Washington Latin PCS approved to replicate, but only after D.C. charter board pulls another LEARN DC

Last Monday evening, the D.C. Public Charter School Board gave the green light to Washington Latin PCS opening a new campus next term. There had been rumors that the vote was going to go the other way, and two directors, Steve Bumbaugh and Naomi Shelton, the Title 1 contingent of the PCSB, cast ballots against the expansion in a five-to-two ballot. However, the rest of the group was swayed by staff conditions placed on the replication that make a mockery of the term autonomy. See for yourself:

1) The school will actively consider admitting students in grades 10, 11, and 12, engaging its faculty, board, parents, and students in the decision. The school will report the results of this decision to DC PCSB by March 1, 2020.

2) The school will not permit its sibling preference to be used across its two campuses. This change will be memorialized in the school’s charter agreement as follows: If the school chooses to adopt a sibling preference, such preference shall not apply to siblings attending different campuses of the school.

3) The school will update its student discipline policy, reserving out-of-school suspensions for only the most serious situations. An updated draft of the policy, which will include these modifications, will be voted on by the school’s board at its August 2019 meeting to go into effect for the 2019-20 school year.

4) The school will ensure that each faculty member whose job responsibilities include interfacing with students at least 25% of the time will participate in comprehensive training in trauma-informed practices during the 2019-20 school year.

5) The school will add stops or provide separate vans/buses for students living in Wards 5 and 7 whose families request such service, provided there are a minimum of five such students. No fee will be charged to families whose children qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

6) The school will implement the plans outlined in its letter to DC PCSB from June 7, 2019, found at Attachment C, including: a. Targeted recruitment of lower-income students, b. Redesign and test at-risk support strategies, c. Strengthen the RTI (Response to Intervention) Model, d. Hire an At-Risk program manager, and e. Expand the reach of restorative discipline and trauma-informed initiatives.

7) The school will be eligible for charter renewal in school year 2020-21. If the school’s charter is renewed, it will need to negotiate a new charter agreement with DC PCSB. Provided the charter is renewed, should the DC PCSB Board determine, at the time of the renewal decision, that the school has failed to make satisfactory progress in addressing disproportionality in the use of exclusionary discipline, the number of at-risk students served, and/or the performance of historically underperforming subgroups, the new charter agreement shall contain a mission-specific goal or goals to hold the school accountable in the remaining areas of concern.

This is what you do to a open-enrollment public charter school that has been ranked at Tier 1 on the Performance Management Framework for almost its entirety and that serves one of the most, if not the most, diverse student bodies in the city? Absolutely amazing. It is extremely similar to the chains placed around LEARN DC PCS so that it could win the privilege to open in our city.

Now let’s turn to other matters covered the other evening that were far more interesting. First, the session started with an announcement by Chair Rick Cruz that a new board member had been sworn in earlier that day to the PCSB. His name is James Sandman and he has some incredibly impressive credentials. Since 2011, Mr. Sandman has been the president of the Legal Services Corporation, a nonprofit providing legal assistance across the country to low-income individuals. But there is much more to this man. According to the organization’s website:

“He practiced law with Arnold & Porter LLP for 30 years and served as the firm’s managing partner for a decade. He is a past president of the 100,000-member District of Columbia Bar and a former general counsel for the District of Columbia Public Schools.

Sandman is chairman of the boards of the Meyer Foundation and the D.C. Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. He is a member of the District of Columbia Access to Justice Commission, the District of Columbia Bar Pro Bono Committee, the American Law Institute, the Advisory Council of the American Bar Association’s Center for Innovation, and the Pro Bono Institute’s Law Firm Pro Bono Project Advisory Committee. He is a member of the boards of Washington Performing Arts, the College of Saint Rose, Albany Law School, Tahirih Justice Center, and the University of Pennsylvania Law Center on the Future of the Profession.”

This is only a small portion of Mr. Sandman’s biography.

At the start of the gathering Don Soifer and Naomi Rubin DeVeaux received Distinguished Service Awards. It was pointed out that Mr. Soifer held various positions on the charter board for 11 years and in that time never missed a meeting. Ms. DeVeaux was recognized for her work to completely overhaul the manner in which charters are evaluated. Although many accolades were sprinkled on both of these fine individuals by those on the dias, I think they missed the essence of their contributions.

