At-risk student lottery preference in D.C. school lottery is a bad idea

Yesterday, the Washington Post’s Perry Stein wrote a story about the controversy over Washington Latin PCS’s application before the DC Public Charter School Board to replicate next year.

The only problem is that there never should have been controversy over this issue. Latin clearly meets the charter board’s criteria for a ceiling enrollment increase through its consistent attainment of Tier 1 status for both its middle school and high school and due to the fact that its student wait list is around 1,500 pupils. The charter board, under its own rules, should have given the green light to expansion without six pages of conditions imposed on this institution.

The charter school bargain has always been expressed as autonomy in return for accountability. Washington Latin exemplifies this standard.

If there was ever a definition of mission-creep we have found it in the work of the PCSB.

The charter board was highly critical of the low proportion of at-risk student who attend the school. But as they like to say at Latin “words matter.” This is straight from the school’s website:

“Unlike the majority of public schools, Washington Latin serves a diverse student body; our demographics mirror those of the city. We believe that all students can learn and deserve access to a rigorous, quality education. As a public school, we have civic and moral obligations to accept all students who come to us for an education. We consider a truly integrated school community to be the only way to accomplish our classical education model, helping students develop the ability to discuss ideas and make moral decisions within a diverse community.”

The school’s goal has always been to have a diverse student body. If you visit Latin you will see it for yourself; I don’t believe there is a charter in this town that is more of a melting pot of young people from different ethnic and racial backgrounds. It works intentionally toward this goal. As a former board member of the school I have lost track of how many bus routes it runs in order to pull students from each Ward of the District.

Scott Pearson, the PSCB’s executive director, believes that the solution to gain even more diversity at Latin is to provide an at-risk student preference in the My School DC Lottery. Ms. Stein quotes him as stating:

“If we are really serious about equity and if we are serious about making sure that our least advantaged families have the ability to go to our high-performing schools, we need to do more.”

I agree, we do need to do more. But the answer is not to discriminate against certain children gaining admission to some of the city’s highest performing schools due to the color of their skin or their economic status.

No, there is a much more superior solution than tinkering with the lottery. We need to open more charter schools. But the charter board, the same one that is so critical of the tremendously difficult work being done at Latin, seems to make it as arduous as possible to replicate or open new schools.

I’ve talked so much about the obstacles that it puts in place that I don’t really want to repeat them here. But I do want for a minute to provide a taste of what I envision for the District’s educational landscape.

For those of us involved in public school reform, we desperately desire a quality seat for every child. Yet, today, we have numerous low performing traditional schools, many with proficiency rates in reading and math in the single or low double digits. These need to be immediately turned over the charters. I don’t care if they are given to our home-grown versions of these schools or we bring in charter school networks from outside of our city. As charters proliferate by taking over the buildings of DCPS sites or by co-locating in the empty hallways of the humongous number of under-utilized regular schools, we will provide a stellar education to all of those beautiful children that we categorize as at-risk.

But doing this will take courage. It will be the political fight of the century. I am optimistic we can get this done in our lifetimes. Perhaps we need to begin with baby steps. One simple way to get started is to have a unanimous unambiguous vote by our charter board to have a school like Latin replicate.

For D.C. charter schools the war is on; but there is no war

Over the weekend the Washington Post printed an opinion piece by Jack Schneider entitled “School’s Out: Charters were supposed to save public education. Why are Americans turning against them?” The article offers a highly slanted negative view of the charter school movement that contains inaccuracies that have been easily negated by my public policy friends. Mr. Schneider wrote:

“The charter school movement is in trouble. In late December, the editorial board of the Chicago Sun-Times observed that the charter movement in the Windy City was ‘in hot water and likely to get hotter.’ Among more than a dozen aspirants for mayor, ‘only a handful’ expressed any support for charter schools, and the last two standing for the April 2 runoff election both said they wanted to halt charter school expansion. In February, New York City’s elected parent representatives — the Community and Citywide Education Councils — issued a unanimous statement in which they criticized charters for operating ‘free from public oversight’ and for draining ‘substantial’ resources from district schools. A month later, Mayor Bill de Blasio told a parent forum that in the ‘not-too-distant future’ his administration would seek to curtail the marketing efforts of the city’s charters, which currently rely on New York City Department of Education mailing lists.”

It is all par for the course.

