It is about to get much harder for opponents of school choice to block parental freedom

Today, the United States Supreme Court will hear Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, a case argued by the libertarian nonprofit Institute for Justice. Here’s the background of this litigation which is explained by the Institute much better than I could ever do:

“In 2015, the Montana Legislature passed a program that provided a tax break to Montanans if they contributed to charitable organizations that provide scholarships for children. The program allowed families to use those scholarships at any private school in Montana—religious or nonreligious. But the Montana Department of Revenue interpreted the state constitution to forbid the participation of religious schools. Representing families who were unable to participate in the program because they send their children to religious schools as well as one family who was able to use the scholarship before it was suspended, the Institute for Justice sued and won on their behalf at the trial court. But the Montana Supreme Court reversed that ruling and declared that the entire program was invalid because it included religious options for parents. By striking down the entire program, even for those children attending secular private schools, the court made the impact of the discrimination even worse. Thankfully, families were permitted to continue receiving scholarships through the 2019-2020 school year.”

Espinoza is relevant to two of the twenty seven amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Amendment 1: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The families involved who sought to use the scholarships to attend a Catholic school claim that their free exercise of religion is being obstructed.

Amendment 17, section 1: All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The action of the Montana Supreme Court, according to the Institute for Justice, denied equal protection of the law simply based upon their religious beliefs.

In addition, the organization argues that restricting families from sending their children to parochial schools under the scholarship plan represents discrimination against religious beliefs that is prohibited by the Establishment Clause.

The heart of the today’s argument will revolve around the concept of the Blaine Amendment. Blaine Amendments were included in the constitution of 37 states in the 19th century. During this period, schools were dominated by Protestants and there was a rejection of the new wave of Catholic immigrants to this country. Blaine Amendments are named after U.S. Senator Blaine who in 1875 attempted to get a constitutional amendment passed mirroring those that were later adopted in state constitutions preventing public money going to religious institutions. Public schools at the time were already religious, according to the I.J., teaching nondenominational Protestant ideas. Catholics sought to influence the nature of instruction taking place in schools, and when that effort failed, sought funding for their own educational institutions.

While opponents of school choice have over the years successfully utilized state Blaine Amendments to block implementation of school choice programs that have included sectarian facilities, there have been two important legal developments that have weakened this line of attack.

First, in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, another school choice case argued by the Institute for Justice, the Supreme Court in 2002 found that a Cleveland private school voucher program that included Catholic schools provided tuition money to students and did not directly support religious entities. Then, in 2017, the Court ruled in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc., vs. Comer that preventing a church from getting access to a state grant available to other nonsectarian schools in order to improve the safety of public playgrounds was discriminatory against the religion.

School choice advocates were disappointed that Trinity did not invalidate state Blaine Amendments. This will come from the ruling this summer in Espinoza. Watch for the conservative-leaning Supreme Court to overturn the actions around the scholarship program in Montana.

According to I.J. president and general council Scott Bullock, “If we’re successful in Espinoza, we’ll remove the largest legal obstacle standing between thousands of children and their chance to receive a better education.”

Successful they will be.

D.C. Auditor misinterprets study on school enrollment and education reporters follow

Last week the Office of the District of Columbia Auditor, together with the Johns Hopkins School of Education Center for Research and Reform in Education, released what it referred to as a comprehensive study on annual enrollment projections for DCPS and charter schools in the nation’s capital. While it found that these estimates are oftentimes inaccurate, this turns out not to be the major conclusion of the voluminous report.

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein quotes Kathy Patterson, the D.C. Auditor as stating, “the findings illustrate the unintended consequences of having a city with many school options for families.”

Not to be outdone, WAMU’s Debbie Truong includes this line from Erin Roth, research director in the auditor’s office, “Everything you do is going to impact other schools. Nothing is in isolation.” 

So now let me tell you what is actually going on here. The District has an exceptionally active school choice environment in which it has been estimated that 75 percent of children attend a school other than the one in their backyard. The investigation found that parents who chose a school other than their neighborhood school tend to pick a facility that has a lower proportion of at-risk children than the one their offspring would be assigned to attend. This has the impact of lowering the number of students attending the neighborhood school, thereby decreasing the amount of revenue this school receives since in D.C. money follows the child. The authors worry that the loss of dollars will harm the very students that need the most financial support.