Mr. Soifer demonstrated throughout his tenure how to perfectly play the role of a board member. His fair and detailed questions led schools to reach their own conclusions as to the proper path that they should take for future success. Ms. DeVeaux is about as authentic as it comes. Her comments and response to inquiries were honest, direct, and heartfelt toward the children we are serving.

A highlight for me was hearing public testimony from Alexandra Pardo from TenSquare Consulting. Anytime Ms. Pardo speaks it is a moment to stop what you are doing and pay attention and this occasion was no exception. She addressed the at-risk student bias of the PMF, a subject that has been raised with increasing frequency to the PCSB. Here are her remarks:

“First, I want to recognize PCSBs staff and leadership ongoing willingness to revise the PMF focused on high standards for student outcomes. In recent years, PCSB has analyzed and recognized the increasingly problematic relationship between student at-risk status and school score on the PMF. Over ten years ago, when the PMF was first developed the sector was grossly different. The correlation between economically disadvantaged students and the PMF score was .13 – negligible. To best illustrate the shift in economic concentration of students, I direct you to page 1 – here you can see moving across the horizontal axis the number of schools above the 50th percentile based on economic indicators measured at these times – in 2010 there were only 6 schools serving fewer than 50% economically disadvantaged students. Today there are 35 schools serving at-risk populations at the 50th percentile or below. As you see on page 2 – the correlation between economics and the PMF has risen from 2011 to 2018 from .13 to .42, a three-fold increase. To demonstrate the impact of the at-risk bias, we re-ran the middle school PMF scores for only at risk students in middle schools. In other words, what could PMF scores be for schools with low or high at- risk populations if only those students were factored? What you will see on page 3 is stark – some high performing schools have low at-risk populations. Schools with PMF scores in the 60s and 70s drop by 20 to 30 PMF points if only considering the outcomes of at-risk students. We can only suspect where PMF sores would be if schools at the top of this list served at-risk population more aligned with sector or state averages. While this is not a perfect exercise, it demonstrates how sub-groups performances of students can be overlooked. While the proposals to the PMF are a step towards reducing this bias, and I support these shifts, this is not a solution. Members of the task force have suggested alternatives over the past two years – most recently an equity provision. Economics impacts student outcomes has been rooted in research and most recently adopted by even the College Board in the new SAT hardship metric. I urge the Board to be bold like the College Board. Recognize that the changes before you – while a start – are not a solution and are simply a marginal reduction to the growing bias. I ask that the Board to commit to mechanisms that reduce this bias to below .20, a statistically weak relationship and develop a PMF 2.0 by spring of 2020. Without action, we will find ourselves here again next year moving decimals without resolving for the underlying bias.”

A chart included with her observations show, for example, that Basis Middle PCS in 2018 had an at-risk student population of nine percent and a PMF score of 70.8 percent. However, if only at-risk students were included in the measurement its PMF score would drop to 31.8 percent.

Then something magical happened. The PCSB, in a move that I have been arguing for years, is actually proposing, as part of its revision to its 2019-to-2020 PMF Policy Technical Guide, an incentive for schools that take over failing charters or accept a large population of students from a school that has been closed. The board writes:

“DC PCSB staff is proposing these changes to minimize the impact of school closures on the reliability of the PMF. If a school either takes over operation of a closing school through an asset acquisition or offers a majority of its seats to students coming from closed schools, the school will still receive a PMF scorecard displaying the academic outcomes of its students, but would not earn an overall score or tier for the relevant year.”

It is a miracle.

The tragically sad politicization of charter schools

As I searched the internet for news stories about charter schools, I came upon an editorial written by the New York Post heavily criticizing Mayor Bill de Blasio’s characterization of these institutions last Friday before a National Education Association presidential forum. Mr. de Blasio, as reported by the PBS News Hour, exclaimed:

“’Too many Democrats have been cozy with the charter schools,’ offering the argument that they siphon money away from traditional public education. ‘I hate the privatizers and I want to stop them,’ he said.”

The Democratic candidates have formed a tightly unified firing squad against these alternative school in a slimy effort to solidify union support. Charter schools, of course, as a rule do not have employees who work under a collective bargaining agreement.

