D.C. parents and educators fight over bringing children back to in classroom learning

Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has mandated that children return to the classroom when DCPS starts school on August 30th. But many parents and instructors are raising concerns. Yesterday in an excellent article the Washington City Paper’s Ambar Castillo captured these issues as expressed at a State Board of Education meeting last Wednesday evening, which revolve around fear of the rise of Covid-19’s Delta variant, the inability of students to accomplish social distancing due to a lack of space, the fact that there is no available vaccine for children younger than twelve years old, and the lack of a virtual learning option. In addition, parents argued that lunch should be provided outdoors, which led Raymond Weeden, the Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS executive director, to explain that this is not possible for his attendees because of the large number of shootings around the school’s Anacostia neighborhood.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the City Paper piece was the revelation that the founder and long-term head of Achievement Prep PCS has now joined the DC Charter School Alliance. Sarah Lewis is listed on the school’s website as the interim CEO. Ms. Castillo wrote:

“Shantelle Wright, the DC Charter School Alliance Interim Director of Advocacy and Policy, expressed a need for “a citywide contingency plan should the District have an unexpected outbreak that puts schools remaining open at risk.” She said the alliance is asking the mayor to include charter schools when the city coordinates a protocol to tackle an even worse COVID caseload crisis.”

Ms. Wright is expressing a point of view previously expressed by the Alliance that is driving me up the wall. What happened to the days when charters took control of their own destiny? Isn’t it possible for the Alliance or the DC Public Charter School Board to devise a contingency plan for an unexpected outbreak? How hard can it be? Wouldn’t the answer be to return to distance learning lesson plans?

The DCPCS has granted permission to KIPP DC PCS and Maya Angelou PCS to offer limited virtual learning going forward. The board turned down a request for Howard University PCS’s request to do the same although no reason was given. Apparently, AppleTree PCS withdrew an initial request to be able to provide virtual instruction. Friendship PCS already has an online institute.

At the same meeting complaints were raised about Ms. Bowser’s expressed policy that school nurses will not be allowed to care for students or teachers who may have contracted the virus. This would be handled by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. WTOP’s Acacia James captured Washington Latin PCS’s head of school Peter Anderson explaining that his school’s nurse resigned due to this condition. From her article:

“’When we pushed back on this, our nurse also tried to push back on this, was told nothing’s going to change and so she quit,’ Anderson said. ‘And so now we no longer have a nurse and we don’t know what the situation is going to be for us.’”

There is also controversy over testing. Ms. James stated that the city will cover the cost of testing ten percent of students. However, if a school decides to test more than this number, it will have to pay.

It appears that D.C.’s school sectors are about to begin a grand experiment of teaching children in person during a pandemic.

 

This is not America

On Saturday morning my wife Michele and I brought drug store items over to the 1310 Kitchen and Bar to participate with owner and chef Jenn Crovato’s effort together with the Georgetown Inn to accumulate donated supplies for the approximately twenty-five hundred Afghanistan refugees anticipated to settle in the Washington, D.C. area in the next few weeks. We were escorted into the storage room by one of the hotel’s front desk personnel. She was from Afghanistan and thanked us profusely for our assistance. She then started to cry.

The young woman explained to us that her husband was trapped in the airport in Kabul and she did not know at this point whether he would be able to leave the country. She stated that she had worked for the Americans in her place of birth and that the future for her and her husband was terrifying for people in her situation in Afghanistan with the Taliban in charge. She was able to get out under the Special Immigrant Visa program which is what her husband is also using in his effort to escape. She told us that the remainder of her family back home is moving every couple of days in order not to be killed because of her prior service to the United States.

We also began to cry.

Of course, most United States citizens wanted our military out of Afghanistan. A twenty year war is way too long. I shared the feeling that if the residents of that country could not defend themselves at this point in history as we are about to mark two decades after the 9/11 terrorist’s attack, then it was time to go. However, I have to say that I am disgusted regarding the manner in which we have turned our backs on those that fought with us. The entire troop withdrawal appears to be incompetently planned and executed. This is not how America behaves.

