DC public schools modernization could learn from charter sector

The Washington Post’s Joe Heim reports today that DCPS’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts will re-open next week after the completion of a renovation project that is $100 million over budget and a year behind schedule.  The total cost of construction is a staggering $178.5 million.  Only 575 students attend the school.

The newspaper goes on to explain that cost overruns such as the one at Ellington are more the rule than the exception when it comes to modernization of the traditional public schools, as was documented in a 2016 study on the issue by D.C. Auditor Kathleen Patterson.  From Mr. Heim’s story, “As Ellington’s budget surged to $178.5 million, spending plans for 35 other DCPS school modernizations grew from $586 million to $1.4 billion.”

Charter schools would love access to this kind of cash.  However, when it comes to capital expenses, even though charters are public schools just like those of DCPS, they are on their own to raise the money for school renovation.  The Mayor and the city council do not provide a dime, leaving it up to the per pupil facility allotment to cover the cost.  This is true even when a charter takes over a shuttered traditional public school facility.

So here’s how it works in the nation’s capital.  A charter is approved to open.  Then it must scramble to find a building, competing for space with other businesses in D.C.’s outrageously expensive commercial real estate market.  If it is able to secure a closed DCPS building, that space has typically been decimated by years of neglect.  Then the charter must pay to fix up the classrooms at its own expense and then pay the city to rent the structure.

Charters are severely limited in the amount of money banks will loan them for this type of work.  There is nothing magical here.  A charter school receives $3,193 per student.  The average charter school has 400 pupils.  This equates to about $1.3 million a year it has to repay a bank for a construction loan.  Charters usually allocate around 100 square feet per child.  Therefore, it needs a building that is around 40,000 square foot and, according to Building Hope, typically spends $150 to $250 per square feet to renovate the space.  For example, when I was board chair of Washington Latin PCS we spent $20 million, the most we could get a bank to loan us, to renovate the former Rudolph Elementary School in Ward 4.  The gym would have to wait to be built at a later date since this was all we could afford.  Latin spent about $267 per square foot on Rudolph or roughly $33,000 per child.  When it comes to Duke Ellington, it cost the city $310,000 per pupil.

Something must be done to even the playing field between charters and the traditional schools when it comes to access to facilities and their renovation.  After 20 years of public school reform in this town, we are no closer to a solution.

D.C. Council oversight hearing highlights charter school facility problem

On February 28, 2017 the D.C. Council’s Education Committee held a charter school oversight hearing during which it heard testimony from DC Public Charter School Board chairman Dr. Darren Woodruff.  As part of this exercise, the PCSB was asked a long and detailed series of 72 questions by the Council.  Part of this inquiry has to do with charter school facilities.  The answers were enlightening.

For example, charter schools now occupy 44 buildings that used to house DCPS classrooms.  However, there are another 64 charter school campuses operating in commercial spaces which means that taxpayer dollars are being paid to landlords instead of to the city as would occur if all of these schools leased shuttered traditional schools.   During this academic year two charters are co-located with DCPS.

Besides the 64 campuses that should be in government provided spaces because these are in reality public schools, there are another 13 schools that, since their lease is expiring, or because they have outgrown their property, or simply because the space doesn’t work, need to find new locations.  This gives us a total of 77 charters that should be in District provided sites.  Now comes the kicker.  Please see the response below to the one of the FY2016 Performance Oversight Questions:

“At the same time, there remain at least 10 unoccupied or underutilized city-owned buildings that would be desirable for public charter schools.  By DC PCSB’s estimate there is more than 1.6 million square feet of unused DC-owned buildings that could potentially be occupied by public charter schools.”

It is unfathomable that these buildings are being denied to charters.  Especially in light of the following observation by Dr. Woodruff in his testimony:

“This year, more than 41,000 students attend a public charter school.  And it  is important to emphasize, public charter schools educate a student population that is equally or at times more economically disadvantaged than the city average while outperforming the city averages in PARCC performance and graduating more students.”

I know that it is a Friday before a long holiday weekend.  But perhaps since the Mayor and city council members have returned from their junket in Las Vegas, they can figure out today how to provide our town’s public charter schools with the permanent facilities that they so desperately deserve.

Walton Foundation to help fund charter school facilities in D.C.

