Empowerk12 recognizes Bold Performance D.C. public schools

Empowerk12, a D.C. nonprofit that supports data analytics in education, recently released its list of 28 Bold Performance schools that outperform their predicted standardized test scores on the PARCC assessment. The methodology behind the designation of a Bold Performance school is fascinating. From the organization’s website:

“We analyzed the 2019 Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) data and found that at-risk concentration was the most predictive indicator of school-wide PARCC proficiency. Almost 45% of DC students tested in Spring 2019 were considered at-risk. The more at-risk students a school serves, the fewer the number who met expectations on PARCC, our analysis found. Other factors with a statistically significant impact on a school’s proficiency rate after controlling for percent at-risk served include percent special education, English language learners, race, and grade-level configuration. The 2019 model for Bold Performance includes all factors with a statistically significant impact, with at-risk contributing the most weight.

We used an ensemble of machine learning models to project what percentage of students were expected to be proficient at every school given their demographics, and then identified schools with actual proficiency rates significantly higher than expected. The 2019 Bold Performance award-winning schools have actual proficiency rates at least 10 percentage points higher than schools with similar demographics.”

Here’s some of the group’s observation’s about the winning schools:

“KIPP Promise leads the pack with a proficiency rate 33 points higher than similar schools—and combined proficiency higher than a few Ward 3 schools with considerably more affluent populations. At four of the Bold Performance schools, at-risk students have a higher math and ELA combined proficiency rate than non at-risk students District-wide: DC Prep Edgewood MS, KIPP Heights, KIPP Lead and KIPP Promise.

Together, the 28 schools educate 10,759 students, of which 18% receive special education services and 57% are considered at-risk, ranging from 32% to 86%. An at-risk student is a child whose family qualifies for SNAP or TANF benefits, is placed in foster care, or is experiencing homelessness.

Seventeen of the Bold Performance award-winning and honorable-mention schools are located east of the Anacostia River in Ward 7 and Ward 8, three in Ward 6, four in Ward 5, two in Ward 4, and one each in Wards 2 and 1. Six 2019 winners have been Bold Performers each of the last four years, since the awards began: DC Prep Benning ES, DC Prep Edgewood MS, Ketcham ES, KIPP Lead ES, KIPP Heights ES, and KIPP Promise ES.”

Here’s the complete list of schools:

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I could not help to notice that 67.9 percent of the schools on this list are charters. Congratulations to all of the winners. Truly fantastic work.

 

Depressing results on the 2019 National Report Card regarding America’s schools

The 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress results were released last week and the findings were not good. The exam, which tests approximately 300,000 fourth and eighth graders in reading and math, were last reported in 2017. According to the Washington Post’s Perry Stein:

“Nationally, scores for reading in fourth and eighth grades dropped from 2017 to 2019. Declines were recorded among students with the highest scores and among those with the lowest scores. In math, there was a small improvement among fourth-graders but a small drop in grade eight, driven by declines among lower-performing students.”

The Center for Education reform was even more direct in its assessment of scores on the test that is referred to as the “Nation’s Report Card.”

“Only 35 percent of 4th grade and 34 percent of 8th grade students performed at or above the proficient level in NAEP reading, and 41 percent of 4th grade and 34 percent of 8th grade students performed at or above the proficient level in NAEP math, and that’s not reflecting the declining performance of historically low performers, precisely the students we should worry the most about. In what world are these acceptable results?”

The only positive in this examination revolves around performance of pupils in Washington, D.C. Again, according to Ms. Stein:

“This year, the District and Mississippi were the only jurisdictions to improve on three of the four metrics evaluated. And when compared with the 50 states, the District made the largest gains in fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math over the three decades since the test was first administered. . . The District was the only jurisdiction that experienced a significant increase in eighth-grade reading. The score increased to 250 points, still well below the national state average on the exam. “

In fact, the District’s performance lags compared to the national average for proficiency and above in fourth and eighth grade reading and math. Even more unsettling is that the gains made by D.C.’s students come from the traditional school sector. Ms. Stein indicated that the proficiency percentages for charter school students were flat compared to two years ago.

What is going on here? We saw lackluster 2019 PARCC standardized test scores come out from the charters followed by the NAEP. Do we know the root cause of these indicators?