I had the exact same reaction last week when I learned that fifteen year old Kemon Payne was stabbed and killed by a sixteen year old outside of KIPP DC’s Public Charter High School. Both boys were students there, with the victim attending from preschool. The Washington Post reported that the murder resulted from an altercation that started with a friend of Mr. Payne bumping into the suspect.

The nation’s capital is currently experiencing the highest murder rate in sixteen years. The Post story about this incident included this paragraph:

“In the midst of the scrum, police said, Kemon, who started classes last week at KIPP DC College Preparatory public charter school, was stabbed twice in the chest. He died at a hospital. He was the third person to be killed in a matter of hours in D.C.”

I simply do not know what has happened to values in our land. We must get back to a focus on teaching the difference between right and wrong that are the bedrock of our society. In addition, unless parents and the adults in leadership positions are leading by example, then life for us all will never improve.

It is time to wake up to what is important in the world.

D.C. charter school movement shows signs of renewal

Yesterday, in a highly unusual move, the DC Public Charter School Board held its monthly meeting at one o’clock p.m. instead of in the evening. That is far from the perfect time to ensure maximum public participation. But it is summer and there was only one item on the agenda. The board considered allowing the See Forever Foundation, the organization that currently operates two campuses of the Maya Angelou Public Charter Schools, to open a second high school at the D.C. jail.

The charter amendment request provided an excellent opportunity to hear from the school’s new chief executive officer Clarisse Mendoza Davis. She was so articulate and positive in her remarks that if you are having a bad day I highly recommend watching this hearing so that your frame of mind can be flipped in the completely opposite direction. Ms. Davis spoke passionately about literally meeting these students where they are, including having her staff figure out how to teach young people who are in solitary confinement and permitted only an hour a day to leave their cells. After her presentation, the board quickly and unanimously approved the request.

The opportunity for Maya Angelou came because the D.C. jail’s contract with DCPS to provide instruction to inmates through its Inspiring Youth Program concludes at the end of September. The Department of Corrections then contacted Maya Angelou PCS to see if it would provide the service. It is fascinating to me that the D.C. government reached out to a charter. If it can do it in this instance, then I do not see why it cannot do the same regarding replacing all of the failing traditional schools that are doing a disservice to our children with charters.

The other positive development on Monday was that the Washington Post’s Jay Mathews wrote a glowing column regarding the work of my friend Susan Schaeffler, the CEO of KIPP DC PCS. The occasion was the twentieth anniversary of Ms. Schaeffler opening her first campus in a church basement to teach low income kids. Mr. Mathew remarked:

“As the chief executive of KIPP DC, she now leads 20 schools with 7,300 students from preschool through high school. That is 7 percent of the D.C. public school population. Her team has established high standards for learning that have drawn strong support from D.C. families, while evolving from a focus on just college to a promise to help students achieve successful careers — what KIPP calls “choice-filled lives”— by whatever paths they select.”

I first met Susan and KIPP DC’s president Allison Fansler years ago at one of Fight for Children’s Fight Night charity galas. I’m sure they were invited due to their close relationship with Michela English, then the president and CEO of Fight for Children. I was chairman of the Washington Latin PCS board and invited Susan to become one of our trustees. Washington Latin was sometimes criticized for being a school for affluent families which was not true. In fact, it had one of the most diverse student bodies I had ever seen for a charter. I wanted to do something tangible to demonstrate that we were dedicated to instructing all children in the city. Susan agreed to join us and despite her incredibly busy schedule she attended our meetings and made many strong contributions to our institution. When it became clear that her day job and family commitments were just too much to serve formally at Latin she became a trusted advisor to head of school Martha Cutts until she retired from leading the charter.

Yesterday was a great day.