Ms. Patterson refers to this as an unintended consequence. She has this exactly backwards. The cause and effect are operating exactly as planned. The only problem here is that the government is failing to react according to the voice of the consumers. Instead of keeping the neighborhood school operating as it has in the past, it needs to heed the demands of families and either close the school, merge it with one that is instructing at a higher level, or turn its management over to a charter school.

Please allow me to illustrate my point. The following paragraph comes directly from Ms. Stein’s article:

“For example, only 9.8 percent of students who live in the boundaries of Anacostia High — a neighborhood school in Southeast Washington — have elected to attend the school. It has an at-risk population of 81 percent, and 35 percent of students require special education, according to city data. By comparison, Thurgood Marshall Academy — a charter high school near Anacostia High — has an at-risk population of 54 percent. Twenty percent of its students have special education needs.”

Now every parent knows that you do not want your child to attend Anacostia High. The school has been a train wreck for decades. The logical conclusion would be to get your child into Thurgood Marshall if you can, a Performance Management Framework Tier 1 school that is successfully closing the academic achievement gap. Ms. Stein failed to mention that while Anacostia has empty hallways, Thurgood Marshall has been consistently at full enrollment. The movement of students is as intended as possible.

The researcher from the Auditor’s office seems to imply that Thurgood Marshall has somehow negatively impacted Anacostia High. Nothing could be further from the truth. What the charter school has done is provide a life preserver to kids who would probably end up in jail or worse. Instead, graduates of Thurgood Marshall go on to college.

The study is a vehicle to impact public policy in a way favored by the authors. Here we have a review of enrollment projections being turned into an polemic for more taxpayer earnings being given to failed educational institutions.

The paper has many other findings, such as charter schools tend to lose students during the school year while DCPS sees the opposite trend. We have known about this mobility issue for 20 years. What I was most shocked to find contained in this work is that in 2020 there is still no correction to a DCPS’s school budget, as is the case with charters, when the May estimate for the following school term turns out not to be true the following October.

You have got to be kidding.

D.C. charter board receives applications to open 4 new schools

The DC Public Charter School Board announced yesterday that it has received four applications for new schools that, if approved, would open during the 2021-to-2022 term.

The applicants include:

Capital Experience Lab (CAPX LAB): A 700-student school going from grades six through twelve that wants to locate in Ward 6 and is based upon “inquiry-based learning experiences.” Fascinating to me is that Patricia Brantley, Friendship PCS’s chief executive officer, is listed as a board member. This, combined with the fact that the school has been incubated by CityBridge Education significantly raises the probability that it will be approved.

Global Citizens: The other CityBridge-sponsored applicant, this 525-student pre-Kindergarten through fifth grade charter would be based in Ward 7 or 8 and would offer a dual language immersion program in either Mandarin and English or Spanish and English. There are people with extremely impressive credentials associated with Global Citizens. The principal of the charter would be Jenifer Moore. I interviewed Ms. Moore when she was the interim head of school for Sela PCS and she blew me away. Listed as advisers are my friends Daniela Anello, head of school of DC Bilingual PCS, Maquita Alexander, executive director of Washington Yu Ying PCS, and Erika Bryant, executive director of Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom PCS.

The Garden School of Business and Entrepreneurship: A charter for 410 students in grades nine through twelve that would operate in Ward 8. The school’s executive summary states that it “will be the ultimate soil for building consciously aware, financially free, and holistically intelligent high school students in Washington, D.C. Our business and entrepreneurship model activates the voice, ideas, and confidence in students that are needed to economically succeed in their world.”

Washington Arabic: A second dual immersion school that applied in 2019. This school wants to open in Ward 1, 4, 5, or 6, with a preference on 6, and would teach 544 students in grades pre-Kindergarten three through fifth. Last year’s proposal received enthusiastic support from several board members so the hope is that it can make it across the finish line this time.

It appears that what this list lacks in number it makes up in quality. Let’s sincerely hope that progress is made on the permanent facility issue by the time these schools need to find space.

The applicants will have a public hearing in February and be voted on at the March monthly meeting of the DC PCSB.

Exclusive Interview with Rick Cruz, chair DC Public Charter School Board

I had the great privilege recently of interviewing Rick Cruz, chair of the DC Public Charter School Board.  I had also spoke to Mr. Cruz about a year ago.  I first asked him to reflect on the resignation of Scott Pearson, the PCSB executive director.  Mr. Pearson has stated that he will leave his position at the end of May 2020.

