Is Mayor Bowser trying to shutdown D.C.’s public charter school board?

These are certainly strange times for the District of Columbia’s charter school movement. As I pointed out toward the end of last month, there are now three vacancies on the DC Public Charter School Board. Saba Bireda stepped down in September and Naomi Shelton’s term concluded in August. There is still no nominee from Mayor Muriel Bowser to replace Steve Bumbaugh, a position that D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson wondered about during a hearing in June.

Then a bombshell landed when Mr. Bumbaugh wrote a recent editorial promoted by anti-charter Washington Post columnist Valerie Strauss in which he calls into question the very existence of the alternative sector that now educates 46 percent of all public school students, numbering approximately 46,500, in the nation’s capital.

“The District must rethink its charter schools,” Mr. Bumbaugh asserted.

The timing of the column is curious as the writer goes on to mention that two more representatives of the PCSB will see their volunteer service come to an end in the coming year. This would leave only two of seven slots filled. If there is to be continuity regarding this organization, then members really should be added now.

Perhaps there is a reason for Ms. Bowser’s delay. The Washington Post’s Perry Stein is fond of stating that charter schools are public entities that are privately run. For years, the charter board has been criticized by those who oppose the sector as not being responsible to the citizenry. As the Mayor contemplates a run for a third term it is possible that she would like to take an action to quell these concerns. One move I could imagine her making is to fold responsibility for the city’s charters under the State Board of Education.

This is not so farfetched. The board was the original authorizer of charters in the District. They got out of the charter business at the same time that the Mayor took over control of the regular schools. One way for the Mayor to exert authority over these freewheeling charters is to group them with DCPS under one governing body. It would essentially put all 95,000 pupils under her purview.

We have a former member of the charter board stating that the 25 year experiment in school reform needs to be re-imagined. Scott Pearson’s replacement, Dr. Michelle Walker-Davis, has placed a twelve month pause on the approval of new schools and the grade level expansion of existing classrooms. Ms. Bowser is dictating the COVID response for both sectors. Now the Council has exceeded its powers in passing a law expanding virtual learning in charters.

From where I am sitting, it appears that the PCSB is coming to an end.

Number of D.C. students permitted to learn virtually now in charter school’s court

Yesterday, the D.C. Council went ahead and unanimously passed emergency legislation expanding the number of students permitted to take classes through distance learning, but the number was far less than Chairman Mendelson had in mind when he proposed the bill. As the Washington Post’s Perry Stein informed us on Tuesday, only an additional two hundred elementary school pupils and one hundred fifty middle school students will be able to participate “if their doctors recommend they stay at home or if they live with a relative who is at high risk for a severe case of the coronavirus.”

Those eligible will join approximately 285 DCPS scholars who are currently learning virtually.

The reason for the small incremental increase, according to Ms. Stein, was due to pressure from Mayor Bowser’s administration pointing to higher costs associated with allowing more children to be taught outside of the classroom. As I mentioned previously, the Council’s rule is that emergency legislation cannot include a rise in expenditures.

The act includes an extremely interesting caveat for charters. As stated in the Post story, “charter networks have more leeway, with the council saying each can decide how many eligible virtual learners to accommodate, though each network must cap it at no less than 3 percent of its student body.”

Actually, the situation has not changed for this sector over the past twenty-four hours. Do the DC PCSB, DC Charter School Alliance, and the sixty eight schools on one hundred thirty three campuses as independent local education agencies, fall in line blindly to the dictates of the Council, or do they legitimately take matters into their own hands in deciding how many students have to be in their buildings?

You already know my opinion as to the way things will play out. Stay with me as we watch events unfold.

D.C. Council set to battle with charter schools; my guess is that charters blink

When Scott Pearson was executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board and he testified in front of the D.C. Council, he had polite and respectful conversations with Education Committee Chairman David Grosso. However, there were a few occasions when conflict arose, especially when Mr. Grosso asked Mr. Pearson for an explanation regarding why charters were not complying with a particular law. Mr. Pearson had to clarify that in reference to the matter under discussion it was the charter sector’s view that the Council lacked jurisdiction.

Last Friday, the Washington Post’s Perry Stein revealed that Council Chairman Phil Mendelson is planning on introducing emergency legislation that would increase the number of students eligible for virtual instruction from home. She wrote:

“Under the legislation, which was still being modified Friday, students under12 who are ineligible for a coronavirus vaccine would be allowed to stay home if they live with someone who is immunocompromised.

It would also allow any student to participate in virtual learning if their doctors recommend that they remain home because they have a health condition that would put them at higher risk for complications if they contract the virus. The virtual learning plan would also apply to both the traditional public and charter sectors, according to a draft bill.”

Now here is the problem. The Council lacks authority to mandate that charter schools provide on-line classes. While there is no debate that the city’s representatives can legislate charters regarding issues of health and safety, not in the broadest interpretation of this criteria would it be acceptable for the legislative body to encroach on the autonomy of the alternative school sector regarding distance learning.

Mayor Muriel Bowser reacted immediately and unequivocally when she heard about Mr. Mendelson’s plan. Ms. Stein says she expressed her viewpoint in a letter to the Council. She wrote:

“It is therefore of paramount importance that we do not disrupt our hard-won, in-person learning for the tens of thousands of students who are in dire need of consistent and quality instruction and socialization. As such, I am very troubled and angered by any legislation that aims to disrupt learning or that will tax and burden our schools.”

While the Mayor is strongly defending her authority to manage DCPS, charters are not so bold. The Post states that DC Charter School Alliance founding executive director Shannon Hodge responded to the news about the emergency act this way:

“The legislation reflects concerns from parents and that there are a ‘significant’ number of students who have completed enrollment paperwork but have not attended school, suggesting they could be staying home for coronavirus-related reasons.”

The comment is especially ironic because charters were apparently directed by PCSB staff not to offer on-line classes. One leader of a prominent network of schools told me recently the organization was dissuaded from filing a charter amendment to provide virtual instruction after being informed that it would be denied. The feeling was this decision was coming out of fear of interfering with Ms. Bowser’s muscular push to have all kids back in the classroom.

If I had to conjecture, I would say that the PCSB and Alliance will roll over and acquiesce to the Council’s directive.

Complicating the passage of the Council Chairman’s bill is the requirement that emergency legislation cannot increase costs. The Mayor has already insinuated that the new law comes with a price tag.

There is one additional portion of the act which is worth noting, as Ms. Perry details:

“The bill also would allow students to receive excused absences if they remain home for pandemic-related reasons. Parents testified at a D.C. Council hearing last month that if one of their children was quarantined and they kept another child home, which the city does not recommend, the sibling would accrue unexcused absences. Too many could lead to a call, and a possible neglect investigation, from the Child and Family Services Agency.”

The Council is set to vote on the measure today. It takes nine councilmembers to pass emergency legislation.