superintendent of Education; Paul Kihn, Deputy Mayor of Education; and Lewis Ferebee, acting DCPS Chancellor; received training at the Broad Center. The slant of the article, so you don’t have to read it, is that the Center uses a focus on business in its approach to teaching school administrators to be better leaders. The great crime of this organization, founded as Ms. Abamu pointed out by “billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad” is that it favors charter schools.

The mission of the Broad Center, as stated on its website, is as follows:

“We work toward the day when American public education has been transformed into an engine of excellence and equity — so every student graduates ready for college, careers and life.”

Sounds like a nefarious group if there ever was one. Please allow me to explain what is going on here.

For hundreds of years this country has depended on democratic systems to run our public schools. I’m referring of course to elected boards of education. The result in urban classrooms is that quality suffered. The history in the District, which began to be reversed such a short time ago with the election of Mayor Adrian Fenty in 2007, was that the regular neighborhood public schools became someplace you wouldn’t want to send your kids. They were not safe, they were not managed, there was very little education taking place, and the walls were literally crumbing around the children.

Mr. Broad is utilizing the power of school choice to bring educational improvements to cities. It necessarily involves competition for students, since under choice systems, revenue follows the pupils. This can be described as a business approach to education, but here’s the crucial little secret. We rely on competition in life to make almost everything better. In fact, I would make the case that those who argue that we should eliminate competition are schizophrenic. They are insisting on a view of reality that does not exist, and one that is completely inconsistent with the nature of mankind.

American society is really at a turning point. We can continue the whining about privatization, millionaires contributing to charter schools, school choice in general, open meeting laws, answering FOIA requests, and all of the other nonsense. Or we can lead our lives in order to make a contribution to the betterment of society by doing everything we can to support those brave men and women who are working everyday with all of their might to educate those young people who in the past were tossed to the curb. It is actually this simple.

Your decision.

In trying to save a D.C. charter school, Chavez and TenSquare become the enemy

Two themes emerged at last night’s monthly meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board that focused on whether Cesar Chavez PCS for Public Policy should be allowed to close its Prep and Capitol Hill campuses. The first is that the bromide that has been accepted by the public school reform movement, namely that charters are public schools that are privately run, could not be further from the truth.

Yesterday, as in January’s charter board meeting, DC ACTS, the union associated with the American Federation of Teachers, was out in full-force with teacher after teacher, again wearing their red shirts embossed with the union logo, testifying against the consolidation plan. If charters were privately run, then the Chavez board could have made the decision on its own to shutter campuses and it would have been a done deal. Instead, hours were taken up by testimony by the union, complete with claims that Chavez and TenSquare, the company hired by the school to turnaround its academic performance, were “monetizing its assets.” It was simply a financial decision, the unionized Prep campus instructors asserted, meant to line the pockets of the board and the consulting group. Never mind the significant improvements in Performance Management Framework scores that Chavez has posted since it partnered with this firm.

Now it is actually the finances that provide the final proof that these alternative schools are not privately run. As pointed out by Andre Bhatia, co-chair of the Chavez Board, the school in 2010 consolidated its debt around the renovation of two schools and the purchase of the Parkside campus into $27.2 million in bonds. The bond payments come to $2.45 million per year. In order to cover this cost the Chavez network needed to grow to 1,500 students. However, currently, there are only 930 students enrolled in the network. The Prep and Capitol Hill campuses have been losing students for years, and the total number will decrease by 130 when Parkside Middle finally closes.

In 2017, according to Bethany Little, also a co-chair of the Chavez board, when the DC PCSB was pondering the decision as whether to shutter Parkside Middle due to poor academic performance, the school warned at least five times that this move would place severe financial pressure on the charter which would most likely result in reconfiguration of its campuses. The situation that Chavez finds itself in now is that it can merge its Capitol Hill High with Parkside and turn out the lights at Prep with the displacement of 133 sixth and seventh grade students, or become insolvent with the result that almost a thousand pupils would have to find new schools in which to enroll.

Of course, if the school’s board could make unilateral decisions, Parkside Middle would still be signing up new pupils. Just as with Excel Academy PCS, City Arts and Prep PCS, and National Collegiate Academy PCHS, the ruling to end operation came from a public governmental body, the DC PCSB, and not from boards that are free to operate without outside interference. We really have to reject the claim that charter schools are privately run at every opportunity.

