Teachers’ union is flooding D.C. charter board with Freedom of Information Act requests

The D.C. Council returns to business from its summer break next week and high on the agenda is consideration of Mr. Charles Allen’s bill to force our city’s charter schools to comply with the open meetings law and the Freedom of Information Act. So if you want to get a taste of what these changes would mean for individual schools, just take a peek at what the DC Public Charter School Board is going through right now.

As a government entity, the PCSB already complies with FOIA requirements. Apparently, the American Federation of Teachers is filing nonstop requests with the charter board. The body has recently spent over 65 staff hours to fulfill seven solicitations. The final bid for documentation comes in at over 14,000 pages.

Here was the editors of the Washington Post’s view of Councilmember Allen’s charter school legislation last April:

“We are firm believers in sunshine in public matters, but this legislation — which seems to be taken from the national teachers union playbook on how to kneecap charter schools — is not designed to benefit the public or help students. It ignores the fact that the D.C. Public Charter School Board, which oversees the city’s 123 public charter schools, is already subject to both the open-meetings law and freedom-of-information requests. The board, which has earned national renown for the rigor of its standards, requires charters to disclose financial information, including how they use resources from the government and what they accomplish with those resources. Charters participate in state testing and federal accountability programs, and the charter board leads the way in providing comprehensive evaluations of charters and the job they do in educating students.”

The PCSB is apparently not taking this union abuse sitting down. According to education reporter Rachel Cohen, yesterday she was told by one of her sources that the charter board has decided it will no longer waive fees that it is permitted by law to charge for FOIA submissions. The source, who is almost certainly the AFT since Ms. Cohen is so union friendly, has been informed by the board that it will cost $3,500 “to finish fulfilling their records request.”

This is a fantastic move. The teachers’ unions have one mission regarding charters, which is to see them disappear from the face of the earth. But this activity from the AFT is highly worrisome. Could you imagine what would happen to our schools, which are characterized by exceedingly small administrative staffs, if they had to face a similar attack?

We must mobilize our local charter school movement to say enough is enough. Council members must not go along with Trojan Horse legislation that is proposed as a benign measure to increase transparency but is in reality a poison pill meant to torpedo the performance of our esteemed institutions.

The time to act is now.

D.C. charter board executive director explains apparent contradiction in treatment of Monument Academy before and after becoming chartered

In yesterday’s post entitled “No Surprise Here: Valerie Strauss and Perry Stein Don’t Like Charter Schools,” I wrote:

“It appears to be that the DC Public Charter School Board wants it both ways. The body sets as many stipulations as it wants on the front end during the application process but then denies that it has the power to impose specific corrections when a school is not operating as it should.”

I was reacting to the criticism by Ms. Strauss and Ms. Stein that the charter board was aware for months of student safety concerns at Monument Academy PCS but took no action to remedy the situation. My point was that the board has no difficulty setting a long list of conditions for a new charter when it is about to be approved to open, as it did in the case of Monument, but then appears to support school autonomy when operational issues arise. Here is the public comment responding to my assertion by Scott Pearson, the PCSB executive director:

“Conditions prior to opening are legally allowed as the applicant is not yet a charter school with exclusive control over its operations. Once a school has a charter it has exclusive control as guaranteed by the School Reform Act and it is then generally inappropriate for PCSB to direct a school to take specific actions. Pre-opening conditions are designed to ensure the school opens strong. Given the struggles of Monument Academy we probably should have set more.”

Mr. Pearson seemed to offer a similar line of argument to the Post when asked about the situation at the charter:

“It is always appropriate for us to intervene when health and safety concerns emerge but not always in a public meeting setting. We were not prescriptive about what exactly they should do because we do not think that is our role.”

I appreciate Mr. Pearson’s viewpoint. It helps to understand the thinking of the charter board. However, it is not completely satisfying.

When a D.C. charter school is facing serious academic problems, the PCSB sets concrete goals for continuance at the high stakes reviews that it conducts every five years of a charter’s existence. When cash flow problems arise that may threaten the ability of a school to meet its fiscal obligations, the board will issue a detailed Financial Corrective Action Plan.

Protecting the health and safety of students by law is an obligation of D.C.’s charter schools. When the board is apprised of such issues it may not have the power to issue proclamations such as “hire two new full-time security guards.” But I contend that it can set goals just as in the case of academics and fiduciary matters. In the case of Monument, it has been reported that over the last school term it reported more than 1,800 safety and security incidents.

The board should have insisted that in order for the charter to continue operating these occurrences must be reduced to a particular number by a specific date. Perhaps that number should be zero.

