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.

D.C. public charter school board annual report has one interesting number

The headline is not actually fair. There are lots of fascinating statistics contained in the 2019 Annual Report of the DC Public Charter School Board. In fact, what you will immediately notice if you review this document is how many numbers are included in its pages. For example:

  • 47.3% of public school students attend a public charter school. Down from 47.6% the previous year
  • 20,717 students are attending a top performing, or Tier 1, public charter school. The number of DC students attending a top-ranked public charter school increased for the fourth year.
  • 84.3% of PK – 12 students expressed satisfaction with their schools by choosing to return for the next school year.

Other noticeable information included is the fact that the board conducted 28 Qualitative Site Reviews in the past year and the names of the charters that were visited are listed. Moreover, the student re-enrollment rate continues to climb year after year with the proportion reaching 84.3 percent for the 2017 to 2018 term. Another excellent indicator is that the out-of-school suspension rates and expulsion rates show a steady decline when looked at over the last six years.

However, here’s the finding that I would like to focus on today. The mid-year withdrawal rate for students in charters is listed at 5.2 percent, although the manner of calculating this number has recently changed. For citywide schools this percentage is 6.2 percent for the recently completed school year. The mid-year entry rate for charters is only 1.2 percent, which compares to a 5.0 percentage citywide. In other words, significantly less students are enrolling in charters throughout the school year.

This picture could be due to a number of factors. The reality that many charters do not by policy back fill slots throughout the term, as I wrote about the other day, is certainly a contributing cause. Another reason for the low mid-year entry rate is that charters do not receive additional revenue if more students sign up during a term. The amount of money that a charter receives to educate students and pay for a facility is fixed by the student count that occurs in early October. Although many people have proposed revisions to this system, nothing has been done to resolve this issue.

There also is most likely a bias against bringing in kids who have not been in the school from the start of a year. When the future existence of these schools is based upon high stakes testing, there is not much of an incentive to go after filling empty seats.

However, the low mid-year entry rate strikes me as wrong. We know that charters offer a superior product to the traditional schools. Here is another statistic included in the PCSB’s Annual Report: proficiency rates for 2018 in English and math as measured by students scoring a four or above on the PARCC assessment have increased from the previous year in almost all subgroups.

Now is the time to figure out as a charter school community how to change our rules and financial consequences to encourage more students to enroll in our facilities mid-year.

Sometimes D.C. charters are their own worst enemy

The conditions the DC Public Charter School Board placed at its July monthly meeting on Washington Latin PCS in order to replicate next term really stung. I just don’t get it. The board has the authority to approve or deny any application requesting a increase to an enrollment ceiling, but where exactly in the School Reform Act does it give it the right to run the charter as if it has suddenly become the executive director?

I was ready to take another shot at the PCSB regarding its overreach. Then I reviewed once again the board’s recommendations. Here is the first one:

“The school will actively consider admitting students in grades 10, 11, and 12, engaging its faculty, board, parents, and students in the decision. The school will report the results of this decision to DC PCSB by March 1, 2020.”

What? The charter does not back fill students in grades 10, 11, and 12? Isn’t it running a high school and came before the board because it wants to create another one? I know the upper school ranks as Tier 1 on the PCSB’s Performance Management Framework, however is it possible that one reason it is achieving at this high level is because it does not take in students after the freshman year?

As part of the escalating bruising political battle about the value of charter schools, the alternative sector consistently advances the argument that these are public schools just like the neighborhood ones. But if charters are placing severe restrictions upon who can be admitted to these schools then this whole experiment could end up at the same place in history as all of the other failed education reform efforts this country has attempted.

We consistently and ferociously point to the unfairness in the way charters are treated. Supporters assert that they should be given access to closed DCPS facilities because of the public school equity argument. It is used again to make the case for uniform funding. Those of us in the movement are beyond frustrated by the claim that charters are privatizing America’s educational system.

We despair deeply over the almost 12,000 pupils on the charter school admission wait list.

Then, we discriminate based upon back filling grade levels as to which kids can sit in our classrooms.

Here’s what I recommend. No more pious declarations until the admission requirements for each school in our city is scrubbed for lack of access.

But here there is a problem. The final authority over the decision to back fill is up to an individual school’s board of directors. The PCSB can only try and exert pressure to influence the rules as it is doing with Latin.