My second takeaway from the session is that labor unions have really fallen out of favor in this country, and that this is a positive sign. On Monday, Mrs. Irasema Salcido, the founder, first principal, and current board member of Chavez, read a prepared statement and spent more time than any of the school representatives explaining and defending the strategic initiative that was the subject of the evening’s conversation. This is quite a turnaround in her viewpoint, since I remember Mrs. Salcido’s background as I listened to her detail it numerous times to others when I was involved with this school. She was raised by her grandmother in Mexico, and when she was 14 years old she came to this country to join her parents, speaking no English. She picked strawberries in the fields from sunup to sundown with other migrant workers, eventually obtaining a Master’s Degree from Harvard University. Her experience led her to name her charter school after Cesar Chavez, the farm worker union organizer. But here she was for all to see exerting that the singular viable path forward involved closing the only unionized D.C. charter. As an aside, I should mention that since becoming a part of DC ACTS almost two years ago, a collective bargaining agreement has never been finalized with the Prep staff. Unions have no place in an educational movement that depends on being able to make minute-by-minute operational adjustments to meet the needs of scholars.

The charter board will vote at its March meeting whether to approve the Chavez proposal.

Revised D.C. charter board transparency policy missing open meeting and FOIA requirements

The DC Public Charter School Board has released its revised school transparency policy ahead of tonight’s monthly meeting, and absent are two highly controversial provisions that many have insisted need to be included. While the document does add additional requirements for information that schools must include on their websites, such as the salaries of the five top earning officials if they make over one hundred thousand a year, there is no rule that charters must adhere to open meeting laws or have to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests. This is going to make a lot of people angry.

The proposed policy does include this language around informing the public regarding the ability to participate in individual charter school board meetings:

“While DC PCSB does not prescribe a particular open meetings policy, schools will be required to develop a policy pertaining to board meeting accessibility. This policy shall include the number of open meetings the school plans to hold per year.”

Regarding the call for charters to be required to fulfill Freedom of Information Act requests, the board rejected this suggestion. It commented:

“DC PCSB does not support this largely because staff burden in answering FOIA requests may impede on schools’ academic programs. As an independent government agency, DC PCSB is subject to FOIA, which means that the public may access all documents submitted to DC PCSB by schools. Items that are often requested from DC PCSB via FOIA have been added to the policy and will be posted on school websites (e.g. school budgets, board meeting nibutes). “

The board is exactly following my recommendations on these topics.

The supporting documentation for tonight’s session states that during the PCSB’s January meeting ten people testified in favor of having schools comply with open meeting laws and nine added their support for charters having to answer FOIA submissions.

Expect fireworks to fly later today as the board is also considering the move by Cesar Chavez PCS to close a middle and high school campus.

Washington Post editors have gone silent on public school reform

I was reading a story in the Washington Post this morning by Moriah Balingit regarding how legislators in West Virginia gave in to the local teachers’ union after a half day strike, and removed legislation that would have created charter schools and education savings accounts for special education students. State Senate president Mitch Carmichael, according to Ms. Balingit, had this to say about the cowardly representatives:

“Comprehensive education reform that will improve student performance, provide parental choice and empower teachers is coming — because parents, taxpayers, and job providers want our broken public education system fixed now.” 

West Virginia led the country a year ago by having the first strike by teachers for higher wages and benefits. This was followed by similar actions in other localities, most recently in Los Angeles. In many of these battles charter schools are cast as the villain even though all these institutions are doing is providing a quality education to those children who are currently not receiving one.

But if you followed the Washington Post editorial page commentary you would know extremely little about the lies being spread by unions across the nation about these alternative schools. This is too bad, since the Post used to one of the greatest proponents of educational freedom. Consider this 2008 piece in support of the Opportunity Scholarship Program:

“A minefield awaits Mr. Fenty as he prepares to testify tomorrow before a House appropriations subcommittee. President Bush’s budget includes an unprecedented $74 million to bolster education in the District, dividing the money along three pathways. Public schools would get a big chunk to undertake such initiatives as teacher ‘pay for performance’ and leadership training for principals. There would be money to replicate high-performing charter schools. And $18 million would go to the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides grants for low-income children to attend private schools; it is this third purpose that’s expected to come under scrutiny, if not attack. A Republican-controlled Congress barely approved the program in 2004, and the Democrats who now rule the House are sworn enemies of vouchers. It doesn’t help that District Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) has been a fierce opponent.

