Membership on the D.C. charter board dwindling

Last evening’s monthly meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board started strangely. Long-term member and previous vice chair Saba Bireda announced that this was her last meeting. Also on the Zoom broadcast for a short period was Naomi Shelton. She revealed that her last meeting was actually the August session. She had joined just to say her farewells. Both individuals received accolades from the remaining members of the board.

Recall that last June during a D.C. Council oversight hearing on the charter sector, Chairman Mendelson asked whether DC PCSB chair Rick Cruz and executive director Dr. Michelle Walker-Davis were aware of Mayor Muriel Bowser naming a replacement board member for Steve Bumbaugh whose term had ended, and whether she intended to renew the term of Ms. Shelton. Neither had any information. Now here we are at the end of September with Ms. Bireda having to step down apparently because she has accepted a position with the federal government that conflicts with her PCSB service and, as I postulated three months ago, Ms. Shelton will not get a second appointment to the board. This leaves the charter board with only four members. I cannot recall a time in the approximately twenty-five year history of the PCSB that the number of members has dropped so low.

I do not know if it is the impact of this terrible pandemic or the lack of support for his body from D.C.’s chief executive, but chair Rick Cruz appeared dejected. Or it could have been due to a general lack of enthusiasm by the populace for the charter movement as a whole. For also on this night, Ms. Walker-Davis announced that her organization is in the midst of reviewing the application process for new schools and for replication. Of course, this evaluation is long overdue, and I have called for years to make it simpler both for charters to open and grow. Charter school expansion has been much too bureaucratic. However, I was shocked to hear that because of this deliberation no new charter applications will be accepted until the 2023 cycle and all existing schools will also be prevented from adding additional grade levels until that time. Charter amendments for expansion of student ceiling limits will still be entertained. It felt to me that perhaps we should simply end this entire experiment in school reform.

Or maybe it already has stopped. Earlier in the day the Mayor mandated that all school employees and contractors, no matter what their role, will now have to vaccinated against Covid-19, without an option to skip the shot and be tested. This is something Rocketship PCS, Perry Street PCS, and Monument Academy PCS adopted weeks ago and a mandate that the charter movement should have led as it used to proudly set high standards. The DC Charter School Alliance went along with the move with founding executive director Shannon Hodge stating, “Charter school leaders and the DC Charter School Alliance are prepared to work together with Mayor Bowser, DC Public Schools, and DC Health to ensure we provide safe spaces to learn and adequately protect students and staff in the fight against COVID-19.” Really, what else could she say at this point?

As if all of this was not depressing enough, WAMU’s Martin Austermuhle reported last week that eleven charter schools have agreed to include an admission preference for at-risk students. The ability to offer this preference was granted to charters by the D.C. Council in 2020, and is in addition to admission preferences that include siblings of existing enrolled students, children of school employees, and special education students. As a school choice purist, I am fine with the admission advantage for siblings and employees but I stop there. In the most simple terms I do not believe anyone should be discriminated against when trying to gain a seat at these schools. The answer for charters wanting a greater proportion of at-risk students is to open more campuses that can serve these scholars, especially if we can accomplish this by taking over failing traditional schools. It is what we should have been doing for years.

Last month I observed a brief spark in our local charter ecosystem and I was hoping this was the start of a flame. It looks like the match has burned out.

At-risk student admission preference in D.C. charter schools is a bad idea

I would be a fool to argue with my friend Daniela Anello, head of school for DC Bilingual PCS. However, the notion of a voluntary at-risk student preference for students applying to charter schools in the nation’s capital, which Ms. Anello supports according to the Washington Post’s Perry Stein, strikes me as the wrong way to go.

I completely understand the logic behind making this change. Some charters, such as Washington Latin PCS, Basis PCS, and other highly sought-after language immersion schools, enroll relatively low levels of students who are categorized as at-risk. If charter schools could reserve a percentage of their seats for at-risk students, the number thirty percent is being floated, then the diversity of the student body would increase and low-income students would gain access to a quality education therefore helping to narrow the achievement gap. It all makes sense, perhaps in the short-term.

However, the plan is not consistent with the tenets of school choice. Under the philosophy of an education marketplace that has provided the foundation for public education reform in the District for more than twenty five years, admission to charters is on a random basis through a lottery once a school has more applicants than seats. There are a few admission preferences that exist today. Siblings of already admitted students get offers to attend before other students and the same is true of children of school employees and those of founding board members, although there are numerical limits to the latter two. St. Colletta PCS gained approval in 2017 for a special education student preference. I learned today that a charter school may, with the prior approval of the DC PCSB, give an admission preference to active members of the armed forces.

The best way to ensure that charter schools are responsive to the needs of their customers, who are their parents and their students, is to ensure that their customers want to be in that school. Anything that alters the relationship of supply and demand diminishes the power of choice. If more affluent pupils gain access to a school because more numbers apply to get in, then this is only fair.

The way to accomplish having more at-risk children attend our charters is to build them where these kids live. How often have we heard the mantra repeated that we need to “meet kids where they are.” This is exactly the route taken by Two Rivers PCS, Lee Montessori PCS, Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom PCS and potentially the future location of the second Washington Latin campus.

The advantage of this route for teaching more low-income students is that charters begin to become more of a neighborhood school, something that people like me who favor an educational marketplace predicted would occur. Young people then attend school with those that live around them and transportation for parents becomes simpler. Picture here KIPP DC PCS, Friendship PCS, and DC Prep PCS, for example.

Some will make the case that my solution to teaching more at-risk pupils reduces diversity in the classroom. This may be true when measuring this trait by race. My hope is that we have moved past this method of classification.