Congress needs to immediately expand D.C. private school voucher program

As was written about yesterday, the Covid-19 pandemic is greatly exacerbating the gap in educational opportunities for the affluent compared to the poor. The new school year is rapidly coming towards us and with almost all public schools reverting to distance learning, families with the financial means to do so are figuring out alternative delivery methods for instructing their children. Some are creating pods of small groups of kids and then hiring a teacher to instruct them at participants’ homes. Others are having parents impart lessons to neighborhood boys and girls as an adjunct to the remote classrooms offered from their regular school. A taste of what is going on out there comes from the New York Times’ Melinda Wenner Moyer.

“Instead of hiring teachers, some families are hoping to share the teaching among the parents. Meredith Phillips, a mother of an 8-year-old and an 11-year-old who lives in Croton, N.Y., is hoping to create a pod with three other families this fall that will rotate houses. One of the dads, who owns a tech company, might teach coding, while Phillips, who is an editor, will teach reading and writing. The parents will ideally teach ‘whatever they’re good at, or know about or care about,’ Phillips said, and in doing so expose the kids to lots of different subjects.

Some families are pulling their kids out of school for these learning pods, while others are using pods as a supplement to their schools’ online curricula. ‘Ideally, from our perspective, it would be complementary, rather than a replacement,’ said Adam Davis, a pediatrician in San Francisco who is hoping to create a learning pod with a teacher or college-aged helper for his second grader and kindergartener in the fall.”

Other parents are enrolling their children in private schools that are able to open because of the small class sizes that they routinely provide.

The world of pods and private schools are simply unavailable for those who live in poverty, with one important exception. Since 2004, the District of Columbia has been home to the only national private school voucher program approved by Congress. Currently, about 1,700 low income pupils participate. Many more families would take advantage of the Opportunity Scholarship Program if funding beyond the current $17.5 million per year was allocated.

A tremendous focus of public education over the past several years has been equity for those at the lower end of the economic spectrum. The Black Lives Matter movement has placed a powder keg under this goal.

Everyone knows that distance learning is far from ideal. Families struggle mightily to have their children participate while they have to work. Basic human fairness means that alternatives to learning in front of a computer should be available to all no matter the income of the parents or the zip code in which they live.

Let’s call on Congress to immediately expand the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.

Pandemic brings out inequity in public education like nothing we have ever seen

My oldest grandson is starting first grade in a few weeks in Montgomery County. He and his parents are terribly disappointed that he will not be returning in person to the school he fell in love with during the first part of his Kindergarten year. Like numerous others across the country, my daughter and her husband are struggling to balance work, remote learning, and care for a younger child.

When this is all over I have complete confidence that Oliver will be fine. But what I don’t know is what will happen to those without the means to provide financial security to their family. Covid-19 will be remembered for many things but the most significant I believe is the disparity in education it is highlighting between the haves and havenots.

In the spring the focus was on disadvantages for the poor when it comes to distance learning. Scores of homes lack adequate internet access and computer hardware. Add to this an overnight shift to online classes and the concomitant introduction of uneven instruction and you have a disaster for children that were already 60 academic achievement gap points behind their more affluent peers.

Now with school buildings still closed for the new term adults with means are figuring out alternative methods for educating their offspring. Some are enrolling their children in private schools, many with tuition of over twenty thousand dollars a year. Others are creating pods with other neighbors in which teachers are hired to work with a small number of pupils, while some are using adults to monitor time spent in front of laptops. Both scenarios carry heavy price tags. Yesterday, the Boston Globe featured one family who decided to take their daughter out of the local public school.

“Patricia Callan, who teaches writing at Salem State University, has pulled her 7-year-old daughter out of Beverly Public Schools to form a full-time home-schooling pod with three other families. She loves public schools, but as someone with hypertension and asthma that place her at higher risk of complications from the virus, she worried about her daughter bringing the virus home. The pod will provide her daughter with badly needed socialization and in-person learning, she said. During the spring, online schoolwork kept her daughter occupied for only an hour and half per day at most, Callan said.”

Today, the editors of the Washington Post decry the current situation.

“Everyone — parents, principals, teachers, government officials and the students themselves — desperately wants a return to the classroom. As Mr. Gregorich told The Post’s Eli Saslow in a wrenching account of the dilemma facing the Hayden Winkelman Unified School District, ‘These kids are hurting right now.’ Remote learning, which many schools turned to when they were forced to close in March, is a poor substitute for in-person instruction. Children need the social supports, interactions and friendships that come with attendance. ‘I get phone calls from families dealing with poverty issues, depression, loneliness, boredom,’ said Mr. Gregorich. ‘Some of these kids are out in the wilderness right now, and school is the best place for them.'”

Times such as these call for extraordinary action. So what are we in the nation’s capital to do? One approach is for nonprofits to assist in creating learning pods for at-risk youth. The Boston Globe described one founded by the Collaborative Parent Leadership Action Network, formed through a $235,000 donation from the Shlomo Fund. The DC Education Equity Fund, whose purpose is to bridge the digital divide for low income students, can expand its mission to provide support for learning at home.

We should all reach into our pockets to see how we can support those in our community who are hurting right now. With schools closed until at least November and likely beyond, we cannot turn our backs on those in our community who desperately need our help.

At-risk student admission preference in D.C. charter schools is a bad idea

I would be a fool to argue with my friend Daniela Anello, head of school for DC Bilingual PCS. However, the notion of a voluntary at-risk student preference for students applying to charter schools in the nation’s capital, which Ms. Anello supports according to the Washington Post’s Perry Stein, strikes me as the wrong way to go.

I completely understand the logic behind making this change. Some charters, such as Washington Latin PCS, Basis PCS, and other highly sought-after language immersion schools, enroll relatively low levels of students who are categorized as at-risk. If charter schools could reserve a percentage of their seats for at-risk students, the number thirty percent is being floated, then the diversity of the student body would increase and low-income students would gain access to a quality education therefore helping to narrow the achievement gap. It all makes sense, perhaps in the short-term.

However, the plan is not consistent with the tenets of school choice. Under the philosophy of an education marketplace that has provided the foundation for public education reform in the District for more than twenty five years, admission to charters is on a random basis through a lottery once a school has more applicants than seats. There are a few admission preferences that exist today. Siblings of already admitted students get offers to attend before other students and the same is true of children of school employees and those of founding board members, although there are numerical limits to the latter two. St. Colletta PCS gained approval in 2017 for a special education student preference. I learned today that a charter school may, with the prior approval of the DC PCSB, give an admission preference to active members of the armed forces.

The best way to ensure that charter schools are responsive to the needs of their customers, who are their parents and their students, is to ensure that their customers want to be in that school. Anything that alters the relationship of supply and demand diminishes the power of choice. If more affluent pupils gain access to a school because more numbers apply to get in, then this is only fair.

The way to accomplish having more at-risk children attend our charters is to build them where these kids live. How often have we heard the mantra repeated that we need to “meet kids where they are.” This is exactly the route taken by Two Rivers PCS, Lee Montessori PCS, Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom PCS and potentially the future location of the second Washington Latin campus.

The advantage of this route for teaching more low-income students is that charters begin to become more of a neighborhood school, something that people like me who favor an educational marketplace predicted would occur. Young people then attend school with those that live around them and transportation for parents becomes simpler. Picture here KIPP DC PCS, Friendship PCS, and DC Prep PCS, for example.

Some will make the case that my solution to teaching more at-risk pupils reduces diversity in the classroom. This may be true when measuring this trait by race. My hope is that we have moved past this method of classification.