Washington Post editors once again call for D.C. private school voucher plan to continue; time may be running out

The editors of the Washington Post, as they have done since my fateful meeting with columnist Colbert King twenty-two years ago, come out strongly today in support of continuation of the Congressionally-approved Opportunity Scholarship Program that provides private school vouchers for low-income children to attend private schools in the nation’s capital. The opinion piece repeats many of the benefits of the plan:

“The cost of the program is modest and well-spent: $17.5 million per year. That is part of a federal funding deal that also directs money to the District’s traditional and charter public schools. Nearly 11,000 scholarships have been awarded since the program was founded in 2004, and at least 91 percent of the graduates are accepted to two- or four-year colleges or universities. That compares with 39 percent of D.C public high school students. Most of the recipients — 92 percent — are African American or Hispanic, and the average annual income for families participating in the program in the 2020-2021 school year was $23,668.”

The OSP has a long history of being backed by brave representatives, both Democrats and Republicans, who have withstood the diabolical efforts of unions to dismantle this life preserver for those living in poverty. These have included Representative Paul Ryan, Senator Dianne Feinstein, House Speaker John Boehner, Senator Joe Lieberman, Senator Tim Scott, and Senator Ron Johnson, among others. But with Mr. Ryan, Mr. Boehner, and Mr. Lieberman no longer in office, will the others have the drive to overcome the efforts of the U.S. Department of Education, House of Representatives, and President to kill it once and for all?

I have my doubts. The country is facing so many difficulties right now that I don’t know that anyone will be able to focus on the educational needs of 1,800 students.

There is one central reason that Congress should keep the program in place. It is the right thing to do. But listening to the news these days I’m beginning to doubt that what should be done is a driving force behind anyone’s actions.

D.C. charter schools received $38 million in PPP money

Yesterday, the D.C. Council held an oversight hearing regarding DC Public Schools, the office of the Deputy Mayor for Education, and the charter sector. A few interesting items were brought up in the discussion involving DCPCSB chair Rick Cruz and the organization’s executive director Dr. Michelle Walker-Davis.

First, it was revealed that charters in the nation’s capital have received approximately $38 million in federal government PPP dollars. I have argued in the past that it was wrong for these schools to apply because their funding stream was never disrupted. Here’s some of what I wrote on the subject last July:

“As I drive to work everyday during the week and see all of the businesses that are closed, I think about all of the people now without jobs. My own family has been impacted by the pandemic. To me, taking these extremely limited PPE dollars away from those who are trying to figure out how to put food on the table is nothing less than disgusting.”

However, there is an even more fundamental reason that schools should not take these grants. Remember the FOCUS engineered funding inequity lawsuit? For years charters spoke in value-based terms as to the unfairness of DCPS receiving $100,000 a year in city support that charters could not access. Now the positions are reversed and the traditional schools were prevented from applying for the federal program because they are part of the government and not individual LEA’s. So what did many charters do when faced with this dilemma? They took the extra cash.

This is in addition to the millions of dollars in revenue charters will receive from the Covid-related recovery bills Congress has passed and the extra money Mayor Muriel Bowser has included in her proposed fiscal year 2022 budget. I cannot keep up with all the funding. It should be noted that D.C.’s largest charter networks like KIPP DC PCS and Friendship PCS could not participate in the PPP because they have more than 500 employees.

What happened to the days when charters did the difficult but right thing and set a shining example for others to follow?

One final observation. Council chairman Phil Mendelson asked the charter representatives if they have heard anything about replacement for vacant DC PCSB board seats. As I wrote about the other day, Steve Bumbaugh’s term expired. It turns out that Naomi Shelton’s tenure has also ended but the thought on Tuesday was that she would be re-nominated. I’m not so sure. During one of the recent DC PCSB meetings a member of the public testified that Ms. Shelton should be prevented from voting on the approval of Wildflower PCS’s school applications due to a conflict of interest. The board investigated the complaint with the appropriate agency and determined that the charge was baseless. The discussion resulted in Ms. Shelton providing a long impassioned polemic regarding her work on the board.

If the Mayor needs a nominee for the DC PCSB I just want to mention that I am available.