Well please allow me to repeat what I wrote when the PARCC scores were released:

“There are many reasons that charters are failing to perform when it comes to the PARCC. The facility issue is still proving to be a significant drain on the attention span of school leaders. The financial challenges, especially around teacher salaries, are not helped by the substantial inequity in funding compared to DCPS. The pressure placed on these schools by the PCSB in the way of accountability through the Performance Management Framework, and other regulatory burdens, makes it almost impossible for them to be the centers of innovative learning envisioned when they were created.”

These are issues that can no longer be ignored. They are significantly impacting student achievement. It’s time to start over. I need a group of energized and angry education reformers to lead the charge in Washington, D.C. to get our movement on the right track. The alternative is that our charter school experiment may be coming to an end.

Emotions raw at October D.C. charter board meeting

It was one of the most fascinating meetings I have seen in my years of watching the proceedings of the DC Public Charter School Board. During the open comment period person after person testified against DC Prep PCS expanding to a new location on Frankford Street, S.E. The entire discussion was confusing because the charter was on the agenda seeking approval to begin operating its new Anacostia Middle School beginning with the 2020-to-2021 school year and beyond at the site of the Birney Building, an incubator location operated by Building Pathways that now is home to Lee Montessori East End PCS and the old Excel Academy PCS that converted in 2018 to be part of DCPS. Yet here they were, a long line of witnesses, many with signs that read “Ø#NoDCPreponFrankford!Ø.”

Sandwiched toward the end of this part of the session, a mom who has two children attending Rocketship Rise Academy PCS, which was hosting the PCSB on this night, announced that a convicted child molester had tried to remove her kids from aftercare on a day in which school was not in session. The attempt, she said, was not successful, but she added that she has heard six different stories about what took place and has been trying to meet with a representative from the charter for three weeks about this issue without success. This prompted a Rocketship staff member to come forward to explain that the man in question had been detained by the police when he tried to leave with her children and that he had just attended a hearing on this matter today. The Rocketship employee also admitted that he had not done a good job reviewing this highly worrisome event with the parent.

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein, in an article appearing last Thursday, provided some details around the arrest of this individual. Antonio Burnside, age 30, “was forced to register as a sex offender after pleading guilty in December to attempted kidnapping and was given an 18-month suspended sentence, according to court records.” A police officer stationed at Rocketship let him into the school after he claimed he was with another person entering the building. Mr. Burnside then began playing basketball with a nine year old child and then tried to escort him and his six year old brother outside. A school official stopped him and Mr. Burnside was then arrested on unrelated charges. He is now being held without bail for attempted kidnapping. Rocketship, the PCSB, and the D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education are all reviewing security procedures at its schools. A letter went out from Rocketship’s administration to its parents two weeks after the incident occurred.

Next up was AppleTree Early Learning PCS regarding its proposal to co-locate with Richard Wright PCS for Journalism and Media Arts at its new location at 475 School Street, S.W. beginning in 2020. This is the AppleTree campus that was thrown out of its temporary location at Jefferson Middle School Academy when DCPS went ahead with a plan to renovate this facility. No accommodation was made for AppleTree and so the charter had no choice but to close this location. It was a slap in the face to the over 100 disadvantaged children and their families who now had to find somewhere else to send their three and four year olds.

Also as part of its charter amendment, AppleTree is attempting to open a new school at 1000 4th Street S.W. during the 2023-to-2024 school year. What is so exciting about this expansion is that this permanent home would be leased to the school by the developer PN Hoffman. One solution to the crippling charter school facility problem that has been floated in the past is to team with developers to provide classroom space. It appears that AppleTree is about to make this dream a reality.

The board will vote on these plans at the November meeting.

Finally, it was DC Prep’s turn at the table. Here is where things really became interesting. Chief Executive Officer Laura Maestas related that the school would prefer to locate its Anacostia Middle School campus at the Birney Building. However, for over a year DC Prep has been trying to get an answer as to what DCPS plans to do with Excel, whose lease is coming to an end. Without a solution in hand the charter moved quickly to purchase the Frankford Street church property that came on the market and was rapidly receiving interest by others in securing the parcel. Ms. Maestas admitted that her team has not engaged with the community about moving to this address. In fact, the school has kept the deal, which is scheduled to close in December, to itself.

Ms. Maestas added that if a suitable alternative could be identified to Frankford Street, then DC Prep would be open to selling this site.