We would hope that Congress would recognize certain truths. First, that the time for a rhetorical debate about this program has passed. There are 1,900 children enrolled — quite happily — in the program. What’s at stake is not a political point of honor but the opportunity for children to go to schools that work for them. Second, it’s a program that is supported by District leaders and embraced by their constituents. A measure of its popularity is how demand for the scholarships outstrips capacity. It’s encouraging that the House subcommittee on financial services and general government, which will hold the hearing, is chaired by Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.), a true believer in the importance of home rule.

Of all the arguments against vouchers, the most pernicious is that they hurt public schools. Never mind that D.C. public schools benefit financially from the funding formula. Public schools failed long before vouchers were even conceived of, and no less an authority than D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee dismisses that argument out of hand. As she told the Wall Street Journal, ‘I would never, as long as I am in this role, do anything to limit another parent’s ability to make a choice for their child. Ever.’ Let’s hope Congress feels that same compunction.”

We desperately need some of this bravery today. There are currently so many challenges facing our local charter movement, such as the lack of facilities and inequitable funding compared to the traditional schools, in which we could really use their help. D.C.’s charters, that are successfully closing the academic achievement gap for the first time in the history of public education and that are keeping kids out of prison and alive, are being criticized almost daily regarding the need to comply with FOIA requests and opening up board meetings to the public. But these arguments, along with the comments that charters are public schools that are privately run controlled by the dollars of millionaires, are perfectly identical to those that were offered when private school vouchers were first introduced. They are being foisted upon us for one reason only; to protect the status quo so that unions can maintain control over the public school bureaucracy.

It is time for editors of the Washington Post to point out the false statements by those against school choice, and to shine a bright light on the singular motivation behind their claims.

Basis DC PCS should become a private school

News came over the weekend from the Washington Post’s Perry Stein regarding Basis DC PCS and it was not the good kind. From her story:

” One of the District’s highest-performing charter schools is under federal investigation amid allegations it more harshly disciplines African American students.”

The probe comes as a result of an incident last May, as reported by Ms. Stein, in which the school went on lock-down for over an hour after two black special needs seventh grade students were heard discussing shooting after school. The pupils were talking about playing basketball, but a teacher at the charter reported the issue to the police due to a fear that these kids were about to do something violent. The children were then interviewed by the police without their parents present.

One of these parents, Yumica Thompson, together with assistance from the Advocates for Justice and Education, has now brought a complaint to the United States Education Department regarding inequitable discipline of black students at Basis DC PCS.

Ms. Stein includes some highly disturbing statistics in her article about the Education Department inquiry:

“At BASIS DC, 13 percent of black students and 2 percent of white students received out-of-school suspensions, according to city data. Ten percent of Hispanic students received out-of-school suspensions. Five percent of black students and 4 percent of Hispanic students received in-school suspensions, compared with 2 percent of white students.”

I did some other demographic research about Basis using data from the DC Public Charter School Board. Across the charter sector, black enrollment is at approximately 75 percent while at Basis DC High School it is 36.6 percent. In charters in the nation’s capital white attendance is at about five percent while at the Basis High School this statistic is at 39.1 percent. Economically disadvantaged pupils make up 22.1 percent of the student population at Basis while for charters as a whole this number is over 70 percent. English Language Learners comprise approximately eight percent of charter student bodies while at Basis this statistic is at two percent. Finally, Basis High School has a special education enrollment of four and a half percent, while charters see about 12 percent of students requiring Individualized Education Plans.

In other words, Basis has been able to shape its student body in a manner that would increase the probability that its student would be able to meet the demands of the school’s rigorous academic curriculum. The Department of Education review will inform us as to whether one way that it achieved this goal was through discriminatory disciplinary actions.

However, the information presented here is not new. The misalignment of this charter’s population with the rest of the movement has been known for some time and was predicted here when the school applied to open in D.C. For example, below is what DC PCSB member Steve Bumbaugh stated when Basis sought to expand by opening an elementary school in 2016:

“He revealed that for the last three weeks he had been studying the student enrollment data at the charter and he frankly found the numbers to be ‘concerning.’  For example, he discovered that across the charter sector in D.C. 79 percent of students are economically disadvantaged but at Basis this number is 17 percent.  Again, he observed, overall for charters 15 percent of pupils are classified as Special Education and at Basis this number is less than five percent.  Moreover, at Basis less than 10 percent of kids are found to be At Risk while for charters that statistic is 51 percent.  Finally, Mr. Bumbaugh explained that charters are characterized by  student populations that include 7 percent English Language Learners while at Basis this percentile is zero.”

The question is what comes next?

For example, will the DC Public Charter School continue to support Basis as a means of lifting the average academic performance of the sector as a whole? Or will it take the moral course and encourage Basis to incorporate as a private school?