Today at the National Alliance for Public Charter School’s National Charter School Conference being held in Nashville, Tennessee, the Walton Family Foundation is to announce a $250 million initiative to help charter schools obtain and expand permanent facilities.  The goal of the program, according to Leslie Brody of the Wall Street Journal, is to add 250,000 seats in charters in 17 cities by 2027.  About 2.7 million students currently receive their public education in charters with over a million pupils on waiting lists.  In Washington D.C., charters educate almost 39,000 children with 8,500 trying to get in.  Excitingly, the nation’s capital is one of 17 cities that are being targeted by the Walton Foundation for charter school growth.

Ms. Brody goes on to explain that the great majority of the Walton funding will go to “low interest loans, offered by nonprofit lenders, for which charters will be able to apply.”  Of course, the obtaining of permanent facilities is the most significant obstacle charters face.  The search and acquisition of buildings often results in a needless distraction for charter leaders away from their focus on the academic progress of their scholars.  Many schools, due to the overwhelming difficulty in finding space, end up locating inappropriately and unfairly in church basements, warehouses, and storefronts.  The Wall Street Journal article quotes Marc Sternberg, director of Walton’s K-12 education program and one of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s deputy chancellors, as saying that the dollars will “level the playing field” for charters in many cities.

The Walton Foundation plan is to be administered by Civic Builders, a not-for-profit New York City developer.  David Umansky, the group’s CEO, states that the investment will allow charters to have broader access to commercial loans and other methods of borrowing.  The initiative comes on top of the $116 million the Foundation has given since 2003 to assist charters in gaining places in which to operate.

This morning’s revelation is not completely a surprise.  When I interviewed Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, a few weeks ago he informed me that a group of as many as 50 charter school stakeholders had been meeting to try and figure out a solution for the charter school facility dilemma.

The news comes on the 25th anniversary of the national charter school movement and during the 20th year of charters operating in Washington, D.C.  It could not arrive at a better time.  Our local sector has been stuck at teaching 44 percent of public school students for several years now and with more young families moving into the District there is an estimate that 50 new public schools will be needed within the next 10 years.

 

D.C. Council slams door on charter school facility allotment increase

Yesterday the D.C. Council passed the Fiscal Year 2017 Budget Support Act.  Missing in the legislation was an increase in the charter school per pupil facility allotment from the current $3,124 to $3,250, an amount sought by schools, parents, students, FOCUS, the Association of Chartered Public Schools, and Democrats for Education Reform.  From the FOCUS press release:

“Since 2008, facilities funding has increased only $16 per student, failing to keep pace with both inflation and the ever-rising cost of construction. Washington, DC public charter schools, per student, receive about $6,558 dollars less each year than their traditional public school counterparts.”

The recommended change in the formula would have amounted to a small 2.2 percent adjustment to the formula.  The facility allotment has gone up by a minuscule $16 per student since Mayor Fenty was in office in 2008.  Commented DER president Catharine Bellinger:

“DFER DC fought hard for a modest increase of 2.2% – a total of $2.8 million – for charter school facilities this budget cycle. But, despite this broad-based advocacy and more than 200 parent and grandparent phone calls to Council offices calling for right-sizing the funding level, city leaders still failed to invest in the 45% of the District’s public school students who attend public charter schools.”

I understand the outrage, I really do.  Keeping the facility allotment flat means that charters will have an almost impossible challenge in obtaining and renovating permanent homes in the red hot Washington, D.C. commercial real estate market.  Add to this issue the FOCUS-coordinated funding inequity lawsuit that a judge sent to arbitration only to find that the city refused to arbitrate, and it appears that the 39,000 children in charters are really second or third class citizens.  But perhaps the charter movement has only itself to blame.

In this era of cooperation and collaboration the leaders of our sector have gone out of their way to work with Mayor Bowser, Deputy Mayor for Education Niles, D.C. Council education committee chairman Gosso, and DCPS Chancellor Henderson.  But what we are talking about here is the future lives of our children.  The stakes could not be higher.  My kids are grown but if my offspring were young they would be in a charter.  Then, because this funding directly determines the quality of teaching taking place in the classroom, I would fight as if my continued existence depended on these dollars.

Perhaps its time to take a different course?

D.C. budget shorts charter school facilities

 

The D.C. Council’s Education Committee was surprised to find in this year’s Education Committee Budget Report that 24 DCPS buildings have still not yet been modernized, even after the District has spent more than $1 billion in construction costs since the school modernization process started in earnest in 2008.