“It is bittersweet, there is no other way to describe it,” Mr. Cruz said solemnly.  “We have a really good partnership.  Scott has worked very well with the Board and with our many stakeholders.  He has done so while significantly raising the quality of our systems, processes, and data.  He has built an outstanding team and prepared them for his transition.  The job of the PCSB may sound bureaucratic, but Scott developed a solid environment of trust and for being fair and transparent and steadfast.  Charter schools in D.C. understand the expectations of the PCSB and the standards to which we hold them. The work of authorizing charter schools has advanced greatly under Scott’s leadership and he leaves quite a legacy for us to build upon.  Scott has said that he lives his life in chapters and now we enter a new chapter for the PCSB.”

I then wanted to know from Mr. Cruz what characteristics he would like to see in the next executive director.  “I don’t want to jump the gun,” Mr. Cruz answered, “since there are multiple round tables being held in which students, parents, teachers, school leaders, and the general public can provide input on what is important to them about the next executive director.  However, I do think it’s important that we do much more work to share how public charter schools are successfully impacting the lives of students. I believe we could do more around communication and because we haven’t this has resulted in some push back from certain constituencies.  For example, the 2019 DC Report Card was just released by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education and it showed that KIPP Promise Academy PCS and the Congress Heights campus of Center City PCS are the only five star ranked schools east of the Anacostia River.  This is great news and every family and D.C. residents should know that public charter schools are providing a quality education to students living in Wards 7 and 8. Alternatively, we have some people saying that we do not need more charters, and yet we have schools like Friendship Technology Preparatory PCS, Mundo Verde PCS, and District of Columbia International School PCS offering differentiated approaches to educating our youth and parents want these distinct programs.  Others may say that charters are wasting scarce  public funds, but charters teach the same percentages of at-risk and special education students that the traditional schools do.”

One area I was especially interested in was Mr. Cruz’s opinion about the relatively similar standardized test scores charters reported this year in measures such as PARCC and NAEP compared to DCPS.  Mr. Cruz was ready with his response.  “DCPS has had steady improvements that is a fact.  We still score higher with African American pupils and our results continue to improve year after year.  One possible explanation is that over the past several school years we have asked much of our schools.  For example, there are new requirements around exclusionary discipline policies.  However, I am confident that over the next few years we will see charter schools continue to drive increases in academic performance and innovate. For example, we have a crop of new schools that are opening in fall 2020,  each of them offering new types of programming, and most of them founded by local education leaders.  These schools have innovative models that have the potential to spur academic growth.”

We then moved on to the recent controversy regarding DC Prep PCS purchasing a property on Frankford Street Southeast as a possible site for its Anacostia Middle School.  I asked Mr. Cruz if he thought this matter was handled appropriately by school leadership.  “In a perfect world, we would be able to match facilities to new schools early in the process which would markedly smooth engagement with communities and make things easier for families. However, the situation with DC Prep is a stark reminder that we desperately need clarity regarding the freeing up of surplus DCPS building for use by charters.  In addition, we really must consider solutions such as co-locating charter schools with underutilized DCPS schools.  Research shows there are many benefits to doing so. While in the past charter school leaders were uncertain about the feasibility of co-location, I have spoken to many school leaders who now express they are open to this solution for classroom space.”

Next, we pivoted our discussion to Councilmember Charles Allen’s transparency bill before the D.C. Council.  I asked Mr. Cruz for his opinion regarding requiring opening charter school board meetings and the call for individual charters to respond to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.  Mr. Cruz had a firm stance on each issue.  “I’m comfortable with our policy that dictates schools have designated open board meetings,” the PCSB chair asserted. “I do recommend that when there are certain topics before the board, such as school budgets, the changes need to be discussed in public.  Open meetings are a great opportunity for school leaders to experiment with how their families are engaged in important decisions.”

Mr. Cruz continued, “Regarding FOIA, after receiving input from school administrators, I really agree with them that these inquiries should be handed by PCSB.  To be honest, I have yet to see data points, except for individual teacher salaries, that cannot be found in the information the charter board posts on its website, especially considering all of the documents available on the Transparency Hub.  We certainly do not want to cripple schools due to them trying to comply with FOIA requests.  Also, we have to be sure that concerns focused on individual students are kept confidential.  The PCSB has the staff to redact sensitive information that individual schools do not possess.”