I’m afraid this is going to have to change. For charters to be true public schools they must fit the definition. If, as charter advocates, we do not correct this issue then we are practicing the fallacy of the stolen concept. Philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand described the fallacy as “using a concept while denying the validity of its generic roots, i.e., of an earlier concept on which it logically depends.”

Unless charter schools back fill empty slots among its offered grades then it is not by concept a public school.

Lack of leadership is forcing families to leave D.C. in search of good schools

The DC Public Charter School Board yesterday released the waitlist data for the schools it oversees and the findings are not good for families living in the city.  The backlog of seats has now grown to 11,317, up from the highly disturbing number last year of 9,703, a growth of 17 percent.  Perhaps more alarming is that the demand is, as the board admits “accelerating,” since the waitlist increase was only one percent in 2016 compared to the prior year, and jumped 12 percent when calculating the variance of this statistic from 2017 to 2016.

For this year, again according to the DC PCSB, the waitlist number “means nearly one out of every eight public school students in DC wishes to enroll in a charter school that has no room.”

The schools with the most number of students trying to get in but cannot reads like an honor role of institutions that charter followers know well.  They are, with the waitlist number in parenthesesElsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom PCS Brookland Campus (1,827); Two Rivers PCS Fourth Street Campus (1,806); Mundo Verde Bilingual PCS (1,702); Creative Minds International PCS, whose founder and executive director I recently interviewed, (1,574); DC Bilingual PCS (1,292); Latin American Montessori Bilingual PCS (1,277); Washington Yu Ying PCS (1,088) Inspired Teaching Demonstration PCS (1,071); District of Columbia International School PCS (1,042); Washington Latin PCS Middle School Campus (951); and Basis PCS (773).  The names go on with many fine schools with waitlists of hundreds of students.  You can see the entire chart here.

The board points out that about 2,000 new charter school seats are opened per year, but with the number of kids trying to get in as shown above, that will hardly make a dent in the situation.  It also admits that parents are frustrated by the inability to find a charter school for their children.

A co-worker of mine recently entered the My School DC lottery for one of her children.  When her son did not get into the school she wanted she decided to enroll him in a private school.  Next year, she and her husband will move, most likely out of the city, in order to get the kind of education she wants for her offspring.

This example is being repeated over and over and over again in the District.  However, for the overwhelming number of families a private school option or relocation is financially out of the question.

In 2018, 64 years after Brown v. Board of Education, a family’s zip code is still determining the quality of public education their children receive.

The charter board states that the lack of charter school facilities is harming the ability of good schools to grow and replicate.  Then what is it doing about the problem?  Also, what responsibility does it take when implementing an accountability system that makes school leaders reluctant to expand, combined with an application process for new schools that is itself a deterrent to complete.   What impact does the mantra “Tier 1 on day 1” have on school supply?

Over at DCPS the situation is no better.  The most recent Deputy Mayor for Education and Chancellor resigned in disgrace, and as was revealed, the previous chancellor skirted the rules regarding residency requirements and made discretionary placements for high ranking officials.  The Mayor is essentially silent on the problems of the schools she oversees which appear to continue unabated, preferring instead to cheer-lead her way to re-election.

We are in a public education crisis and city leaders, politicians, public policy experts, and philanthropists go to work everyday like everything is fine.

It is not fine.  When is someone going to do something?


When does 46 percent student enrollment in D.C. charters equal 43 percent?

The answer is when it comes to the DC Public Charter School Board reporting enrollment statistics.  I know it seems confusing, and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure it out, so let’s dive in.

Yesterday, with much fanfare, I revealed that unaudited statistics provided by the Office of the State Superintendent of  Education, showed that charters in the nation’s capital now teach 47 percent of all students attending public school in our city, an increase of one percentage point from the last school term.  This much is true.  But I was alerted that there is another way to look at these numbers.

When you navigate to the DC Public Charter School Board website it states on the homepage that 43 percent of all students are attending charters.  The number is important because it is a reflection of the relative share of the charters versus DCPS.  There has been much angst expressed from traditional school supporters around the notion that, as the proportion of students in charter schools approaches 50 percent, this movement has grown too large and may eventually overtake the number going to neighborhood facilities.  This fear makes the way enrollment is reported on the DC PCSB site interesting.