It is an extremely depressing situation that brings me back to a much better time when I first became aware of this movement in the year 1999. I was attending a luncheon at the Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School for Public Policy. I’m not sure if I had yet been invited to join the board of directors but I am confident I was already tutoring a delightful eleventh grader one evening each week.

I had been drawn to charters due to my libertarian political philosophy, and therefore, my ardent support of school choice. So I sat at a gathering where across the room I saw prominent individuals such as Alice Rivlin and Adam Myerson, and I talked about the power of a marketplace in public education. I was stunned by the response I received from those sitting at my table. They actually were opposed to economist Milton Friedman’s theory of school vouchers. They belittled the suggestion that traditional schools were inferior to this new model. In other words, they did not think like me.

Yet, due to the passion and vision of Irasema Salcido, the Chavez founder and school principal, they were instantly drawn to these classrooms that would develop the next generation of leaders of the District of Columbia.

I was a wholly enthusiastic partner in their mission. There was no covert plot to shutter what already existed. We were gathered as part of an intense inspirational drive to fix the problems that had plagued the regular schools for innumerable generations. We would literally do anything we could to help. We were there for the students that others could not, or would not, teach.

So many of us that are involved with our local charters started our involvement exactly the same way. My story is far from unique. We have continued working day and night because of the clear stubborn vision that we can help the children of our community and make the world a better place.

This is exactly what we have done. Kids that would have ended up on the street, in jail, or dead are now graduating from some of the finest colleges in this country. Every year at this time, hundreds of pure miracles cross the stage to proudly receive their high school diplomas.

What is taking place right now regarding the politics around these schools is simply, well, disgusting.

D.C. school year ends and so too does charter advocacy

The 2018 to 2019 school year has concluded, and for charter schools in the nation’s capital it is one to forget. These innovative laboratories of public education have been under attack like in the early days of the movement, and the support mechanisms have all but disappeared.

We used to have Jennie Niles as the Deputy Mayor for Education. She naturally favored charters as the founder and former executive director of E.L. Haynes PCS. Now we have Mr. Paul Kihn, who came in with such high expectations but has proved in eight months to be a charter detractor. First, he tried to put pressure on the DC Public Charter School Board to cap the number of schools. Next, he turned his back on AppleTree PCS, one of the country’s preeminent practitioners of early childhood pedagogy, in allowing one of its campuses serving at-risk students to close for a year rather than delay a DCPS modernization project for a few months so that the charter would have a place to operate.

Simultaneously, a teachers’ union associated with the AFT has gained a foothold at Munde Verde PCS, after being defeated at Paul PCS and Cesar Chavez PCS. By reading the printed playbook, unions are on the search for other sites where they can slowly and deceivingly destroy these schools from within.

While all of this is going on, last Friday Friends of Choice in Urban Schools lost two key individuals. Its executive director Irene Holtzman and senior director of government relations Michael Musante have vacated the organization. This, while a FOCUS coordinated charter funding inequity lawsuit is winding its way through the courts and the City Council is considering mandating that charters adhere to open meeting and freedom of information requirements.

I feel like we are witnessing the opening of the film The Exorcist. Everything on the surface appears to going well on a cool autumn day but the winds are blowing cold and there is terror on the horizon.

Meanwhile, as we struggle through year five of the Bowser Administration, not one vacant traditional school building has been offered to a charter school as is required by statute.

The characters in the movie never give up in the face of evil. Are we ready for this challenge? Perhaps a more appropriate question is who is up for the fight? Was the collaboration and the dedication of resources that we just witnessed around the saving of Monument Academy PCS a unique effort inherently related to the school’s unique mission? Or is this something that can be sustained to charge through the seemingly impenetrable barriers that have been erected to block our path forward?

I feel like the years, months, days, hours, and minutes have not been spent in vain. I still believe that those among us who were born less fortunate than ourselves deserve our help. I contend that when society looks retrospectively on this period in history it should not have the option of contending that we closed our eyes and walked away.

It is summer and we all deserve a break. But instead of bringing a beach book to peruse as you sit in front of the waves, I recommend turning to the reading list of Washington Latin PCS and picking up The Autobiography of Malcolm X. After reaching its final pages you will then be ready for the fall.