When the two of us got together it was the day after FOCUS and the DC Association of Chartered Pubic Schools announced that they were merging.  I asked Mr. Cruz if he had a view on this change.  “I do,” Mr. Cruz reflected.  “As a sector over the last five years or more we have become complacent regarding adherence to the [D.C.] School Reform Act.  There has definitely grown a void in the advocacy space.  So the decision to bring these two groups together makes a lot of sense to me.”

I wanted to conclude our meeting by raising the topic of the student safety issues that took place at Monument Academy PCS and Rocketship Rise Academy PCS.  My comment to Mr. Cruz revolved around whether the public should have known about these incidents earlier.  The PCSB chair explained.  “Regarding Monument there were a set of occurrences that ranged from minor to serious for a school that also includes a boarding component.  There were many interactions between the school’s board and the PCSB several months before the media was involved.  Unfortunately issues do arise, but this is not an excuse.  In the case of both Monument and Rocketship the charter board staff followed its policies.  In each instance we followed our Community Complaint policy. ”

As I talked to Mr. Cruz, I’m reminded of the truly significant role public charter schools now play in our community and the important work facing the next executive director.  

D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education doubles down on illegal holding of excess school facilities

Right before the Christmas holiday the editors of the Washington Post came out swinging against Mayor Bowser’s refusal to turn surplus former DCPS buildings over to charters for use as permanent homes. They wrote:

“’Special interest group.’ That’s how the District’s deputy mayor for education recently characterized those behind a spirited public information campaign urging that more of the city’s buildings be made available for use by worthy public charter schools. At first, we thought the description derisive but, upon further thought, we decided Paul Kihn was right.

The interests being advanced by this effort are indeed quite special. They are those of the nearly 44,000 children — most of them black or Hispanic, and many of them economically disadvantaged — who are enrolled in public charter schools, and the thousands more who languish on waiting lists because of a lack of facilities. The administration’s churlish response to this problem is troubling, another sign it doesn’t have the same sense of obligation to public charter school students as it does to those enrolled in the traditional school system.”

The column appears to have had an impact on Paul Kihn, the city’s Deputy Mayor for Education, but not the one intended by charter advocates. Just before the start of the New Year, Mr. Kihn responded to the Post in a series of five tweets entered in rapid succession:

“Disappointed to again see false claims promoted by @PostOpinions. Readers should also be surprised that misleading information about school waitlists and facilities made its way onto the @WashingtonPost editorial page.”

“Must focus on unique students & not combine multiple schools’ waitlist. Students often waitlisted at multiple schools. In SY19-20, because duplicates, total waitlist of 33,876 (K-12) reduced to 10,891 individual students at DCPS & charters.”

“Waitlist numbers inflate demand. Approx. 25K applications in SY18-19, 84% received matches/offers, 57% accepted offers and 43% declined.”

@mayorbowser admin. works tirelessly & impartially for students in both the traditional & public charter sector. Pace of improving outcomes in DC’s two-sector system is leading the nation. #DCProud of this progress & know there’s more to do”

“DC continues to invest in students, including the annual increase of funds for buildings in both sectors. Suggesting otherwise ignores our values, actions and ongoing support for ALL of DC’s public school students in both sectors. #FairShot

But all of these words evades the main point in a wholly dishonest manner. There are structures that currently exist out there, likely as many as 13, that by statute should have been turned over to charters for use as classrooms. Another six have already been given away for other purposes. These surplus properties are rotting away instead of being filled to the brim with the laughter, excitement, and learning of children.

There can only be one explanation for what is going on here and it was perfectly captured by the Washington Post editors:

“No doubt assessments can differ of what may be available, and there may be reasons for the city, with school system enrollment increasing, to hold on to some schools. But only once in Ms. Bowser’s nearly five-year tenure has she proposed a lease of a city building to a charter. Some buildings stand empty and in disrepair even as top-ranked charters scramble for space. It makes no sense — unless, of course, the aim is to hinder the growth of charters, which now account for 46 percent of D.C. public school enrollment.”

The charter school facility issue is not getting off to a good start in 2020.

Testimony of Scott Pearson, PCSB executive director, on charter school facilities misses main point

Last Wednesday, Scott Pearson provided the most detailed and passionate testimony before the D.C. Council of his eight and a half years as executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board. The occasion was a hearing on the Master Facilities Plan, and Mr. Pearson used his opportunity to poke a huge hole in the administration of Mayor Bowser’s contention that there are only three surplus DCPS facilities that could be turned over to charter schools. From his remarks:

“We put city-owned buildings potentially available to charter schools into seven categories.
 