The 43 percent number makes sense when you consider that it is illustrating pre-Kindergarten to twelfth grade students across both sectors.  It is an apples-to-apples comparison, although I must point out that this is the first time I’ve seen enrollment numbers reported in such a fashion.  The much more common and historical approach is simply to use the total enrollment numbers for DCPS and charters as reported by OSSE.  To get to the 43 percent figure you have to remove the adults attending our public schools.

But here is where it gets more complicated.  Right beside the chart with the 43 percent number is the statement that “41,506 students attend public charter schools.”  This was correct for the 2016-to-2017 school year, but it includes those attending programs for adults.  If you click on the chart you are then taken to a data page that shows that the charter sector last year taught 46 percent of all public school students.

The charter board points out that for the statistics released by OSSE last Friday 10.5 percent of students, equating to 4,549 pupils, are adult learners.  It also reveals that the number attending Tier 1 schools has gone up from last year, growing to 42.4 percent from 42.1 percent.  Yesterday, I calculated that almost 96 percent of those enrolled in charters attend either a Tier 1 or Tier 2 school.





D.C. charter school enrollment now at 47 percent of all public school students

Last Friday the Office of the State Superintendent of Education released unaudited 2017-to-2018 student enrollment statistics for DCPS and charters based upon the October count.  It demonstrated that charters now serve 47 percent of all pupils attending public school in the nation’s capital, up a point from the previous year.

Charters may never reach funding equity with the traditional schools with the recent loss of the FOCUS-engineered lawsuit, but when it comes to student population it appears that the sector is nearing the identical number that is taught by the traditional system.  The difference is now only 4,740 scholars, with 48,169 in DCPS and 43,429 in charters.  Over the last decade charter school enrollment has grown 49.5 percent.  Twenty years ago, in only its second year of operation, D.C. charters taught 300 students.  This is truly phenomenal growth.

91,537 students now attend public school in the District, which represents the ninth consecutive year that this number has risen.  This statistic is 1.6 percent greater than in 2016.  DCPS classrooms, after years of declining enrollment due to competition from charter schools, first experienced greater demand during the 2009-to-2010 school year.  Michelle Rhee became the city’s first Chancellor in the summer of 2007.  Interestingly, the traditional schools showed a slight drop in enrollment over the last 12 months; last year it was at 48,555 students.

Parental demand for charters is strong.  Last April the DC Public Charter School Board reported that there were 9,703 students on charter school wait lists.  In addition, families are also choosing quality.  The same body reported in March that approximately 96 percent of of all children attending charters are going to either a Tier 1 or Tier 2 facility, the two top categories as ranked by the Performance Management Framework.

The D.C. charter school movement appears to be in a exceptionally strong state.


D.C.’s St. Coletta Public Charter School gets special education admissions preference

Last evening, during a quiet monthly meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board when attendance at the session barely reached a quorum of board members and IDEAL Academy PCS received its third citation of fiscal mismanagement since March 2016, the body voted to give St. Coletta PCS an admission preference for special education students.

Its an interesting development.  St. Coletta, as described in the meeting’s supporting documentation, is the only charter in the nation’s capital to focus on serving only students with disabilities.  The reputation of the facility is stellar.  The school is in its eleventh year of operation educating 251 scholars ages three to twenty two at its permanent facility located in Ward 7.  The supporting documentation states that “St. Coletta PCS is a specially designed program for students with severe disabilities, including those with intellectual disabilities and autism, who require over 25 hours of special education services per their individualized education plans (“IEP”) and the most restrictive learning environment.”

The issue the school has been facing is that, like all charters, admission is on a first-come basis and when more students want to attend than there are spots, a lottery is held.  St. Coletta has found that parents have sought admission for their kids who do not have disabilities.  To best explain this situation I will quote directly from the PCSB staff:

“Once enrolled, if St. Coletta PCS determines a student isn’t eligible for its program
because he or she requires a less restrictive learning environment, the school must
complete an extensive process to review and modify the student’s IEP before
finding the student a more suitable educational placement. By implementing the
proposed special education enrollment preference, St. Coletta PCS will ensure that
the students who will best benefit from its program, those with the highest levels of
disability, have the highest opportunity for enrollment. Without this preference, a
student who does not require any special education services or requires a less
restrictive environment would need to be accepted into the program and could
result in 1) students with higher levels of special education needs not getting into
the program and 2) students losing valuable instructional time as they are assessed
and placed out of St. Coletta PCS to a school that offers a general education program.”

