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.