No surprise here: Valerie Strauss and Perry Stein don’t like charter schools

No sooner does a new school year begin then Washington D.C.’s trifecta of malevolent charter school education reporters spring into action. Last week we witnessed a tome written by Rachel Cohen attacking almost all of the city’s charter school support organizations. Yesterday, the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss and Perry Stein shot an arrow directly aimed at the DC Public Charter School Board over its lack of oversight regarding problems previously identified at Monument Academy PCS. They wrote:

“Top D.C. education officials knew for months about safety issues plaguing a charter school that serves some of the city’s most vulnerable children but did not force changes, public records and interviews with school employees show.

Students at Monument Academy Public Charter School fought during the school day, routinely destroyed school property and simply left campus without permission. Complaints poured into the city agency charged with overseeing the high-profile school, and some staff members reported to their superiors that they felt unsafe. Some child advocates and parents said they thought the school was dangerous, too.”

Scott Pearson, the executive director of the PCSB, disagreed with the assessment of Ms. Strauss and Ms. Stein. According to the Post:

“In an interview, Pearson said he and his staff acted appropriately as they fielded a high volume of complaints about Monument. Charter board staff members who monitored security, and behavior incidents at the school shared their findings with Monument officials.”

As a reminder, following the May 2019 monthly charter board meeting outlining the more than 1,800 safety incidents the school recorded last term, the Monument board voted to shutter the facility at the end of the school year. Then a dozen of the town’s nonprofits came to the rescue with a commitment of $1.7 million to help the school survive financially. The Friendship Educational Foundation agreed to add Monument under its umbrella. A new principal has been named and the school’s board has been reconstituted. The charter has now reopened.

Yesterday’s piece does raise some interesting observations about how the PCSB views its supervision of the schools it regulates. For example, Ms. Strauss and Ms. Stein included the following comment from Mr. Pearson concerning actions the charter board took regarding Monument:

“’It is always appropriate for us to intervene when health and safety concerns emerge but not always in a public meeting setting,’ Pearson said. ‘We were not prescriptive about what exactly they should do because we do not think that is our role.’”

Mr. Pearson is reluctant to dictate the steps Monument should take, I’m guessing, because of the board’s respect for charter school autonomy. But as pointed out many times before on this space, the PCSB seems to have no issue with telling schools exactly what they need to do to open their doors. As an illustration, let’s look at the conditions Monument was required to meet to get its charter back in 2014:

  1. By July 15, 2014, the school will amend its charter petition to (a) reflect a school program that serves grades five through eight, which will also be reflect in Attachment K of the school’s charter agreement, and (b) adopt the Elementary/Middle School Performance Management Framework (“PMF”) as its goals and student academic achievement expectations, thought it may state its intention to seek eligibility for the Alternative Accountability Framework in lieu of the PMF. The school may only serve grades nine through twelve after the approval of an amendment to the school’s charter and charter agreement.
  2. By July 15, 2014, the school will develop and submit to PCSB a revised implementation plan that delineates responsible persons and activities necessary to open the school by the fall of 2016.
  3. By July 15, 2014, the school will provide to PCSB job descriptions and qualifications for the residential staff and a statement that details the operation of its boarding program.
  4. By July 15, 2014, the school will submit to PCSB memoranda of understanding and articulation agreements with the following partner organizations: Flamboyan, Turnaround, and a mental health provider.
  5. By December 15, 2014, the school will submit goals to PCSB consistent with the Alternative Accountability Framework.
  6. By December 15, 2014, the school will develop and a scope and sequence for each subject/content area taught in year one of operation that include: goals/objectives, standards, instructional strategies, summative assessments, and resources (instructional materials).
  7. By December 15, 2014, the school will develop comprehensive Social-Emotional Learning and Life Skills curricula for grades five through eight, inclusive of mission-specific accountability goals to measure the program’s effectiveness, instructional strategies, standards, and resources (e.g., instructional materials).
  8. By December 15, 2014, the school will secure a sufficient school facility that includes all necessary amenities and services for a residential school and the proposed life-skills program, as evidenced by submitting a lease or purchase agreement to PCSB. If, due to circumstances outside of the School’s control, a lease or purchase agreement cannot be secured by that date, the School commits to submitting to PCSB a detailed time line for securing a facility of not more than 60 days by December 17, 2014.
  9. By January 12, 2015, the school will submit to PCSB a signed and executed charter agreement with all attachments consistent with PCSB’s charter school agreement template (attached as Exhibit A) for PCSB Board approval.

A pretty incredulous list. It appears to be that the DC Public Charter School Board wants it both ways. The body sets as many stipulations as it wants on the front end during the application process but then denies that it has the power to impose specific corrections when a school is not operating as it should.