The discussion clearly ignited the passion of board member Naomi Shelton. She pointed out that all charter operators are aware of the difficulties around finding space. But what she expressed she will not tolerate is the battle between adults over where schools should be located. Ms. Shelton decried the acrimony leveled against charters that are doing their best to close the academic achievement gap and yet she also chided institutions that fail to engage neighbors from the beginning in a respectful dialog about their plans. She pointed out that for years public officials in D.C. have been bystanders to a political problem over empty DCPS buildings that should be utilized for schools and under-enrolled classrooms that are ripe for co-location. Ms. Shelton concluded her remarks by urging all of the parties involved in this controversy to bring their case together as a group to the very politicians, such as D.C.’s Deputy Mayor of Education, that are standing in the way of a resolution.

There was one bit of business on this evening that was remarkable for the lack of contention that it generated. As predicted, Rocketship PCS was approved to open its third campus in the Fort Totten area of the city.

Student enrollment in D.C. charter schools shrink

As the Washington Post’s Perry Stein reported yesterday, student enrollment in D.C.’s charter schools decreased for the first time since the movement started 23 years ago. Simultaneously, DCPS has grown by four percent compared to last term. 51,060 pupils now attend traditional schools compared to 43,556 in charters. The charter sector went down by 404 scholars compared to October 2018. They now educate 46 percent of all individuals attending public schools. These are unaudited statistics.

What should we say about the decline? The only conclusion that can be reached is to be proud of our local charter movement. As Mayor Muriel Boswer explained to the Post, “One of the big ideas behind the charter movement is that schools that are successful stay open, and schools that are not close, so we shouldn’t be so surprised by this trend.”

It’s been so depressing to watch the Democratic candidates for President talk about education. They uniformly attack charters like they are some kind of monster. At least two of those running, Elizabeth Warren and Corey Booker, used to be strong proponents of school choice. But now they are after the endorsements of the teachers’ unions so they are not allowed to say anything positive about these institutions that are opening up in the toughest part of cities in order to teach those kids that have been tossed to the curb. The entire situation breaks my heart.

One thing I have never been good at is politics. I believe that people are basically good and that if I treat them with dignity and respect everything will turn out the right way. However, reality is unfortunately much different from my naive view. People do things and say things that are not based upon the best interest of others. They are looking out to serve themselves.

Which is why what we have accomplished in the nation’s capital is so spectacular. Our city is sticking with the standardized PARCC assessment, testing kids on their comprehension of Common Core standards, which have been viciously attacked as evil around the country. The new DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee has stated he will review the IMPACT teacher evaluation tool that ties ratings to student academic performance but he does not envision much change. I’ve lost track of how many charter schools the DC Public Charter School Board closed this year, but it is doing the extremely tough job of shuttering low performing facilities. Some localities have scrapped the PARCC and Common Core because the relatively low scores made educators look bad. Others have turned away from holding instructors responsible for the results posted by their students. In addition, there are places where charter schools operate in which the authorizer is not as strong as the PCSB. Therefore, poor schools have been allowed to continue operating.

I cannot explain the reasons behind the fortunate alignment of forces that has allowed the nation’s capital to stay above the fray and focus on the singular goal of closing the academic achievement gap. Perhaps it is a natural reaction to the dysfunction of the federal government. But the cause does not really matter. What is crucially important is that we continue on the mission to prepare our youth to compete and thrive in a global economy. Through this bold effort, we will have saved several thousand lives.

Should D.C. School Reform Act give more power to charter board?

I’ve written much about the hearing before the D.C. Council earlier this month regarding a bill to increase transparency of the city’s charter schools. However, there was a fascinating discussion that occurred towards the end of the session between Phil Mendelson, the Council chairman, and Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, that has yet to be reported.

The conversation revolved around the power that the charter board has to force the schools it oversees to comply with its rules. Mr. Pearson was asked by Mr. Mendelson what actions his organization can take if charters refuse to abide by its requests for information. For example, charters are required to provide to the PCSB minutes of its board meetings. What happens, the Council chair wanted to know, if a school decides simply not to comply?

Mr. Pearson indicated that there are number of steps his organization would take. It would start with communication from his group to the school. If this doesn’t work then a letter might go from Mr. Pearson to the school’s board chair. Alternatively, the school’s board may be required to meet with the PCSB. The charter board could also mandate that the school’s board report on the issue at one of its monthly meetings. Finally, Mr. Pearson added, if a school fails to submit material the board would begin charter revocation.