To understand the current environment around charter schools here locally you have to be aware of the obstacles that have been established in an effort to ensure that parents have a limited option as to where to send their kids to receive a premier educational experience.

First, there are no buildings available for charter growth and expansion. Although these are public schools the city is under no obligation to provide them with space as it does when DCPS creates new facilities. I believe it has come to the point in which charter enrollment will freeze because there is nothing whatsoever in the market to lease or purchase. This despite the fact that there is currently 1.3 million square feet of vacant or under-utilized real estate that the traditional schools possess but will not turnover to charters in violation of the law.

Then there is the funding inequity issue. Charters receive an estimated $100 million a year less in revenue than the traditional school are provided by the city. Under the School Reform Act charters and DCPS are to be provided with the same dollars through the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula. Yet even in the face of a FOCUS engineered lawsuit on this matter the government will not budge. The Mayor will not even engage with the institutions that educates almost half of all public school students, approximately 44,000 pupils, regarding a discussion on this topic.

We are also facing an attempted labor union infiltration of charter schools. First it was attempted at Paul PCS, then at Cesar Chaves PCS, and now at Mundo Verde Bilingual PCS. Please do not be fooled. None of this has to do with transgressions by school administrators or the needs of teachers or parents. The union is trying to obtain a footing in our sector in order to kill it off once and for all.

While all of this is going on charters are educating scholars minute by minute according to the highest standards they can offer. Many of the children housed in their classrooms are the ones regular schools have turned away. They rarely even consider the insurmountable obstacles in their path. The situation is terribly unfair. The message charters are receiving on a daily basis is do your best tirelessly without adequate classroom space, funding, and with the introduction of a third party grossly interfering with the trust that has been established between staff and leadership.

There has got to be a better way.

D.C. charter schools must expand at a much faster rate

Last week WUSA 9 ran an article entitled, “Where are these kids going to go?’ 43 DC charter schools have been closed since 2009. This one is next.” Authors Eric Flack, Jordan Fischer, and Kyley Schultz point out that in the last 10 years the DC Public Charter School Board has shuttered 44 schools for either low academic performance or financial irregularities. In fact, the board lists 65 charters that it has closed since the start of the movement here in the District. The WUSA piece focuses on the charter revocation of National Collegiate Preparatory PCS, and the story is obviously part of the school’s continuing public relations effort to keep the facility going.

At the time the PCSB was considering taking action against this school, I wrote:

“The essence of the proposed solution to what ails this charter, and the arguments that ensued over whether it met its established charter goals, is that it is all too little too late. National Collegiate has been graded six times on the Performance Management Framework during its decade of operation and the results in 2018 were its lowest yet at 26.7 percent. It has been a Tier 3 school for the last three years.”

So there was really no choice but to have this school cease operations at the end of June. But the reporters at WUSA question where its students will now obtain their education, and whether the alternative is worse than the current situation:

“In the case of students at NCP, that option is Ballou High School, which one year ago was embroiled in a graduation scandal for awarding diplomas for chronically truant students. It’s a school whose test scores are four times lower than National Collegiate Prep.”

My hope was that a high-performing charter operator would take over Collegiate Prep. But since this has not occurred, it may be that the children will end up at Ballou, the neighborhood high school characterized by having a poor academic track record. Here is where we as a sector are not doing as well as we could to serve our students.

When a charter school ceases to exist, the fallback for its pupils is often the neighborhood school. In these instances, we are feeding directly into the narrative of charter opponents. They argue that instead of spending millions of dollars on school choice, the community should be strengthening the regular schools with financial resources since when charters eventually close this is where kids end up. The situation has to come to an immediate end. In the face of charter revocation, we have to be able to continue to teach those students in our classrooms.

This would mean creating hundreds more additional seats. In order to get to this point many steps would have to be taken. For example, the securing of charter school facilities is still a major stumbling block whose solution continues to be elusive. Moreover, the charter board needs to immediately look at barriers to entry for the creation of new schools and the growth of existing ones. In addition, the application process for opening a charter has to be simplified. There also must be a relaxing of the criteria under which a school can replicate. Finally, holding charters accountable to the Performance Management Framework has to be adjusted to promote replication.

If we truly care about our kids, when a school is closed having them enroll at a traditional school is not the solution. We need to provide them with admission to one of our proud charters that as a group currently has a wait list of almost 12,000 students.