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.

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.

When D.C. public schools reopen they should all be charters

City leaders and educators are already beginning to imagine what public education will look like when schools are once again allowed to teach students in the classroom. Today, the Washington Post has a long article by Laura Meckler, Valerie Strauss, and Joe Heim talking about the challenges school systems are anticipated to have bringing its pupils up to their academic grade level. Once solution that was provided by Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and referenced by the Post reporters, is to keep low performing Title 1 children, those from low-income households, at their current grade until individualized lesson plans can be developed for each child. Mr. Petrilli wrote:

“So when schools reopen in the fall, these students should remain in their current grade and, ideally, return to the familiarity of their current teacher. (Other types of schools — including affluent schools, middle schools and high schools — may also want to consider a similar approach.) The first order of business will be to attend to the social, emotional and mental health needs of their children and to reestablish supportive and comforting routines.

Then teachers should develop individualized plans to fill in the gaps in kids’ knowledge and skills and accelerate their progress to grade level. The use of high-quality diagnostic tests will be critical in assessing how much ground has been lost in reading and math. Students who are assessed as ready for the next grade level can move onward.

The next step would be for teachers to develop plans for each pupil to make progress, aimed at getting them to grade level by June. The plans should involve as much small-group instruction as possible, with kids clustered according to their current reading or math levels, plus some online learning opportunities in case schools are closed again. Those who are furthest behind could get regular one-on-one tutoring from specialists. This would be different from just ‘repeating the grade,’ which, research shows, rarely helps students catch up.”

I agree with the Fordham Institute president that restarting schools will bring a need to tailor learning, as the excellent teachers I have met like to say, “to meet the students where they are.” But how can we get this done for the 47 percent of the 93,708 students that are identified as at-risk in the nation’s capital?

The answer is surprising simple. We need to open all schools, including those of DCPS, as charters. Charter schools in the District of Columbia have spent more than 25 years learning how to adapt their curriculum to the needs of the specific students enrolled in their buildings. We need to free the leaders of each campus to adapt as quickly as possible to the plethora of needs of those they are about to serve once again.

Now don’t get me wrong. This conversion to one hundred percent charters is a tremendous undertaking. But it is monumentally exciting at the same time. I imagine the DC Public Charter School Board, with the assistance of OSSE, the Deputy Mayor for Education, DCPS, and the State Board of Education, all rolling up their collective sleeves to create the new paradigm. In order for these facilities to be as flexible as possible, union membership by all teachers would be suspended indefinitely.

Think of the freedom that this change would bring to the principals of our traditional schools. They would form a natural partnership with the 62 sites that are already part of the charter sector. Consider the support that groups like Education Forward DC, CityBridge Education, the Center for Education Reform, FOCUS, the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools, Education Board Partners, the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, and the Flamboyan Foundation could provide to this effort. This is a ton of expertise.

After the Katrina hurricane disaster in New Orleans, that city’s schools reopened as charters. The result, as documented by a Tulane University research group, has been increased high school graduation rates, higher college participation, and standardized test scores that have gone up by “eight to fifteen percentage points.” These improvements include students from low-income families. In the aftermath of another catastrophic tragedy, a similar bold move is needed regarding education reform.

This coming Friday Mayor Bowser is expected to make another announcement regarding the city’s public schools. I anticipate that she will keep them closed for the remainder of the academic year. Wouldn’t it be great if she also announced that in the fall all schools would reopen as charters?

Friendship and KIPP DC charter school networks deserve more students, not less

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein has noticed that both Friendship PCS and KIPP DC PCS have been taking over campuses of other charters that were facing closure by the DC Public Charter School Board for poor academic performance. Friendship actually started this trend when it assumed control of Southeast Academy in 2005 after the PCSB revoked its charter. KIPP DC then followed suit nine years later when it agreed to bring Arts and Technology PCS into its network at the same time that New York’s Democracy Prep PCS expanded to run Imagine Southeast PCS. Then in 2015 Friendship incorporated Dorothy I. Height’s Community Academy PCS’s Armstrong and on-line campuses in the aftermath of the financial scandal surrounding its founder Kent Amos.

Democracy Prep PCS closed at the end of the 2019 school term when it realized that it could not raise its score on the DC Public Charter School Board’s Performance Management Framework.

More recently, Friendship rescued Ideal Academy PCS and brought City Arts and Prep PCS’s program around visual art, performance art, dance, theatre, instrumental music, and vocal music into Armstrong Elementary. KIPP DC this year added Somerset PCS to its roster of schools.

All of this consolidation is worrisome to Ms. Stein. She commented:

“KIPP DC and Friendship, the city’s two largest charter networks, have grown bigger in recent years as they take over floundering charter campuses, revamping the schools and adding the campuses to their already extensive and well-regarded portfolios.

The networks are poised to educate more than 11,500 public school students in the coming years — more than 11 percent of the city’s public school population.”

The Washington Post reporter raised an identical concern when she wrote about KIPP DC being granted the shuttered Ferebee-Hope Elementary School. She stated:

“The city’s decision to lease the vacant Ferebee-Hope Elementary School building in Southeast Washington means citywide enrollment on KIPP campuses could grow to more than 7,600 students in coming years — representing about 15 percent of the city’s charter sector and 7 percent of all public school students.”

Ms. Stein has actually underestimated the impact of Friendship. At the end of last year’s school year, with the help of many of this city’s nonprofits, Friendship’s Educational Foundation incorporated Monument Academy PCS into its fold. The Foundation already runs schools in three states with many more to come.

In addition, news came from Ms. Stein’s piece that apparently Achievement Prep PCS is in discussions to have its Wahler Place Middle School transferred to Friendship. Although Achievement Prep’s elementary school has been slowly increasing its PMF scores over time, the middle school appears stuck at an extremely low Tier 2 level. If Ms. Stein’s report is true, this would be an extremely interesting development since both of Achievement Prep’s campuses are at the same location.

What is truly fascinating is that now that the educational marketplace is working exactly as intended, in that good schools are growing in their span of control and low performing ones are going away, the establishment, as represented by Ms. Stein, is sounding an alarm. I, of course, take a different view.

Charter schools in the national’s capital currently teach 46 percent of all public school students, which equates to 43,446 pupils. This proportion should be much higher by now. In addition, although slowly improving, charter school standardized test scores are not where they need to be and the academic achievement gap, now at about 60 points, is holding steady. If having all kids go to a KIPP or Friendship campus is what it is going to take to turn this situation around, then I am perfectly fine with this outcome.

Support for my position comes directly from the leaders of KIPP and Friendship. Susan Schaeffler, the founder and chief executive officer of KIPP DC explained to Ms. Stein, “If something is working, it makes sense to build on it. . . We did not do this overnight.” Ms. Patricia Brantly, the Friendship CEO, put it much more simply on Facebook. “Go big or go home,” she wrote.

Between KIPP and Friendship there are currently 16 Tier 1 schools, with other campuses at Tier 2 or untiered. If you had a child in the District would you patiently wait while other schools catch up? Not a chance. You would enroll your son or daughter as quickly as you could in one of these fine institutions.

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.