Category one is the one building that we and the city agree is vacant, and for which the city is currently seeking offers from public charter schools. This building is Ferebee Hope, a 193,000 square foot facility in Ward 8.
 
In category two are two buildings that we and the city agree are vacant, but for which the city says that DCPS is currently “evaluating programming” – which we fear is a euphemism for “allowing to demise.” The buildings in this category are Spingarn, a 225,000 square foot building in Ward 5, and Winston, a 138,000 square foot building in Ward 7. Both should be immediately released to public charter schools.
 
Category three is a building that will soon be vacant. As this council well knows, a new Banneker High School is being constructed. When it is ready in Summer, 2021, the old building will be available, 146,000 square feet in Ward 1.  The city should begin planning now to transfer this to a public charter school before the building deteriorates and requires major repairs.
 
Category four is a building that was wrongly removed from the list of surplus buildings. I say wrongly because it is a vacant school building highly sought-after by charter schools. Fletcher Johnson, a 302,000 square foot building in Ward 7, is instead being redeveloped by DMPED. All agree the site is large enough to accommodate both school and other uses. It is essential that the city ensure space at this redeveloped site for a public charter school.
 
Category five contains four DCPS buildings that in the past few years have been allowed to house other city agencies. Given our facilities shortage the city’s first priority should be to use public school buildings for public schools.  Moreover, in all of these sites, the residing city agency is not using all of the space, so if these agencies won’t move, they should at least co-locate. The four buildings are Emery in Ward Five, used for DCPS administration, Kenilworth in Ward 7, used by DPR, Malcolm X in Ward 8, used by DPR and DOES, and Wilkinson in Ward 8, used by the DC Infrastructure Academy.
 
Category six is a nearly empty, 100,000 square foot building owned by another agency. I’m referring to DC Public Library’s Penn Center building at 1709 3rd Street NE in Ward 5. A careful review of city buildings would likely find other such opportunities, but this one is truly low hanging fruit.
 
Finally, in category seven are three buildings used by DCPS for swing space – Davis, Garnet-Patterson, and Meyer. DCPS needs swing space. But from time to time these buildings are empty for a year or more, as Garnet Patterson is this year. When vacant they should be made available to charter schools for temporary, swing, or incubator use.”

The total number of buildings that should have been transferred to charter schools by law, according to Mr. Pearson, is 13. However, he neglected to mention Stevens Elementary, which adds one to the total. Finally, if we want to know the final count for how many classroom spaces Ms. Bowser could have turned over to charters, we have to include the five structures that she transferred to private developers. Now the grand total goes up to an astonishing 19 schools.

There are almost 12,000 students on charter school wait lists. There are many charters that are currently desperate for permanent facility space. When you combine these two facts that only conclusion that can be reached, sadly and unfortunately, is that Mayor Bowser does not care about our children.

Prominent members of our local charter movement have speculated as to why Ms. Boswer is skirting a legal and moral prerogative. One view is that the Mayor is holding onto these sites to purposely limit the number of students in charters so that the share of pupils attending traditional schools during her tenure does not fall under 50 percent.

Can this at all be true?

I want to conclude with a few lines from a recent analysis by David Osborne and Tressa Pankovits, both from the Progressive Policy Institute who were kind enough to spend some time on the telephone with me recently to review this data.

“The bottom line: DCPS has improved by leaps and bounds, but it has not figured out how to educate its poorest students. In contrast, many of the city’s charter schools have figured that out. The 2019 NAEP score gap between D.C.’s FRL [Free and Reduced Lunch]-eligible charter students and other charter students in eighth grade was 12 points; in fourth grade it averaged just 10 points.

The city’s annual PAARC test results confirm what we saw on the NAEP. In wards 5, 7 and 8, which have the highest concentrations of poor children, 22 of the top-performing 23 schools were charters. The one DCPS school in the top 23, McKinley Tech High School, selects its students. The charter schools vastly outperform DCPS schools in these three wards — roughly doubling DCPS’s percentage of students who score a 4 or 5 (meeting or exceeding expectations).”

If we truly care about the future of our most vulnerable kids, then the empty deteriorating surplus DCPS buildings would be immediately given to charters.