I strongly agree that St. Coletta has a unique and extremely valuable mission that should be supported.  But the preference was granted through the school filing a charter amendment.  My question is whether this is the appropriate process for altering an admission policy.

For example, could KIPP DC PCS now use the same method to give a preference to low income children?  What about another school that wants to teach only kids living in the neighborhood?  Might a charter amendment be utilized to discriminate against those that a charter would rather not let in the door?

My inclination is that something as serious as an admissions preference should be addressed as a revision to the School Reform Act.  In this way the language could be written as not to favor a particular charter but all schools in the sector.  For example, in this instance, the legislation would state that “any charter whose mission is to serve special education students may elect to give an enrollment preference to children who would be best served with these services.”

Public school reform has been successful in D.C. due to the competition for students that choice has promulgated.  Therefore, anything that diminishes the educational marketplace must rise to an extremely high level before it is implemented.  This is why I contend that an action by the D.C. Council, while harder to obtain, is the more suitable path.

The St. Coletta admissions preference will take effect for the 2018-to-2019 school year lottery.  The charter has said that it will employ a sibling preference if the child meets its enrollment criteria.




D.C. charter school wait list approaching 10,000 children

Last week, without emotion, the DC Public Charter School Board released the latest figures for the number of children wait listed while trying to obtain entrance to a charter school.  We are now up to 9,703 pupils.  The number represents a 12.3 percent increase over last year.  841 more kids are on this list than were present in 2016.  In addition, the PCSB points out, that for a dozen schools the list of those who want to be enrolled is double the number of their entire population of students.

Take D.C. Bilingual PCS as an example.  This academically strong charter teaches 364 kids.  The wait list to get in is 1,176 people.  Interested in having your child go to Creative Minds International PCS?  181 fortunate parents received the good news that their offspring can learn there.  But 1,286 young people who wanted to gain the same experience cannot.  Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freeedom PCS teaches 350 scholars with 1,595 wanting in.  Washington Latin PCS, where I served as board chair, has a wait list of 1,176 students while admitting 670. (The wait list numbers are from March 31, 2017, while the school enrollment figures are from the 2015-to-2016 PCSB school profiles.)

This situation is not something that should be casually reported.  It is a crisis for the families living in our city.  How in the world can we offer our neighbors a quality education for their children when the chance of landing in the public school of their choice may be harder than getting into Harvard or Yale?  This situation will only get worse as it is estimated that 1,000 new residents a month are moving into the nation’s capital.

This tremendous demand for high-quality charter schools, demonstrated by the PCSB revelation that 60 percent of the wait list is for the top Tier 1 schools, could have the unintended consequence of turning public opinion against these institutions that now educate 46 percent of all kids in the city.  For if an insufficient number can get in, and the frustration level rises among residents, then attention could be turned to simply strengthening DCPS.

Instead of publishing information on a web page the PCSB should be in crisis mode.  The organization, along with other stakeholders, needs to be on the phone with school leaders and funders from here and across the United States trying to figure out how to bring greater capacity to our local movement.

But on the other hand, never mind.  Àferall,  it is spring break.

D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education tries to get ahead of the charter school walkability admissions preference debate

Jennie Niles, D.C.’s Deputy Mayor for Education, took some steps yesterday to rebound from catching the city’s public school stakeholders by surprise with Mayor Bowser’s announcement on January 30th that she would institute a charter school walkability admissions preference for the 2018-2019 school year.  Never mind that such a change would require an amendment to the School Reform Act by a D.C. Council caught unaware that the proposal was coming.  Also left in the dark were charter school leaders, FOCUS, the D.C. Public Charter School Board, the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools, and I am guessing the new DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson, whose first day on the job was to come within the next 48 hours.

Also not thought important enough to be part of the conversation was the Deputy Mayor’s own Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force, established almost exactly a year ago to look at, among other topics, cross-sector student feeder patterns.  When Ms. Niles was asked last week on WAMU’s The Kojo Nmamdi Show why the plan was not introduced in front of this body, she replied that everything that comes across her desk has cross-sector implications and therefore she cannot bring everything before them.