Here is one innovative approach to solve this issue. Basis could become private and then demonstrate for all to see its determined commitment to educating kids living in poverty by accepting a majority of its student body through the Opportunity Scholarship Program.

I guess I can still dream.

D.C. charter school movement is suffering from the “sanction of the victim”

The concept was coined by philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand in her book “Atlas Shrugged.” It stands for “the willingness of the good to suffer at the hands of the evil, to accept the role of sacrificial victim for the ‘sin’ of creating values. ” Yesterday, after yet another article appeared describing the wilting of positive opinion regarding these alternative learning institutions, I realized that the term accurately describes what is now taking place regarding the reality of charter schools in the nation’s capital.

For if you were to ask community members for their take on charters most certainly they would mention a few characteristics. First, they would say that they are of uneven academic quality; some are good and others are bad. Second, people would state that it is almost impossible to get your child into one of the most desirable schools. Lastly, you would almost certainly hear the view that these are public institutions that are privately run.

The first two of these statements are certainly valid. However, look at the environment charter schools have had to operate in since they were first created by Congress over twenty years ago. Charter schools still cannot find facilities to house them. I don’t know how many readers have had the experience of serving on a charter board, but the fight to identify a location can become all encompassing. It is a tremendous time and energy drain that sucks the oxygen out of important priorities such as academics. We have put up with this situation for so long that it has become normal. Yet, it prevents us from being as high quality as we can be. As Ms. Rand described it, for the privilege of creating innovative schools for those children who are the most difficult to teach, we are being punished with the withholding of available buildings. This has gone on far too long and must immediately stop.

Besides having to search for a place to live, charters receive significantly less funding than the traditional schools. There is a FOCUS engineered lawsuit going through the courts, but who is knocking on the Mayor’s door demanding that this be fixed? Are we afraid to upset her? Is this the track record we want when fifty years from now we look back on charters as another failed educational fad? I can think of no better time than today to march down to the Wilson Building and demand to meet with Ms. Bowser on this issue.

One major impact of the shortage of facilities and unequal revenue is a curtailment of growth of the sector as a whole. Thousand-student wait-lists are not uncommon. But when leaders are asked what they are doing to resolve this issue as well as the others, they look away. Not part of the job we are told. Someone else will have to pick up the mantle.

So we go to work each day with the understanding that we say charter schools are public schools but knowing just under the surface that in our hearts we may not even believe this statement. This is because we have accepted the bromide that they are privately run. So let me try and get this right. Charter schools are nonprofits governed by volunteer boards of trustees that are made up of neighbors living among us. The body is responsible to the DC Public Charter School Board, a government entity whose members are nominated by the Mayor and approved by the City Council.

Without a complete rejection of playing the victim role I’m afraid nothing will change regarding the state of charters in Washington, D.C. In fact, I’m extremely disappointed to say, it will only get worse.

Washington Post writers warned of high D.C. charter school administrator salaries in 2015

Last Tuesday, former DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson reminded us through Facebook that almost exactly three years ago the Washington Post’s Emma Brown and Michael Allison Chandler called out certain local charter school leaders for salaries that exceeded hers while she was in office although they oversaw a much smaller population of students.

The article included this observation by Carrie Irwin, co-founder and chief executive officer of Charter Board Partners:

“Carrie Irvin . . . an organization that works to strengthen charter school boards, said that in her experience, many boards aren’t doing a good job evaluating and compensating leaders according to their ability to meet concrete goals, including student achievement goals.

‘We’re talking about allocating taxpayer money to hire and retain a leader who can ensure that kids are getting a great education, and that’s a really big decision,’ Irvin said. “That’s why it’s so important to have strong boards.’”

The piece talked about Friendship PCS’s board of directors setting its pay for then CEO Donald Hense through a compensation committee, a perfectly appropriate manner for setting his salary. When I was at Washington Latin PCS, the board looked at market rates when deciding the salary of its head of school.

Ms. Brown and Chandler go on to comment:

“Competition for strong leaders and the size of schools are two of many factors that drive decisions about executive compensation at charter schools, according to charter school board members. Boards also survey executive compensation at other charter school networks around the country or other local nonprofit groups for comparison.”

All of this seems like the right way to go. It is when schools operate outside of these parameters that they can get in trouble when salary decisions around senior leadership become public knowledge.