D.C. charter board extends life of schools up for review, at extremely high costs

The DC Public Charter School Board held its final monthly meeting of the year Monday evening and you could see on the faces of the members that it is time for a break. Only three of the seven made it to the session in person and one was on the telephone. In the aftermath of an exceptionally tough year that included the closure of several schools, serious concerns around student safety, controversies over permanent facilities, and the resignation of the body’s executive director, it appeared that 2019 could not come to an end sooner.

The public comment period was dominated by speakers testifying in favor of the continuance after five years of Monument Academy PCS. In fact, among the charters up for review on this night, IDEA PCS at twenty years; Kingsman Academy PCS at five years; the Children’s Guild PCS at five years; and Monument Academy PCS; all failed to reach their charter goals. Each, however, was given credit for efforts in implementing improvements over the past three years. I will not go into the details of the findings of each school individually since you can read them here. But I will give you a sense of the serious consequences these charters faced for failing to hit their targets. Please keep in mind that these are only a sample of the conditions imposed by the PCSB.

IDEA PCS

“The school must achieve a PMF score of at least 47, or at the DC PCSB Board’s discretion, a STAR rating of at least three stars, 6 for SY 2019-20, or it will close at the end of SY 2020-21.”

“IDEA PCS will decrease its maximum enrollment ceiling from 600 students to 400 students. The school may not serve additional students unless and until it returns to DC PCSB to apply for a charter agreement amendment to expand its maximum enrollment beyond 400 students. “

Kingsman Academy PCS

“Kingsman Academy PCS will continue improving academic outcomes for its students. Failure to demonstrate continued improvement may result in a high-stakes charter review prior to the school’s scheduled 10-year charter review in SY 2024-25.”

“Kingsman Academy PCS must provide DC PCSB, by March 31, 2020, a plan to improve school completion rates or reduce dropout rates.”

Children’s Guild PCS

“Children’s Guild PCS must eliminate its eligibility to serve grades 9-12, unless and until the school returns to DC PCSB to apply for a charter agreement amendment to expand its grade levels served beyond grade 8.”

“Children’s Guild PCS must decrease its maximum enrollment ceiling from 850 students to 450 students. The school may not serve additional students unless and until it returns to DC PCSB to apply for a charter agreement amendment to expand its maximum enrollment beyond 450 students.”

Monument Academy PCS

“Monument Academy PCS will demonstrate improvement in the following measures: NWEA MAP Math, NWEA MAP ELA, and In-Seat Attendance. Beginning in SY 2019-20 through its ten-year review in SY 2023-24, the school must achieve at least two out of three of the following targets, or it will relinquish its charter at the end of the following school year:
i. NWEA MAP Math Growth: 50.0 or higher
ii. NWEA MAP ELA Growth: 50.0 or higher
iii. In Seat Attendance: 88.0% or higher”

You can sense that the charter board was not in a jovial mood. The somber atmosphere continued with the return of Rocketship Education DC PCS to the dais. Although representatives of the school were there to offer apologies for the incident in which two students were nearly kidnapped from its Rocketship Rise facility, there was really nothing more that needed to be said. The PCSB slapped the following requirements on the charter regarding the actions that it must complete:

“A thorough security assessment, through DC PCSB’s security consultant or other qualified security consultant approved by DC PCSB, of Rocketship PCS’s existing two DC campuses, including an assessment of all dismissal procedures. This security assessment shall be updated to also include the school’s third campus as part of the preopening requirements listed in the checklist.”

“Develop a policy or set of protocols (or provide any existing policy or set of protocols) for communicating with families, the school community, and DC PCSB following serious safety and security incidents. Such policy or set of protocols shall be consistent with those in use by DC public charter schools generally and shall be subject to the reasonable approval of DC PCSB.”

“Provide training of the type and nature in use by DC public charter schools generally for all school staff who have direct interaction with students, including staff in the aftercare program, around student safety and security, risk assessment, dismissal procedures, and the school’s communication protocols.”

“As necessary based on the above actions and consistent with similar protocols in use by other DC charter schools generally, submit to DC PCSB a revised set of 1) its safety and security protocols, and 2) its communication protocols, both for internal communication among school personnel, and for external communication with parents, the school community, and DC PCSB.”

