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.

D.C. charter school walkability admission preference favors affluent families

As I wrote about yesterday, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser on Monday introduced a policy proposal for a change in the School Reform Act that would give students an admissions preference to charters within a half mile of where they live if their regularly assigned DCPS school is more than that distance from their home.  The seismic change in admission policy which Ms. Bowser referred to as a “walkability prefernce” was advanced by the Mayor without consulting any of the major players in the charter school movement including the town’s most prominent charter advocacy group FOCUS.  Even her own Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force did not see this coming.

WAMU’s Martin Austermuhle quotes me in an article about this subject as opining that the idea is terrible and he raises a point by David Grosso, the chairman of the D.C. Council’s Education Committee, that I had not previously considered.  According to Mr. Grosso:

“Who does it really impact? In the really high quality, Tier 1 charters, are parents who have the money therefore able to buy a home strategically in that neighborhood? And if they do that, does it raise questions about segregation in our city?”

I see this working both ways.  Affluent parents can decide to locate near a charter to get their kids in or a school operator can decide on a site in which academically high performing kids can be skimmed from a DCPS facility.

To her credit, Ms. Bowser is trying to address an issue that frustrates many parents.  They may live physically close to a great charter, but because these are schools of choice they may be not able to gain access to them for their children.  I experienced this first hand with Washington Latin PCS both when we were in negotiations with the Cafritz’s for a permanent facility and with the neighbors around 2nd Street, N.W., where we eventually took over the old Rudolph Elementary.  Both groups expressed dismay that Latin could not pull pupils directly from the local community.

In his piece Mr. Austermuhle quotes my friend Susan Schaeffler,  the CEO of KIPP DC, as commenting:

“KIPP D.C. is trying to work with the public chartering authority to say, ‘Hey, is there a chance we can give preference to kids that can walk to school, and make it so that it’s not the entire school, but maybe 15 percent of the seats are held for students that can walk to school?’ That just makes sense citywide as a strategy.”

But I strongly contend that the solution to this problem is not to mess with admission preferences.  The answer is to greatly accelerate the replication of excellent charters and to bring some of the best ones from around the United States to the nation’s capital.  Once we have added a sufficient capacity of good quality seats these schools will naturally draw from the blocks around where they are situated.

Parents would much prefer to have neighborhood schools that work.

Mayer Bowser takes first step to allow charters to become neighborhood schools

Yesterday, at a ceremony at D.C. Bilingual PCS as part of a celebration of D.C. Education Week, Mayor Bowser took the first step in her long-held desire to have charter schools offer a neighborhood admissions preference.  Calling her concept a “walkability preference” the announced change in policy would allow the city’s charters to provide partiality to elementary school children who live within a half mile of a charter when their normally assigned neighborhood traditional school is more than this distance from their homes.

This is a terrible idea.  For 20 years charters in this town have driven the rise of quality for all schools through the competition for students and the per pupil revenue that is associated with their education.  The arrangement instantaneously transformed parents into customers because their decision as to where to send their kids has powerful consequences for school budgets.  Before the forces of school choice were unleashed in the nation’s capital the traditional schools were wastelands of educational malpractice in facilities that were literally falling apart all around them.

Anything that interferes with an educational marketplace takes away from the clout of parents.  Under Ms. Bowser’s proposal, and it is really only a proposal because its implementation would take amending the School Reform Act through approval of the D.C. Council,  parents could be provided access to charters not because they like the curriculum, or the principal, or the standardized test scores, but simply due to its location.  We would be turning our backs on the incentives that turned around a deplorable situation.

Do you think I’m exaggerating the impact of all this?  Under a walkability preference an operator can open a charter in Ward 3, the most affluent part of town, strategically locate it more than a half a mile from a regular school, and then fill it with children living steps from its door, thereby blocking access by low-income kids from Wards 6, 7, and 8 that this charter movement was created to serve.  Mayor Bowser would effectively be providing a private school education on the taxpayers’ dime.

The fear of diminishing the availability of charters to at risk kids was a primary reason that a Neighborhood Preference Task Force rejected the notion of a admissions preference back in 2012.  The Mayor could have been reminded of this finding if she had consulted with FOCUS or any other public leaders of the charter movement before making this decision, but the information I have is that she failed to take this step.  As the Washington Post’s Alejandra Matos

The preference came sandwiched between a flurry of other dictums.  The Mayor stated that she would include in this year’s budget request a two percent increase in the charter school per pupil facility allotment which would raise it to $3,193; closer but not quite up to the $3,250 that charter leaders had begged for in 2016.  She also announced that D.C. Bilingual will be allowed to stay at the Keene School and that the P.R. Harris School will be provided to Building Hope’s Charter School Incubator Initiative for the eventual home to two Ward 8 charters.

The Washington Post quotes D.C. Council education committee chairman David Grosso as stating that he has “already heard some ‘vocal uproar'” regarding the walkability preference concept.  Let’s hope that he along with others can stop this revision to the SRA before one child is harmed.

In D.C. public school reform is still not fast enough

In today’s Washington Post there are two articles about public education in the District of Columbia.  The first, by Michael Allison Chandler, celebrates the five year anniversary of Kaya Henderson as DCPS Chancellor.  She includes this observation:

“Despite the accolades, many educators and advocates are concerned that progress in the school system is still not being felt by many of city’s most disadvantaged students. In many schools in the poorest parts of the city, less than a third of students perform on grade level, standardized tests show.”

The second piece, by Emma Brown, talks about the fact that the growth of charter schools in the nation’s capital has slowed.  She explains that while it was true for years that only New Orleans had a higher concentration of students in charters, now D.C. is eclipsed by Detroit and Flint, Michigan as well.  For the last three terms the percentage of kids in charters has remained stuck at 44 percent.  Ms. Brown writes:

“That flat-lining comes after a period of rapid growth: Nine years ago, just 25 percent of D.C. schoolchildren were in charters, which are funded with taxpayer dollars but run by independent nonprofits.”

These two trends are not good.  We desperately need to figure out how to increase substantially the number of high performing seats for every child that needs one.  Many have recognized that providing a quality education to all, no matter the race or socioeconomic status of the student, is the final great civil rights struggle of our time.

How do we do it?  Well we need some help.  The DC Public Charter School Board needs to provide incentives for good schools to replicate such as giving a year off of Performance Management Framework grading when a new campus is added.  Next, the city must turn over to charters the 20 or so vacant shuttered school buildings that are currently sitting empty.  In addition, the Mayor should bring to a conclusion the FOCUS engineered funding inequity lawsuit so that charters operate on a level playing field with DCPS.  Ms. Bowser,  the D.C. Council, and Scott Pearson, the PCSB executive director, also have a duty to bring successful charter management organizations here with the promise of a facility.

I guess we could go on talking about the quality of our public schools for another 100 years.  For me, I just don’t have the patience.