Responding to Mr. Pearson’s remarks, Mr. Mendelson likened charter revocation to taking a sledge hammer to a school to get it to do the right thing. The D.C. Council chairman alluded to the fact that the punishment seemed extreme considering the school’s indiscretion. Mr. Mendelson pondered as to whether it would be better to encode the board’s stipulations into law. Mr. Pearson answered that the PCSB does not distinguish between its regulations and statutes when it comes to information derived from schools. However, the charter board executive director did concede that charters may be more inclined to satisfy obligations if they were part of legislation. “People generally don’t want to break the law,” Mr. Pearson opined.

The back and forth between the two men is interesting for a number of reasons. I’ve written many times about the excessive burdens that the charter board places on its schools. If these commands had to part of D.C. code in order to be in effect, would this step inherently limit the data that the board seeks from its schools? Would this change impose a higher standard on guidelines established by the board?

This topic also calls into question whether the charter board should have other disciplinary tools at its disposal. Should it be permitted to withhold funds if a school is not responding appropriately to the board? Perhaps a grade on compliance should be incorporated into the Performance Management Framework?

As we grow and mature as a local charter school movement these matters will almost certainly increase in importance. However, for today, we will worry about open meetings and FOIA requests.

Bowser administration reacts to End The List campaign with misleading facts

D.C.’s Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn recently released a report entitled “Citywide Landscape of Former DCPS Facilities Remaining in Educational Use or Government Owned” which is a clear attempt to blunt the attack on Mayor Bowser’s administration regarding the withholding of more than 1 million square feet of surplus DCPS space that by law must be turned over to use by charter schools. The criticism is the recent focus of the DC Association of Chartered Public School’s End The List campaign and the Open the Doors of Opportunity effort led by the Center for Education Reform.

The DME’s publication is highly misleading. It claims that there are only three schools, for a total of 385,000 square feet, that are currently empty and “undergoing DCPS programmatic review.” The document states that these buildings have not been deemed “excess” according to D.C. law. The former traditional schools are Langston, closed in the mid-1990s; Spingarn High School, shuttered in 2012; and the Winston Education Campus, also closed in 2012. If these schools cannot be classified as excess, then I do not understand what structures will ever land in this category.

The report lists seven schools that have been turned over to entities for other purposes. There are another 16 buildings classified as being occupied by District agencies. One of these is Ferebee-Hope that is being offered to charters through a request for proposal.

Strangely missing from the schools listed in the addendum to the government’s study are Hine and Randall, two of the five former DCPS sites that Ms. Bowser turned over to private developers.

We also do not see any data on the DCPS schools that are operating with significant under-enrollment that could be used for charter school co-locations.

There is only one overriding theme that one comes away with after reviewing this material. If Muriel Bowser wanted to, she could provide a permanent facility for every charter school that needed one. Instead, after 20 years, charters are still struggling to identify adequate space in which to operate. The search is a major distraction from the mission of educating children, and is a significant contributor to the continuing presence of an academic achievement gap in our city that is currently at about 65 points. It is the largest one in the nation.

It appears crystal clear now that there is only going to be one way to ensure that empty DCPS structures are turned over to charters. This will be through the courts. Who will have the guts to take up this challenge?

Lack of transparency by charter leaders will lead to D.C. Council transparency bill passage

I have spent considerable time listening to the testimony of charter school supporters before the D.C. Council last week regarding the bill proposed by Charles Allen that would require these schools of choice to adhere to the open meetings law and force them to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests. I’m frankly not impressed. It appears that the unspoken strategy that our side employed was to advance the argument that this legislation would do nothing to improve the quality of the education that children are receiving. It did not work. In fact, I feel that we simply allowed those in favor of these requirements to offer the consistent line of reasoning that since charter schools are receiving taxpayer money they must be responsive to the public’s desire for as much information about their operations as is available, just as is the case with any government entity. However, charter schools are not part of the government.

We should have taken a different approach. What we did not explain, and there was plenty of evidence to make this point, is that charter schools in the nation’s capital are under attack. We could have shown through the power of the printed word that there are people out there, specifically certain reporters, that appear to be on a mission to see these schools vanish from the face of the earth. We could have quoted articles that have gone after the salaries of school administrators, have criticized as evil an organization whose mission is to turnaround low performing institutions, and that have bemoaned schools for contributing financially to organizations established to defend their integrity. We could have illustrated the efforts of teachers’ unions to undermine our existence.

DC Public Charter Board executive director Scott Pearson came closest to offering the line of reasoning that I am proposing. He stated:

“We recently received a request made asking for all emails DC PCSB staff have sent with a lengthy list of recipients going back to 2015. A preliminary search returned an estimated 3.2 million pages of responsive documents. So far, we’ve been able to narrow the request to 1.9 million pages, but the requestor has been largely unwilling to work with us on reducing it any further. We estimate this will take three employees working full time over a year to review all of these documents. Imagine a school dealing with this, and the diversion of resources from student facing work.