“Undergo ongoing scheduled, or as deemed reasonably necessary, unscheduled monitoring visits from DC PCSB at the school and the aftercare program to assess safety and security, as well as to determine the extent of completion of the above actions. Any written concerns identified during such visits shall be discussed with the Rocketship PCS and addressed by the school within the timeframes mutually determined by DC PCSB and Rocketship PCS.”

“At such times as may be reasonably requested by DC PCSB, appear before the DC PCSB Board to discuss the progress to date made by Rocketship PCS in completing the above actions to the satisfaction of DC PCSB.”

It was now time for everyone to go home.

Latest D.C. Mayoral plan to keep closed traditional school buildings away from charters: open early-childhood centers

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein revealed on Friday that next fall the former DCPS Thaddeus Stevens Elementary School will become an early-childhood center teaching approximately 30 kids from age birth to three years old. Bright Beginnings, a nonprofit company described by Ms. Stein as experienced in working with homeless children, will manage the program. From the organization’s website:

“Bright Beginnings was established in 1990 by the Junior League of Washington to provide quality childcare to families experiencing homelessness in Washington, DC. For over 29 years, Bright Beginnings has helped thousands of children experiencing homelessness by providing them and their families with quality care and support during times of hardship and transition. In 2014, Bright Beginnings pioneered the first home-based program in the country with the sole focus of supporting families impacted by the trauma of homelessness. Through programs such as this, Bright Beginnings staff have provided hundreds of Washingtonians living in shelters and transitional housing with important high-quality family and educational support.”

The location, according to Ms. Stein, will also include a preschool program for about 100 three and four-year olds that DCPS will administer.

The Steven School was closed more than a decade ago due to low attendance. This is the third plan for the site, which should have been turned over to charter schools in 2008 as a surplus property. Although the city has a plethora of under-enrolled schools that can be utilized if needed to create early-childhood centers, it appears the strategy now is to convert other vacant buildings for this purpose, slamming the door on charters who desperately need these properties. From the article:

“While the stand-alone early-childhood center will be novel, the city already has three infant and early-toddler centers at existing elementary schools. The idea with those existing centers is that children can attend the same school for the first decade of their lives. United Planning Organization — a community agency founded in 1962 to bring programs to the District’s low-income residents — operates those early-childhood centers.

D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said stand-alone campuses such as Stevens can offer more slots than co-located programs by having a campus solely dedicated to the city’s youngest learners. The stand-alone campuses can also provide professional development opportunities for preschool teachers.”

Ms. Stein announced the charter school facility blockade campaign as part of her reporting:

“The Bowser administration said it has dedicated $52 million to create similar stand-alone childhood facilities at three other closed schools. Next up: The city is in the early stages of transforming the former Marshall Elementary School in Northeast Washington into an early-childhood center.”

Steven has an fascinating history. According to the National Park Service:

“Named for  Pennsylvania Congressman and abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, the four-story brick school was built in 1868 for Black students. The emancipation of slaves in 1863 and the abolition of slavery in 1865 resulted in huge numbers of freed African Americans in need of basic services such as education. The Stevens school was built to accommodate this influx of students in a racially segregated city.”

The Washington Post editorial writer Colbert King attended Stevens when he was growing up. It’s now almost exactly 20 years since he and I sat in his newspaper’s conference room to discuss providing school choice to our city’s children. Mr. King is a brave man. He is just the individual to make a strong argument in his newspaper that the failure of our Mayor to follow the law regarding turning shuttered DCPS buildings over to charters is doing an injustice to our children. It is also not right.

Josh Kern should replace Scott Pearson as D.C. charter board executive director

Now that Scott Pearson has resigned his position as executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board and will leave his office at the end of May, it is time to speculate as to who will replace him. There really is no choice. Josh Kern, the current founder and managing member of TenSquare, should take Mr. Pearson’s place.

I know there has been a lot of controversy drummed up against Mr. Kern and his organization by people who don’t like charter schools. But think about it, is there anyone out there more qualified for this job? The answer is a resounding no.

As a reminder, Mr. Kern was the co-founder and executive director of Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS, one of the city’s premier high schools that since its start has been closing the academic achievement gap between the affluent and poor. When Josephine Baker retired as the PCSB executive director, Mr. Kern was a leading candidate to assume her role.

When the entire city expected Options PCS to close due to severe financial improprieties by the school’s management, Mr. Kern spent day and night protecting the severely emotionally and physically disabled children who attended this charter as if these kids were his own as the court appointed receiver. It was one of the most heroic acts I have ever personally witnessed. His team recently helped steer Cesar Chavez Public Charter School for Public Policy through an exceptionally challenging turnaround situation.