With these three reporters, labor unions, and politicians circling the charter school sector looking for any reason to pounce, it is imperative as a movement that we get this governance stuff right.

It is even more imperative that we protect the health and safety of all of our students.

No surprise here: Rachel Cohen doesn’t like charter schools

Yesterday, Washington City Paper released an over 7,000 word article by Rachel Cohen that attacks virtually all of the charter school support organizations operating in the nation’s capital. She goes after Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools, the DC Public Charter School Board, Democrats for Education Reform, and Parents Amplifying Voices in Education. It is clear she also doesn’t think much of CityBridge Education’s Katherine Bradley, which is the clearest sign that this writer has absolutely no credibility since it is impossible not to have the utmost respect for this individual.

Somehow Ms. Cohen failed to bring up her arch nemesis TenSquare Consulting, but I guess she feels that she had already destroyed the fine reputation of this group in a previous piece.

I suppose the biggest question I have after slogging through this diatribe is why isn’t her work labeled as an opinion piece? Clearly this is what the City Paper has published.

You don’t have to worry, I will not be taking up nearly as much space this morning in my comments. I’m not even going to try and refute her arguments because they are a one-sided picture of a reality that does not exist. I will however make two points.

First, Ms. Cohen does offer a summary of the reason charter schools exist in this city in the first place. She wrote:

“Congress’ involvement did not happen overnight. DC Public Schools had been declining for decades, as families left the city or turned to private schools. 149,000 students were enrolled in 1970. That number plummeted to about 80,000 two decades later. Academic performance was also a source of embarrassment, and scandal routinely wracked the District’s school administration. In 1995, a federal body created to help restore local public school finances came to the stunning conclusion that ‘for each additional year that students stay in DCPS, the less likely they are to succeed.’ Half of all students dropped out before graduation.”

Then in 1996 the first charter schools were approved to open in D.C. The impact has been nothing more than a miracle. The competition for students that charters provided has completely reversed the pitiful state of the traditional schools described above. Thousands of students now learn in high performing classrooms across both the charter and neighborhood school sectors. Children who would have ended up in prison or dead are now graduating from college, many the first in their families to reach this milestone.

But from the time the initial charter enrolled a student they have been viciously assailed. Much of the animosity has come from regular school supporters who have an inherent dislike for an educational marketplace. A significant part of the opposition is fueled by labor union backers who see charters as a threat to their power since these schools usually do not have unionized employees. You can add Ms. Cohen to this second cohort. All you have to do is review her Twitter feed to see her strong unwavering support of organized labor.

In the face of criticism that could at any moment mean the political end to charter schools, nonprofits were created here to defend their work. All of this effort, and the money expended, is depressingly unnecessary since all charters have been trying to do for over 20 years is to provide a quality seat for kids, the great majority of whom live in poverty.

The second part of Ms. Cohen’s editorial that I want to address has to do with her objection to the PCSB, and specifically its executive director Scott Pearson, acting as a charter school proponent. Actually, as is the best practice with a regulatory agency, the board has two roles. It provides oversight and is an advocate. As an analogy you could look at the Federal Aviation Administration. The first two goals of this agency include “regulating civil aviation to promote safety” and “encouraging and developing civil aeronautics.” It is vitally important that the charter board play both parts because if it simply did supervision the tendency would be to make rules that impede charter school operations. Some, including me, have argued that the board has already reached this point while simultaneously advancing the interests of charters with political leaders and the public.

My hope is that the next time Ms. Cohen offers something about charter schools, it appears in the commentary section of her newspaper.

Why I miss Kaya Henderson as DCPS Chancellor

Last week, former DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson had an opinion piece published in the Washington Post. In the article she celebrates the recently released PARCC scores for traditional school students. Ms. Henderson wrote:

“Across the board, student achievement is up. Students in nearly every grade, every subgroup and every subject area are showing improvement. I was excited to see that the percentage of students who are college- and career-ready is going up, and I was thrilled to see that the percentage of students scoring at the lowest levels on the test is going down. All of our students are showing incredible growth.”

As Chancellor from 2010 to 2016, Ms. Henderson should be proud as she and her predecessor Michelle Rhee laid the groundwork for much of the gains students have been able to realize. But this is not the reason that I liked the column.

I learned years ago from the former Chancellor that there are two distinct ways that public school reform can be practiced. The first, and the one that I have supported for more than 20 years, is to provide competition to the traditional schools in the form of charters and private school vouchers. The theory here is that as money follows the children to alternative schools, the loss of funds will drive improvement to the regular classrooms. This is exactly what has taken place in the nation’s capital. Before there were charter schools in the District, parents who made the decision to keep their children at home rather then send them to the neighborhood schools were being logical in regard to the safety and well-being of their offspring.