Mayor Bowser takes first step in charterizing all D.C. public schools

Last week, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced her choice to replace Hanseul Kang as the State Superintendent of Education. Ms. Bower’s selection is Christina Grant, who oversaw the charter school sector in Philadelphia. 68,364 students attend charters in Philadelphia across 68 schools representing 36.4 percent of city’s public school students. In Washington D.C. there are 66 charter schools located on 125 campuses educating 43,795 pupils. The Mayor’s press release on the nomination of Ms. Grant say this about her qualifications:

“She recently served as the Chief of Charter Schools and Innovation for The School District of Philadelphia, she oversaw a budget of more than $1 billion and a portfolio of both district and charter schools. In this capacity, Dr. Grant managed a complex organization, working closely with the Superintendent of Schools and the President of the Board of Education and Mayor’s Chief Education Officer. Dr. Grant’s career began as a public school teacher in Harlem; since then, she’s held numerous roles in education, including as Superintendent of the Great Oaks Foundation and Deputy Executive Director at the New York City Department of Education.”

Not mentioned in Ms. Bowser’s statement is that Ms. Grant was a teacher in New York City for a KIPP public charter school and that her role as executive director in New York City Public Schools involved managing the process for the opening of new charters. Following her stint with NYC schools, she moved on to become executive director of NYCAN, a New York City-based charter advocacy organization.

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein revealed that Ms. Grant received training at the Broad Academy, a pro-charter educational leadership program that is now run by Ms. Kang at Yale University. Ms. Stein mentions that D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn and Chancellor Lewis Ferebee also attended the Broad Academy.

When schools in the nation’s capital finally reopen fully in the fall I expect that Ms. Grant, in her effort to bring equity in education to all District students, will fight to expand the charter sector by replacing failing DCPS facilities with schools of choice.

Consistent with our efforts in public education to provide a quality seat to any child who needs one is an expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship Program, the federal private school voucher program in our city. But there are storm clouds on the horizon regarding the plan. D.C. Congressional Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton announced that as part of President Biden’s proposed budget he supports “winding down” the scholarships. Here Mr. Biden is following in the muddy footsteps of his idol Barack Obama, who stopped new entrants from participating in the O.S.P. when he was President, directly hurting students living in poverty. I think suggesting to make this move after a year of remote learning is especially heartless and cruel.

One more thought for today. When I tuned into the May monthly meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board I noticed that Steve Bumbaugh was not present. It turns out that his term had expired. I will greatly miss Mr. Bumbaugh’s presence on the board. His observations and comments were always insightful. He was an especially strong advocate for those on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder in Washington, D.C. Mr. Bumbaugh had a profound appreciation of the nature of school choice, and gave great deference to the opinions of parents as to whether a school under review should be allowed to continue operating.

His absence leaves a critical vacancy on the board.

D.C. charter support organizations need to buy up empty buildings for future classrooms

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a major negative impact on the commercial real estate market in the District of Columbia, hitting especially hard the downtown area as explained by the Washington Post’s Emily Davies and Michael Brice-Saddler in a recent article:

“The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the vacancy rate in the central business district, forcing city leaders to consider drastic alternatives to fill unused office space. They’ve focused on attracting university researchers and medical professionals. Some are even pushing to convert commercial buildings into residences.”

The recent trend has continued a pattern seen before the virus interrupted American society. According to the Post:

“The question of whether the 9-to-5 ethos of downtown Washington will return after a year of mostly virtual work looms large as the city looks toward recovery from the pandemic. The mass exodus to makeshift home offices has led many businesses to reconsider whether they need large and expensive offices. The trend is exacerbating the emptying of downtown as organizations were already downsizing office space in the city’s core and some were moving to cheaper, newer buildings in the region before the pandemic.”

The glut of empty office space creates a tremendous opportunity for the District’s charter schools, which faced an intractable facility shortage as late as the beginning of 2020. The problem led to the creation of the End The List campaign that sought the release of surplus DCPS properties to charters as a way to end an 11,000 student wait list to gain admission to schools.

Now that properties are available and landlords are seeking alternative uses to office space, it is up to D.C.’s charter support organizations to buy these buildings so that new charters will have homes or as a method to provide existing charters places to expand and replicate.

I’m thinking that the logical group to take this bold move is Building Hope. But others can play this part operating on their own or in cooperation with others. I’m thinking of the DC PCSB, Education Forward, and CityBridge Education getting into the act. Perhaps the Walton Foundation can join the effort.