Mr. Kern’s firm TenSquare is improving the academic performance and management of low-performing charter schools in D.C. and across the country. He knows every aspect of charter performance from selecting strong school leaders, to implementing curriculum and running a business office. His firm has also been successful in identifying and securing permanent facilities. Here is just one highlight of his team’s efforts from my interview with Mr. Kern in 2018:

“The group has found over its seven years that by following its school improvement trajectory, a D.C. charter’s PMF will improve on average by 12 percentage points each year.  The average student Median Growth Percentile, a measure of academic improvement in math and English compared to their peers, will grow by a mean of 10 points in two years.”

Although detractors will claim that there will be a conflict of interest between Mr. Kern’s work at TenSquare and that of the charter board, there are steps that can be taken to create a clear separation between the two bodies. The TenSquare founder would simply have to end his association with the consulting body.

I am sure that people out there are saying that there are other qualified candidates that would come to this position without the questions that would surround the selection of Mr. Kern. But on the other hand, there is no one else would fight with every ounce of energy in his body for charters in the nation’s capital.

The choice is simple.

Mundo Verde PCS about to ratify first D.C. charter school union contract

A few weeks ago, WAMU’s Martin Austermuhle reported that Mundo Verde PCS is about to have the city’s first charter school collective bargaining agreement with its employees.

“Teachers, staff and management at one campus of the Mundo Verde Bilingual Public Charter School in D.C. have agreed on a tentative union contract, putting the popular school a vote away from becoming the first charter school in the city’s history to unionize.”

I have written hundreds of words about the efforts of DC ACTs, the union associated with the American Federation of Teachers to infiltrate Paul PCS, Cesar Chavez PCS, and now Mundo Verde.  There is really not much more to say about the move.  However, one paragraph in Mr. Austermuhle’s story grabbed my attention.

“’Mundo Verde has a really big commitment to social justice and equity, and we teach that to our students. The conversation about how do we provide teachers with more resources, and how do we give teachers and educators a voice is not a new one. There were a lot of spaces for us to share these feelings with leadership of the school, but it felt like it was time to do something more formal,’ said Andrea Molina, a kindergarten teacher and member of the bargaining unit.”

My contention is that if the employees of the charter were really serious about social justice and equity they would not be placing a union between the working relationship of school leadership and the teachers. The worst thing that could happen is that each and every move that a charter needs to make must be negotiated every two to three years. This is what I explained in my conversation with Mr. Austermuhle regarding his article:

“’I think it’s a terrible development, and overall it will hurt our charter school movement,’ said Mark Lerner, an education writer who also served in leadership positions of various charter schools. ‘[Charter schools] need to be able to react quickly, and if you have to work through a collective bargaining agreement, you can’t make changes quickly. If unions were widespread throughout the charter movement, they would look more and more like DCPS schools where it’s difficult to fire teachers, change curriculum, or change times.’”

In the last sentence I was referring to the opening and dismissal times established by schools.

It now appears that the nature of charters and traditional schools are becoming mirrors of each other. Just last week DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee revealed his desire to close Washington Metropolitan High School, an alternative high school located near Howard University. The campus, according to the Washington Post’s Perry Stein, has been characterized by “declining enrollment, poor attendance and lackluster academic results.”

Ms. Stein went on to detail that Washington Met is one of four alternative high schools, known as Opportunity Academies, operating under DCPS, although this is the only one that has a middle school. It opened in 2008 and has about 150 students. The school relocated to its current site in 2016. If Mayor Bowser approves of Mr. Ferebee’s recommendation, it would close at the end of the 2019-to-2020 academic year. The timing of his request is centered around the start of the upcoming MySchool DC lottery.

By the way, DCPS has apparently already said that if this school is closed the system will hold on to the building. Another structure about to be denied for use by charters desperate for permanent facilities.

The Washington Post reporter stated that the last time a DCPS school was shuttered was in 2013. If more of the low academic performing neighborhood schools are closed, and additional charters become unionized, we will begin to see the merging of the two sectors that many in the collaboration movement have been calling on for years.

After all why does there need to be charters if DCPS is playing their role in closing lackluster schools and charters operate in the same manner as the regular ones? It could mean the end of competition for students. I’ve never been more concerned.