One wonders what emotion they would collectively express if they learned that far more public charter schools have consistently suffered from inadequate facilities funding.  Imagine the bewilderment if they knew that the public charter school facility allocation has been increased only $16.00 per student in the last nine years.

This budget confirms the same sad fact that countless budgets before it have demonstrated: Washington D.C.’s public charter schools have been treated unjustly.  Not only does this impact public charter schools fiscally, but it also affects how charters can operate best to support their students. The public charter school community has asked for an additional $2.8 million to be allocated for facilities, a fraction of the $1.3 billion in capital funds allocated for DCPS.

Charter schools are forced annually to make exceedingly difficult decisions regarding every penny in their budgets.  Often those choices come down to spending more money on students in the classroom or repairs to boilers, windows, or roofs.  Frequently, it means a high performing charter must continue to push off the goal of expansion and the chance to serve the thousands of families desperate for a choice.  The end result is children stuck on waiting lists that have existed for years.

The city, with this education budget, is once again making it abundantly clear that if you want your child to take advantage of a better opportunity at a charter, then they cease to have the same rights as students who attend the traditional public schools. This is more than just unfair. It’s immoral.

The District Council must do the right thing. Provide additional facilities funding for charter school students and recognize all children as equal.

 

 

 

D.C. charter board jumps into facility fight

For the first time in its 20 year history, the DC Public Charter School Board has openly engaged in the battle to secure surplus DCPS buildings for charters.   Read it for yourself:

“A recent facility survey conducted by the DC Public Charter School Board (DC PCSB), indicated that 71% of public charter schools are interested in moving into a city-owned building. DC PCSB has identified 10 vacant city-owned school buildings with more than 1.6 million square feet that are ideal for a public charter school to locate. However, only one of these city-owned school buildings is currently being considered as the location for a public charter school. Instead, public charter schools will have to continue to lease from private landlords.”

The board also makes the point that currently charters are forced to locate in places that are not suitable for classrooms such as storefronts, church basements, and warehouses.  “Far too often, public charter schools are educating students in buildings that were not intended to be a school, which means that some schools do not have access to things like playgrounds, fields, gyms, and cafeterias,” the PCSB asserts.

Although there is no moral reason that these buildings have not been turned over to charters, the PCSB makes three points as to why this move should be made.  The board states that the facilities bring increased rent to the city while at the same time are renovated at no cost to taxpayers.  However, these first two justifications actually perpetuate the public policy discrimination against charters in that the regular schools don’t have mortgages and are renovated to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars without costing them a dime.

The PCSB also claims that co-locating charters in underutilized DCPS buildings is a better use of space.

The organization’s website includes a list of 10 vacant schools and six under-enrolled facilities to which charters would love access.  Buildings noted as under-utilized currently have students in 48 percent or less of its total square feet.  Here is the list.

Let’s see if this plea has any impact.  I would not hold your breath.

 

1.4 million square feet of public school space vacant

In a commentary appearing on the Educationpost website, Jacque Patterson, regional director of Rocketship Education, states that in Washington, D.C. there is currently 1.4 million square feet of space in a dozen shuttered DCPS schools that could be made available today for charter schools.  The issue is especially important now because, as Mr. Paterson explained, “the need is there, and it’s only going to grow, as conservative estimates project the number of D.C. school children will grow to 125,000 by 2025. That’s an additional 40,000 students over the next 10 years.”

This extravagant number of available square footage is most certainly a gross underestimate of available brick and mortar as numerous traditional schools are significantly under enrolled.

It has been estimated that there are 40,000 students living in the nation’s capital that lack a quality school seat.

Mayor Bowser and Deputy Mayor for Education Niles have not commented on the turning over of these buildings to the alternative school sector.  But they are not the only ones demonstrating silence on this issue.  Many leaders in the nation’s capital would rather not rock the boat and are keeping their opinions to themselves.  Perhaps at one of the upcoming Cross-Sector Collaboration meetings the subject will be raised in a way that does not hurt anyone’s feelings.

Meanwhile our town continues to provide high school diplomas to those who cannot write, cannot read on grade level and cannot solve basic mathematical problems.  This after we congratulate ourselves for 20 years of public school reform.