In 2019, I took a tour of Chicago’s Noble Public Charter School Muchin College Prep campus that is located next to the Loop, a couple of blocks from the Art Institute. It is in a high-rise office tower. You might think that it was strange entering such a structure to visit a school but once inside it appeared no different than other classroom buildings. I have to say that it was exciting to be in this busy area of town intermingled with business people. It provides a great example of what kids can aspire to become later in life.

The same experience can be replicated for students in the nation’s capital. The Post article adds,

“D.C. business owners who for decades have thrived with corporate life downtown are desperate for customers to return.”

The time to act is now.

Future bleak for approval of new charter schools in the District of Columbia

Last Monday evening the DC Public Charter School Board considered for approval five applications that they had heard new school representatives present the prior month. Board member Steve Bumbaugh commented before the vote on Capital Experience Lab PCS that “this is one of the finest applications” that he had read during his six-year tenure on the board. He went on to say that he himself had opened a charter school, so he could see the promise of what this new school could become.

So what did the members of the PCSB do following his remarks? They turned down the school in a four to three ruling.

The discussion over whether to create additional classrooms started out on a highly defensive note. Here is board chair Rick Cruz’s remarks regarding this part of the meeting’s agenda:

“As long as public charter schools have been in Washington, DC, there has been a debate about them: Many have been concerned, arguing that we have too many public charter schools and contending that they take away resources from more traditional options.    And each time this Board has considered opening new schools, many in the city worry that there is not enough need and not enough demand.

“The Board sees it differently. Yes, the number of public charter schools grew in the early years, but for the last decade the percentage of public school students attending traditional and charter schools has stayed roughly the same, with more than half attending traditional DCPS schools. And that’s because both sectors open new schools, while closing others. With charters, we have a process of regular review and oversight that allows us to close schools which are underperforming. 

“In fact, since 2014 when I joined the Board, we have opened 21 schools while closing 15. And when I say schools, I am referring to campuses not [local education agencies] LEAs.

“My basic point is that charter application approvals are but only one part of the story. One needs to look at the whole picture — from applications to oversight, from improvement to closing if necessary.

“Often the controversy around charters is framed as one of budget dollars being taken by charter schools away from the traditional neighborhood schools. That is simply not true. Public charter schools get funded per pupil. The dollars belong to them and their families. And, over my time on the Board and in the sector, we have seen real increases in funding under the leadership of Mayor Bowser. One sector does not take from the other.

“Public charter schools were created as an alternative approach to provide public education — to offer innovation, quality, and choice to families that wanted another way. In Washington, DC, we continue to work toward that goal. And our work is not done. We need to keep looking for ways – through our oversight and monitoring — to make public charter schools better. Why?  Because the students and families of this city deserve this. They deserve better.”

The tone is quite different from a statement released by the board in 2019 when D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn attempted to put pressure on the PCSB to restrict the number of new school applications given the green light to open.

“Despite concerns about ‘under-utilization’ by the DC Deputy Mayor of Education, families are choosing public charter schools for their students. This year, 59% of public charter schools had longer waitlists than they did last year, and roughly 67% of applicants on waitlists are waiting for a seat at a top-ranking public charter school. Quality matters to families. This is why we want to ensure that there are excellent options available throughout the city.”

That year five out of eleven bids to create new facilities were approved.

This year it was only one. The story of what happened to CAPX is one around fear around demand. Board member Lea Crusey remarked that the board has approved 2,000 new high school seats over the next 10 years and that of the eight pre-Kindergarten to twelfth grade charters approved to open over the last four years, only two charters have met their first year enrollment target.

It is now easy to understand why only Wildflower PCS was granted a charter. Here you have a small school with a Montessori model aimed at enrolling at-risk children. There is high demand for Montessori-based pedagogy in the city. The existing schools, both traditional and charter, that are based upon this framework are oversubscribed. Even though there is tremendous need for more Montessori schools in the city, the charter board cut the number of 60-pupil campuses proposed by Wildflower from eight to six.

When you see a high quality innovative charter like CAPX being denied and an extremely specialized school like Wildflower being approved, it means that the portfolio of charter schools in the nation’s capital is now basically fixed.