Individuals involved with charter schools in the nation’s capital love to talk about the wide areas of responsibility that they as part of their jobs that includes finances, personnel, curriculum, academic results, student and staff recruitment, and real estate. These people should be paid fairly for the work that they do which also includes extremely long hours behind their desks.

As D.C. Council education committee chairman David Grosso stated in the Post article, almost all charter schools reimburse their administrators appropriately for what they do. It is the outliers that I worry about concerning the future of our movement.

D.C. charters are losing the public relations battle

Of course, I’m not stating anything we don’t already know. The confluence of news reports about excessive administrative salaries, students scrambling to find new schools in the face of multiple charter revocations by the DC Public Charter School Board and other voluntary closures, and the charge of a lack of transparency have combined to place these institutions serving almost half of all public school students in a negative light. As I’ve written recently, the current atmosphere is feeding those who want to see charters eradicated from the face of the earth and who faithfully support our country’s declining labor unions.

However depressing the situation seems at the moment, there is a way out. After having lengthy conversations with three prominent members of our local charter school movement yesterday I believe the way forward is clear.

First, we need to support open meetings of our local charter school boards. This is a common sense approach which treats the families of our students with dignity and respect. The great majority of the business that takes place before these boards is mundane in nature, and having visitors offers the opportunity to showcase the great work being done at our schools.

Next, we need to oppose the call for individual schools to have to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests. Charters have exceedingly small administrative staffs and, as Rick Cruz, the chair of the PCSB, pointed out in my recent conversation with him, they need to focus on things like “academics, safety, finances, facilities, personnel, and meeting their specific goals.” In addition, FOIA actually applies to federal government entities, which charter schools are not.  D.C. has its own Freedom of Information Act law which does not cover charter school boards.  However, the PCSB is required to respond to those seeking information under FOIA and it has a treasure trove of information that it gathers from the schools it oversees.

Moreover, as I also wrote about the other day, decisions made at the school level need to looked at under a microscope as if they will be the next trending topic on Twitter. This is something that is an inherent part of the job of receiving and spending public funds.

Then we should celebrate all of the accomplishments of this exciting sector. We should proudly talk about how we are closing the academic achievement gap in public education for the first time in our nation’s history. We should remind citizens of the absolute train-wreck that DCPS was before charters starting offering an alternative way to deliver education. We must point to the improvements in the traditional schools that would never have occurred without our presence. We should provide a list of students that without our lifeline would have ended up in jail or dead. Finally, we should exclaim that we are doing all of this with our hands tied behind our backs due to the struggle to secure permanent facilities and the fact that we receive about $100 million less in funding each year than the regular schools.

Finally, we need to talk about the unique charter bargain around quality. We need to remind our community that DCPS has never, and will not ever, close a school due to academic results. We believe with every cell in our bodies in the equation of autonomy with accountability. After all isn’t autonomy with accountability what life is all about? Let’s use the experience of charter schools to teach this crucial lesson to our children.

The D.C. charter board should make its schools adhere to the open meeting law

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein has an article published today questioning whether charter schools in the nation’s capital should increase their transparency by operating under open meeting laws and being subject to Freedom of Information Act requests.

The answer to the first part of this equation is simple. I agree that individual charter board meetings should be open to the public. When I was board chair at Washington Latin PCS and the William E. Doar, Jr. Public Charter School for the Performing Arts, parents would sometimes ask when they were allowed to attend our monthly meetings of the trustees. I would reply that these sessions were open to the public. Only rarely did someone other than a board member come, but my response diffused a situation that creates tension with parents when it appears that decisions are being made in secret. At Latin, we also published board meeting minutes on the school’s website.

The part about complying with FOIA requests is more difficult, simply because charters often do not have the administrative resources to be able to satisfy the inquiries. I would consider a proposal in which the DC Public Charter School Board assists schools in providing information, meeting certain criteria.

Scott Pearson stated in Ms. Stein’s article that the PCSB is always trying to increase the transparency of the sector, and I believe that is true. Currently, online visitors to the board’s dcpcsb.org can view school budgets, 990 forms, audits, and financial analysis of schools’ balance sheets.

Ms. Stein also included the opinion about this subject of Todd Ziebarth, the National Alliance for Public Charter School’s senior vice president for state advocacy. He “said the District is an anomaly and in most jurisdictions, the public can attend charter school board meetings — and request records from individual schools. “

Mr. Pearson remarked to the Post reporter that a revised version of the board’s proposed transparency policy will be presented at its February 25th meeting. This will be the same night that the consolidation of Cesar Chavez PCS’s campuses will be discussed. Should be an extremely interesting evening.