Another recent example is a multi-part request that we completed. This request ultimately took nearly 500 hours of staff time to complete. That amounts to one staff member spending 12 and a half work weeks focusing on this issue alone. I would also note that, under current law, there is a very high threshold for a request to be considered overly broad or onerous.”

We should have shouted that if you pass Mr. Allen’s legislation, that on the face of it appears well intended, the open meeting law and FOIA will become a weapon in the arsenal to shutter the charter movement. Make no mistake about it. Schools will be targeted and there will be nothing they will be able to do in the face of these new requirements.

A shinning light came in the form of the remarks by Shannon Hodge, the co-founder and executive director of Kingsman Academy PCS. I reprint them below:

“Good morning, Chairman Mendelson, Councilmember Grosso, and members of the Council. I am Shannon Hodge, co-founder and executive director of Kingsman Academy, a public charter middle and high school in Ward 6. This morning, I would like to share a few thoughts about the Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019. I have testified before you on several occasions regarding how charter schools in general are transparent and how Kingsman Academy specifically takes additional steps to open our operations and decision-making to important stakeholders. For example, our board meetings are open to the public and we announce them on our website. We have a Faculty and Staff Advisory Council that meets regularly to share their concerns and suggestions and provide feedback and perspective on initiatives under consideration. We utilize student and parent focus groups to make sure that we are responsive to stakeholders’ questions and concerns. And with the Transparency Hub of the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board (DC PCSB), we can be assured that the public has access to relevant financial, performance, policy, and procurement information in a clear, straightforward manner.

Despite this level of access, I have seen very little family or public interest in the routine governance matters of my school. Although every one of our board meetings since May 2015 has been open and publicly posted, we have had members of the public or school staff appear only twice: once to present a proposal to the board and once to observe a board meeting as part of our accreditation process. The types of sensational headlines that may appear once per school year in the city do not reflect what typically happens at our board meetings. And, unfortunately, I do not know that anything in the legislation before you will prevent those headlines. Adding constraints on those meetings and requiring certain people to be on those boards only adds to the bureaucracy.

I have four specific asks as you continue to consider this legislation. First, I ask that you not substitute the DC PCSB as a de facto central office for charter schools. The DC PCSB is not equivalent to District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). It does not operate any schools. Its primary responsibility is to determine whether charter schools stay open based on the goals that we have adopted and agreed upon in our charters. Asking the DC PCSB to provide technical support and assistance with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) clouds its role and our work. As it currently stands, charter schools pay the DC PCSB millions of dollars per year to support its work. Kingsman Academy alone pays more than the equivalent of what we would pay a full-time teacher’s salary and benefits to the DC PCSB on an annual basis. Your requiring the DC PCSB to provide assistance with this legislation will inevitably lead to the cost of that support being passed along to charter schools. Please do not punish schools by adding costs that our funding cannot support. Instead, set up a special purpose revenue non-lapsing fund for compliance with this legislation.

Second, I ask that you talk to school leaders, especially of small, single-site charter schools like Kingsman Academy, to hear directly how this proposed legislation will affect us and to use that information to refine the bill. With past legislation, such as the school discipline bills led by Councilmember Grosso, this Council very deliberately engaged school leaders over a period of time to strengthen the proposals.

Third, I ask you to consider the provision of this legislation that would define the boards of public charter schools as public bodies for FOIA purposes. Will the city cover our legal bills related to FOIA compliance, as it does for other public agencies? If you are willing to consider us as public bodies for this purpose, are you also willing to provide the 11 percent match to our teachers’ retirement contributions as you do for DCPS? Are you willing to pay for modernizing the buildings that we own?

Fourth, I ask you to consider whether the problems you are trying to address with this legislation are actually served by it. As I think about the DC students who are dying due to gun violence, the disparities in student performance for students with disabilities and the students designated as “at-risk”, this legislation seems to call your attention away from the most significant problems facing schools in this city.

Thank you for your time and your attention to this matter. “

Testimony of Scott Pearson, executive director of DC PCSB, regarding the Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019

Yesterday, Scott Pearson, executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, testified before the D.C. Council’s Committee of the Whole and the Committee on Education as part of a public hearing on the Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019 and Public Charter School Closure Amendment Act of 2019. I am reprinting his remarks today with commentary to follow in future posts.