Only 1 new D.C. charter school application should be approved by board

Tonight, the DC Public Charter School Board will vote on five applications for new schools that it entertained last month. Only one of these should be approved to open during the 2022-to-2023 term.

Capital Experience Lab PCS applied last year and the board missed an opportunity by failing to give this charter the green light. Now the submission to the board has been improved. According to the school,

“We have spent the past year learning from and implementing the feedback we received from the PCSB last March.
We have focused on the areas of demonstrating demand, strengthening team capacity, planning inclusively to meet
the needs of all learners, and building out a more comprehensive high school plan.”

I thought once again the representatives from the school did an exceptional job in their presentation. While the members of the PCSB have the right to ask almost any question they want, the line of inquiry around Ms. Dailey-Reese’s record as executive director of City Arts and Prep PCS went beyond common decency. She did everything in her power to improve the academic performance of her students.

Wildflower PCS will be denied because the school leaders were not able to give a clear vision of roles and responsibilities between those running the charter at the local level compared to the national organization. This is a CityBridge Education supported application so I’m on dangerous grounds casting my vote against the efforts of this group.

The charter board was especially excited about the application from Heru Academy PCS, particularly because it would enroll students with emotional and physical disabilities. While this is a noble cause I just didn’t believe that the those doing the presentation demonstrated sufficient knowledge and experience to take on this mighty challenge.

I have similar feelings about Lotus PCS and  M.E.C.C.A. Business Learning Institute PCS. The applications were fine but I didn’t get the sense that the representatives had the background to leap into the turbulent world of charter school start-ups.

All of this is too bad because as you are aware I want as many charter schools to open in the nation’s capital as possible.

Complicating the issue of approving new schools is the fear as expressed by some board members that there are currently too many available seats in District schools. In an article by the Washington Post’s Perry Stein that appeared last Thursday, the reporter states that board member Saba Bireda observed, “In all, the charter board has approved nine middle and high schools that are in the process of opening, expanding or adding more grade levels, with the potential to add more than 3,000 seats in the city.” Another trustee, Jim Sandman remarked at the March board meeting, ““I am concerned about the under-enrollment of a number of current middle schools in Wards 5 and 6.”

Being a proponent of a strong education marketplace, I say the more schools the better and let parents vote with their feet as to which will financially be able to support themselves and which will have to close. I just wish the applications for new schools had been stronger.

D.C. public school awash in cash

Last Thursday, D.C. Mayor Bowser announced her recommended public school funding for the fiscal 2022 school year, although her formal budget is not due to the Council now until the end of May. Her press release regarding the spending plan boasts that her administration is now allocating “more than $2 billion to serve an estimated 98,528 students in DC’s traditional public schools and public charter schools.”

The main increase comes from raising the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula by 3.6 percent. The Washington Post’s Perry Stein indicated that the base that each school receives per student would go from $11,310 to $11,720. The Mayor also enlarges the at-risk student weight and the weight for English Language Learners, while creating a new at-risk weight for adult students still in high school.

These local dollars come on top of $386 million from the U.S. Congress’ American Rescue Plan, with DCPS receiving approximately $191 million, and charters getting $156 million.

There was no news on the charter school facility fund front. Please recall that the DC Charter School Alliance called for a 3.1 percent increase in this $3,408 figure and continued 3.1 percent jumps over the next five years.

All of these dollars come with a significant catch. In her announcement of the school budget Ms. Bowser stated that “in the fall of 2021, she expects all public schools in Washington, DC to fully open for in-person learning, five days a week, with all educators back in the classroom.”

I sense a frustration by our city’s chief executive that the District is not further along in re-opening schools. According to Ms. Stein only twelve percent of pupils have returned to class. But with people getting vaccinated against Covid-19 at a faster pace here in D.C., I don’t see how reaching her target will be an issue.

When most students return to learn in physical buildings it will be about 17 months since they have been taught in person. Then the job of bringing them back to academic grade level begins. Will money be a sufficient means for reaching this goal? Not if the past provides any clues.