Now I guess Ms. Niles has changed her mind.  Yesterday at noon she held a conference call with the Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force members, and during the discussion she presented an analysis of the impact of the admissions preference.  There a lot of assumptions made behind the data contained in the document.  For example, parents would be able to take advantage of the preference as long as their neighborhood school is more than 0.5 miles walking distance from their homes and a charter is within 0.5 miles of their location.  However, the study bases the 0.5 miles “as the crow flies” which the authors admit slightly overestimates the impact of the change.  Other criteria used include the notion that all charters would agree to participate in the preference and that the schools would rank this preference below the sibling preference.  Those compiling this report state that both of these scenarios are not certain to be implemented in practice.

Using My School DC application data from the 2015 to 2016 school year, there were approximately 18,000 (37 percent) of elementary school students in the city that have a neighborhood DCPS school more than 0.5 miles beyond where they live.  Of this group 10,600 (22 percent of all elementary school students) have a charter within this distance.  Among those 10,600 pupils, 4,859 currently attend a DCPS school.  The document states that schools in Wards 5 and 8 would have the greatest impact on admissions due to the preference.

The numbers were then calculated for the current 2015 to 2016 term.  14,470 students participated in the elementary school lottery.  Of these 1,441 would qualify for the walkability preference.  Then, running a mock lottery, it was determined that 254 students would gain entrance to a charter through the new policy, 18 percent of those that qualify for the preference and 2 percent of total applicants.

The study goes on to say that most schools would see a change in admission of one to four children.  Of course, this means that there would be little impact regarding where special education and low-income kids go to learn.

As you can see the number of children impacted by the proposal is an extremely small number.  This is exactly why it should not go forward.  There is a tremendous chance for unintended consequences here which myself and others have highlighted.  It is not hard to imagine families gaming the system to get their kids into a better school, and there is also the chance that charter operators will figure out how to position their facilities in a location where they are able to craft a student body more to their liking.

As I’ve stated previously, the answer to more neighborhood kids in charters is to open and replicate those that are high performing.

Debate over charter school walkability admissions preference makes media appearances

It appears that Mayor Muriel Bowser’s push for a charter school walkability admissions preference has caused quite a stir.  Over the weekend the editors of the Washington Post urged severe caution regarding the proposal.  They wrote:

“But there are ramifications to a neighborhood preference that need to be thought through. Most significant is whether a move to a neighborhood preference would lock-in neighborhood patterns of segregation that would keep students most in need out of high-quality charter schools.  A task force that looked at the issue in 2012 concluded that if neighborhood preferences were mandated for charter schools, children in Ward 7 and Ward 8 would be most hard hit by losing access to high-performing charters elsewhere in the city.”

Also last Thursday, the subject was discussed on WAMU’s The Kojo Nmamdi Show featuring Emily Lawson, the CEO of DC Prep PCS and Eboni-Rose Thompson,  Ward 7 Education Council chair.  Ms. Lawson indicated that her staff had done a preliminary analysis of the impact of the admissions preference regarding her student population and had concluded that a relatively small number of families would be impacted.  But Ms. Lawson’s schools are not the ones that are most central to the arguments over the preference since they already serve low-income students, although she did point out that gentrification has resulted in changes in some of the neighborhoods around her facilities.   The other guest, Ms. Thompson, did an outstanding job detailing the fears around restricting access to high performing charters for kids living in poverty that this amendment to the School Reform Act would bring, identical to those that I have highlighted along with the Washington Post editors and the 2012 Neighborhood Preference Task Force.

The most disappointing part of the program was the participation of the Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles.  She stated that she had just happened to hear about the radio show during a school visit and decided to call in.  When she was asked by the host why the subject of the day’s discussion had not first come before her own Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force, upon which Ms. Lawson sits, she responded that every issue that reaches her desk has cross-sector implications and therefore not all of them can be brought to this body.  This comment came even though one of the stated goals of the Task Force is to “explore cross-sector feeder patterns.”

It is not only this group that was caught off guard by the suggestion.  FOCUS was kept out of the loop as was the DC Public Charter School Board.  There really has to be much more inclusive stakeholder involvement when it comes to this question as well as others such as the per pupil charter school facility allotment and the turning over of vacant DCPS buildings to the sector that now educates 47 percent of all public school students in this city.  I expect much more from education leaders who have been intimately familiar with our local charters since their founding over 20 years ago.