Chairman Mendelson, Chairman Grosso, Councilmember Allen and councilmembers, thank you for inviting me to speak today on the issues of transparency and accountability for our city’s public charter schools. I am Scott Pearson, Executive Director of the Public Charter School Board.

The Public School Transparency Amendment Act would require public charter schools to be subject to the DC Open Meetings Act, the Freedom of Information Act, and several other requirements.

As I testified in June on another piece of legislation, we support the requirement that board meetings of public charter schools be made public when discussing expansion, budgets, or closure. We believe that there need to be a few closed session exemptions to account for areas where public charter schools as independent 501(c)(3)’s are different from government entities. This includes exemptions for information concerning individual students or staff or matters that would materially affect their competitive position in relation to other schools. By adding clarity to the law, it will benefit both the school’s boards, families, and staff.

To me, transparency is an essential part of the public charter school concept. It goes hand in hand with flexibility and accountability.

The question for me is not whether charter schools should be open and transparent. The question is what is the best way to achieve this end. Our primary goal is that our schools ensure students perform well academically. We have worked for years at the Public Charter School Board to make more information available to the public in the smartest way possible.

• When it comes to how public charter schools spend their money, every public charter school is subject to an annual audit by a third party certified public accountant approved by a committee of the Public Charter School Board, the OCFO, and OSSE. Those audits are published on our website, along with schools’ IRS tax returns and their annual budgets. Each is verified and accessible to anyone who wants to take a look. In addition, we require schools to break down their expenditures into four categories – occupancy, personnel, student support, and administration — so that school expenditures can be compared with each other on an apples to apples basis. This report is released to the public through our Financial Analysis Report.

• Looking at school operations, performance and governance, we post schools’ charter goals, their student handbooks, average high and low teacher salaries, academic data, student commute maps, enrollment and demographic data, annual reports, at-risk funding plans, and contact information for the school’s board. This year we are adding to this board of trustees meeting calendars, including which meetings are open to the public, approved school board meeting minutes, the current salaries of the five most highly compensated individuals in the organization, and the contact information for key staff.

• We post on our website extensive information about our oversight of each school, including a school’s five- or ten-year review and renewal reports, equity reports, performance reports, compliance review reports, and detailed writeups from our classroom observations.

All the information I’ve just described is publicly available and easy to locate on our website. We’ve tried to include everything a family would want to know about a school. If there is more information folks want, we are certainly open to discussing how we can make that available.

I have noticed that many have been conflating “transparency,” with FOIA. FOIA is a tool of transparency, one which we believe is inappropriate to apply towards small, independent 501(c)(3) organizations. It is a blunt instrument that will do little to provide families with the information they need and want while having the potential, through its cost and time demands, to take resources away from the school quality goals we all share. If our goal is transparency, FOIA misses the mark, especially for families with limited time and resources.

Years ago, policymakers decided to address the issue of sunshine in public charter schools by making DC PCSB subject to FOIA. As a result of working closely with schools across all issue areas, we can provide most, if not all, of the information sought after by the public. We receive requests from all types of citizens including journalists, academic researchers, union representatives, parents, and teachers. For FY 2018, the sum of requests totaled 73. This year, we have already surpassed that number.

But the number of requests only tells part of the story. The key metric in assessing a FOIA request is the scope. Some freedom of information requests are narrow and can be completed in under an hour. However, larger requests can take hundreds or even thousands of hours to complete and have the potential to paralyze a small organization. This is where our overall concern lies.

In recent months, DC PCSB itself has received multiple requests that encompass hundreds of thousands of responsive documents and will require hundreds of hours of review. There is a multiplier effect on the staff cost and hours. Documents must generally be reviewed by multiple staff members, including those with a legal background, to ensure that no protected student data or other confidential or privileged information is accidentally released.

Let me provide two recent examples:

• We recently received a request made asking for all emails DC PCSB staff have sent with a lengthy list of recipients going back to 2015. A preliminary search returned an estimated 3.2 million pages of responsive documents. So far, we’ve been able to narrow the request to 1.9 million pages, but the requestor has been largely unwilling to work with us on reducing it any further. We estimate this will take three employees working full time over a year to review all of these documents. Imagine a school dealing with this, and the diversion of resources from student facing work.

• Another recent example is a multi-part request that we completed. This request ultimately took nearly 500 hours of staff time to complete. That amounts to one staff member spending 12 and a half work weeks focusing on this issue alone. I would also note that, under current law, there is a very high threshold for a request to be considered overly broad or onerous.