But there is another way to go about reaching the same endpoint. DCPS could be fixed from within. This is the least likely to succeed approach to improving student academic results because in large urban school systems, the customer is most often the bureaucracy and not the parents and children that are being served. However, this is the philosophy that has driven Ms. Henderson’s career. Back to her editorial:

“There has been a trend over the past decade to decentralize education decisions, to create portfolio districts and to emphasize autonomy. I understand the impulse, and I agree that some decisions are best made at the school level. But I also believe that when we devolve responsibilities down to individual schools, we are abdicating the responsibility of the district to ensure rigor and equity. No individual school could have created the curriculum, the model lessons or the teacher evaluation system that DCPS built. No one school can ensure that students in every ward have the chance to enjoy art and music classes. No amount of autonomy can ensure that every high school has AP classes.”

In other words Ms. Henderson has taken the equity argument, so persuasive in public education circles these days, and applied it forcibly to her worldview. We need a top down approach, she argues, so that each and every student can take advantage of the same pedagogical tools.

The argument is not much different from one that DC Prep PCS, Friendship PCS, or KIPP DC PCS would offer. Once you believe that your organization is providing the absolute best path forward for your students then you believe passionately in your heart that every young person should be able to take advantage of what you have to offer.

Perhaps we have all now come full circle.

Mayor Bowser releases surplus DCPS building to charters. Mayor Bowser releases surplus DCPS building to charters

I will start with an apology. I’m sorry, but I just had to write the headline twice because the news is so stunning. After being in office for almost five years, D.C. Mayor Bowser has finally released a surplus DCPS building for use by a charter school. Last Friday, a request for proposal was sent out for the Ferebee-Hope Elementary School in Southeast. The RFP comes as the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools initiated a public relations campaign entitled End The List, which includes a high quality produced video and radio advertisements with the expressed purpose of pressuring Ms. Bowser to release the over 1 million square feet of excess or under-utilized DCPS classroom space so that the almost 12,000 students on the charter school wait list can gain access to the school of their choice.

The theme of the End The List campaign should be easily recognizable by readers. Time and time again I have argued that Ms. Bowser is flagrantly disobeying the law by failing to provide a first offer to charter schools for vacant traditional school buildings. She even added insult to injury when in 2018 she turned five shuttered facilities over to developers instead of for use by our children so that that they could further their public education.

The most striking fact for me in the video is that this Mayor has much catch up homework to do if she strives to match her predecessors’ record in support of a educational marketplace. It points out that Anthony Williams turned 13 vacant DCPS sites over to charters. Mayor Fenty did the same with 12 facilities and Mayor Gray answered with 14 of his own for a total of 39. Did I mention that for Ms. Bowser this is the first?

Word on the street is that DC Prep PCS, Friendship PCS, and KIPP PCS will bid on the proposal. Odds are that the liberation of this property was intended to provide a location for KIPP’s second high school.

What a prize this campus would be. The site includes 447,780 square feet. The school building itself takes quite a dent out of the remaining extra DCPS footprint in that the school building has 193,000 square feet. The project would also involve renovating a recreation center at this location that includes an indoor pool, an athletic field, basketball courts, a pavilion, and a playground. I already know of one charter that will forgo competing for this land due to the tremendous costs associated with this endeavor. The idea that the city would turn over all of these structures so that a nonprofit can expend desperately needed funds to fix them up and then pay rent to occupy them has to be the sequel to the book Catch 22.

The RFP adds the following information about the school:

“Ferebee-Hope was constructed in 1974 and first opened its doors to students as Washington Highlands Elementary. In 1990, it was renamed Ferebee-Hope Elementary to honor Dorothy Boulding Ferebee, a physician, humanitarian and community leader, and Marion Conover Hope, a community activist, youth advocate, lawyer, author, and internationally recognized social worker. Ferebee-Hope closed in 2013, though portions of the building have recently been used as swing and temporary space by DCPS. The main educational space received a “Phase 1” modernization in 2009, in which essential building systems were upgraded and replaced. The Ferebee-Hope Recreation Center is an active DPR recreation center. Current programming offerings include swimming lessons, boxing, and fitness classes. The baseball field is also utilized for Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy. There is a community garden onsite as well as a playground.”

Responses to the RFP are due by 5:00 p.m November 5, 2019. I’m feeling optimistic today so I’m assuming the flood gates are now going to open to many more empty, rotting away structures being transferred to charters.