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.

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