I would hope most schools would not regularly receive requests like these. In fact, some schools may not receive any requests at all. But I would also expect schools experiencing turmoil, the schools that can least afford to spend time digging through and reviewing emails and other documents, will be the ones impacted.

Since many schools do not have an in-house legal team, much of the work of information gathering and review will fall on teachers and staff. Therefore, most will need to work with outside attorneys who are not on school email systems, and do not have the ability to search through the communications of staff. In practice, this means the work of searching will likely be performed by the teachers whose work is implicated by the request. The results will then be sent to the legal counsel to apply any exemptions and redactions, at a substantial hourly fee.

There are more effective and efficient ways to satisfy the public’s desire to understand the work of public charter schools. FOIA will not give families information on their student’s performance or IEP decisions they can’t already obtain under federal law. FOIA will not improve communication between families and schools. FOIA will not help a family understand a budget. FOIA may not even produce deliberative emails between board members, which will be searched, reviewed, and ultimately redacted.

The harmful effects of FOIA go beyond the trouble of searching and reviewing documents and emails. As members and staff of the Council know only too well, the presence of FOIA inhibits free and open electronic communication. This makes decision makers less able to engage in the kind of open electronic communication that allows organizations to operate at peak performance.

The process of FOIA takes time and focus off students and off the operations of the school. And this is the fundamental issue we have with this bill: it will do nothing to improve student achievement; instead, it will make it harder for schools to be truly excellent. We honestly believe that FOIA will not further the cause of quality schools and instead result in school spending hours and dollars that could otherwise be spent on students for a gain in transparency that we believe will ultimately be negligible.

With this reality in mind, I ask that we work together to identify inaccessible information and figure out ways we can make that public instead of subjecting individual schools to this catch-all tool of FOIA. In the long run, it will be more helpful for schools to give families and communities specific information rather than inundate them with thousands of pages of irrelevant documents.

Public Charter School Closure Amendment Act of 2019

Before I conclude my testimony, I would like to turn my attention to the Public Charter School Closure Amendment Act of 2019 to express my support. As an independent authorizer, DC PCSB is required to hold each public charter school to high standards — we must not only hold school leaders accountable for academic success, but also ensure they are acting in the best interest of all students attending the school.

Over the next two school years, DC PCSB will conduct a high-stakes review of 29 different public charter schools. Some of these reviews could result in a school closure.

Closing a school and settling its finances is a complex process that requires robust oversight. During the public charter school closure process, our oversight of school operations is hampered by the fact that the school’s charter has already been revoked or non-renewed. Our ultimate leverage is gone. As such, it becomes more difficult to address issues that may arise during the school’s wind-down period, such as those involving the school’s expenditures and finances; oversight of school personnel; and cooperation with the transition efforts of the acquiring school in the event of an asset acquisition.

The ability to impose conditions will help DC PCSB perform its oversight obligations more effectively during a closing school’s final months of operation. Importantly, DC PCSB will be better able to safeguard public funds that a school might otherwise use inappropriately. For example, we could impose a condition that all of a school’s expenditures over $10,000 would be subject to DC PCSB approval, which could prevent a school leader from receiving a golden parachute. Those funds, if otherwise unspent, would go back to OSSE and be redistributed upon dissolution of the school.

The proposed bill will also help the DC PCSB ensure positive outcomes for students in the closing school, including helping those students enroll in a high-quality school for the following school year. For example, we could require that schools hire more staff if there is an uptick in safety incidents. We could require schools to offer retention bonuses to teachers or employees to help ensure students finish out the school year in a safe and stable environment. We could demand that schools turn over contact lists to our enrollment specialists or require schools to allow us to send enrollment specialists to school property to ensure families are apprised of their options.

I know I usually appear before you to advocate for preserving school autonomy, and I recognize this bill goes in the opposite direction. However, it applies only in the narrowest of cases – specifically those few months between when the board votes to close a school and when it actually closes its doors and winds down its operations. We believe it will considerably improve our ability to safeguard public funds and ensure better outcomes for students in closing schools.

As the sole charter authorizer in our nation’s capital, DC PCSB has been long committed to providing families, students, and the public with information on public charter school performance. That is why we collect and publish so much detailed information about every single public charter school in the District. DC PCSB remains committed to working closely with schools across all issue areas, to provide most, if not all, of the information sought by the public in the interest of what is best for students. Thank you again for this opportunity to testify. I am happy to answer any questions.

We have to stop playing politics with our children

An extremely sad article appeared in the Washington Post yesterday by Michael Kranish detailing the strong relationship Senator Cory Booker once had with Betsy DeVos revolving around their mutual support of private school vouchers and charter schools. They first started working together on education reform beginning in 1998 when Mr. Booker was asked by Ms. DeVos and her husband to speak on a panel in support of a Michigan ballot initiative backing choice. The Senator and Ms. DeVos ending up serving together for years on two boards of directors that promote school vouchers, and, as recently as 2016, Mr. Booker appeared before the American Federation for Children, an organization chaired by Ms. DeVos. The two were friends and allies. According to the Post:

“Booker spoke proudly about the growing number of students in Newark’s charter schools, saying, ‘This mission of this organization is the mission of our nation. . . . I have been involved with this organization for 10 years and I have seen the sacred honor of those here.'” 

Then in 2017, in an apparent bid to align himself with the views of the Democratic party so that he could increase his chances of becoming the group’s nominee for President, Mr. Booker voted against confirming Ms. DeVos as the United States Secretary of Education. Again, according to the Post:

“In a dramatic 2017 Senate floor speech, Booker opposed DeVos’s nomination to be Secretary of Education, saying he had ‘no confidence’ in her stance on civil rights issues, without mentioning their prior work together on pro-voucher groups.” The address lasted 45 minutes.

Mr. Booker now states that he changed his mind on school vouchers when he became Mayor of Newark, New Jersey in 2006. According to Mr. Kranish the Senator has recently referred to some charter schools as “really offensive” and “republican schemes.”

Coming up on Wednesday in the nation’s capital, there will a D.C. Council hearing on Charles Allen’s bill to increase charter school transparency. Of course, this legislation includes a requirement that charters adhere to the open meeting law and comply with Freedom of Information Act requests. Given the current political environment I have little faith that this act will be voted down, although the impact on charters could be devastating.

So I have a question this morning. If Mr. Allen’s initiative, which has nothing to do with transparency and is actually completely about the efforts of teachers’ unions to end the city’s charter school movement, passes will our city’s charters have the bravery to refuse to comply?

Let’s see whether our schools are really ready to support our children.

Why school choice is the black choice

Last Friday afternoon, my wife Michele and I attended a fascinating forum sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation entitled “Why School Choice is the Black Choice.” The session was moderated by Roland Martin, who my wife and I have enjoyed for years as the Master of Ceremonies for the annual Friendship PCS Teacher of the Year Gala. Joining Mr. Roland for a panel discussion was Margaret Fortune, CEO and president Fortune PCS; Shawn Hardnett, founder and executive director Statesmen College Preparatory Academy for Boys PCS; Elizabeth Davis, president, Washington Teachers’ Union; and Dr. Steve Perry, founder Capital Preparatory PCS’s.

The lively and argumentative discussion centered on the role of charter schools in public education in this country. Of course, anytime the subject is charters at this moment in time, the issue of transparency is brought up. Here is where Dr. Perry, who was by far the most passionate of the day’s speakers, turned the topic on its head. He pointed out that if you really want to talk about this topic then we have to be transparent about the numerous traditional public schools that are failing to teach our youth, specifically low-income black boys, and the fact that nothing is being done to correct the situation. Dr. Perry related that these schools just continue to exist day in and day out. In essence, the educational malpractice simply continues. Ms. Fortune, Mr. Hardnett, and Dr. Perry highlighted that when it comes to charter schools, if they don’t perform they are closed. In D.C., 35 schools have had their charter revoked for academic reasons.

I think Dr. Perry is on to something here. When charter opponents in our nation’s capital harp on transparency, supporters need to illuminate all of the matters that we need to be open about regarding these schools of choice:

  • The $1,600 to $2,600 per student per year that the neighborhood schools receive each year that charters do not even though by law the two sectors are to receive identical revenue through the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula;
  • The over 1 million square feet of unused or underutilized space that DCPS is holding without providing them to charters as is required by law that is a major contributor to a 12,000 charter school student wait list:
  • The reality that the DC Public Charter School Board requires its schools to provide detailed information about every aspect of the operation of the schools it oversees, including financial data, and that almost all of these submissions are publicly available; and
  • The fact that no DCPS schools have ever been shuttered due to poor academic performance. Not a one.

If people want transparency, then transparency is exactly what they will get.