D.C. charters lose five former DCPS schools that could have expanded movement

Yesterday, Jon Banister of Bisnow Washington D.C. revealed that Mayor Muriel Bowser has turned five former DCPS schools over to developers.  These historic and beautiful buildings could have played a major role in expanding our local charter school movement.  For example, Rocketship PCS and KIPP DC are in desperate need of facilities and I’m sure there are many more charters that could have used the available space to try and meet the wait list of 11,317 children whose parents are trying to get them into one of these institutions.

The re-purposed structure, according to Mr. Banister,  include the Franklin School which will become Planet Word, a museum to the language arts.  It is 51,000 square feet and was built as one of the initial neighborhood public schools in our city.  The Crummell School,  which honors abolitionist and teacher Reverend Alexander Crummell, served black students in the 1900s.  It is 108,000 square feet and will become a mixed use development.

The Grimke School gets its name from NAACP president Archibald Grimke.  It currently houses the African-American Civil War Museum.  The approximately 45,000-square-foot property will continue to be the home of the museum plus office space for its architect.  There will also be some room for a cultural organization.

The Randall School used to be the Francis Cardozo Elementary School and Randall Junior High School.  This approximately 50,000 square foot building will become a museum, office space, and restaurants.

Finally, the Hine School, which used to be Hine Junior High School, has become a Trader Joe’s, taking up 60,000 square feet.

So hundreds of thousands of square feet of surplus DCPS facilities that by law should have gone to charter schools are now being converted to commercial uses.  The next time that you hear Ms. Bowser talk about her support for public education and charter schools please be brave enough to remind her that her claims could not be further from the truth.

 

Walton Foundation attempts to boost charter school facility funding

The Walton Family Foundation announced this week the creation of two new funds that could play a major role in aiding charter schools across this country obtain permanent facilities.  Of course, securing permanent buildings is the greatest, and seemingly most intractable, problem facing these institutions.

The Charter Impact Fund, as described by the foundation’s press release and formed with an initial $200 million investment, is a non-profit that will “provide long-term, fixed-rate loans—similar to a home mortgage—to high-performing charter schools anywhere in the country for up to 100 percent of project costs. The CIF provides charter schools with access to lower transaction costs and quicker loan execution —allowing each school to save several million dollars over the loan term.”

A second financing mechanism, The Facilities Investment Fund, will offer five-year fixed-rate loans to charter schools in order to cover 90 percent of a renovation or new building.  Backed with $100 million, it has been originated through a partnership with Bank of America Merrill Lynch and overseen by Civic Builders.

Both of these moves seem promising and it will be interesting to see if they provide value to charters here in D.C.  But what if charters do not have the money or cash flow to support loans?  In addition, support of renovation costs does not help if buildings cannot be found.  The District has such a strong commercial real estate market that identifying potential facilities is a puzzle that often cannot be solved.

I have been thinking for sometime now that locally we should adopt the method that Denver uses for adding charters. In that city the school district builds facilities for them.  But at the 2018 FOCUS Gala, Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, pointed out to me that the situation there is actually not working as planned.  For example, he pointed out that the Denver School of Science and Technology, a school I have visited that has essentially been able to close the achievement gap between affluent and poor students, has several charters in the pipeline ready to open but Denver Public Schools has yet to construct their homes.

Perhaps there is no solution to the charter school facility issue.

 

Mayor Bowser proposes increase to public school funding in an apparent move to shift narrative away from current controversies

Yesterday, Ms. Bowser released her fiscal year 2019 budget, and public education stakeholders are ecstatic that it includes a 3.91 percent increase in the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula.  If passed, her proposal would raise the base of the UPSFF to $10,658 per pupil.  The reason for the enthusiasm is that last year a working group that convened over six months under the auspices of the Office of the State Superintendent of Education to review the city’s school budget recommended a 3.5 percent increase.  However the Mayor, in last year’s spending plan, suggested a rise of only 1.5 percent.  The D.C. Council then took this number and doubled it to 3 percent.  The 2018 budget also included a 2.2 percent jump in the charter school per pupil facility allotment.

So why the sudden change of heart by Ms. Bowser? Well, a few issues have popped up over the previous 12 months.  It was discovered that the Chancellor she hired, Antwan Wilson, had one of his children transfer schools outside of the lottery and in violation of a policy he had created and signed.  This led to his forced resignation together with that of Ms. Bowser’s coveted Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles.  There are now allegations that the Mayor was told by Mr. Wilson of his discretionary placement months before it was known to the public.  At the same time, a WAMU and NPR story led to the realization that hundreds of students received high school diplomas from DCPS facilities in 2017 who never should have graduated.  Next, it was uncovered that more than half of all students attending Duke Ellington School of the Arts falsify their home addresses to show they live in the District so they don’t have to pay tuition.   A lawyer for OSSE was apparently told by higher-ups not to rush an investigation into this matter because it is an election year.

Finally, last week, there was the Mayor’s State of the District Address, in which she provided no solutions for the recent ills of DCPS, or an explanation of who she would bring in to fill her top two administrative education positions.  Tonight is the 2018 FOCUS Gala and Ms. Bowser is expected to attend.  Which do you think she would rather talk about, the recent problems with the traditional schools or more money for charters?

The new incremental dollars will also deflect calls for a modification of the structure of Mayoral control over the public schools.

The Washington Post’s Fenit Nirappil, Perry Stein, and Faiz Siddiqui, in an article appearing yesterday, state that the added money for education is not that big of a deal.  They write:

“While some education watchdogs celebrated the per-pupil spending increase, Marlana Wallace, a policy analyst with the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, said it’s not as high as it appears. According to Wallace, part of that increase covers raises for teachers that came after the union reached a contract agreement with the city for the first time in five years.”

Moreover, before you get too excited about the extra revenue, I feel an obligation to point out Ms. Bowser’s 2019 budget also has a line item for $1.35 billion toward the modernization of another 26 DCPS buildings.  Charters do not get a dime of these funds.  They have to cover renovation costs out of the per pupil facility allotment.

 

 

 

 

Mayor Bowser wastes State of the District Address when it comes to public education

The Mayor was supposed to give last evening’s speech at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts.  It would have been the perfect symbol for how education reform on the traditional school side has fallen apart.  The building was recently renovated at a cost of $170 million which was $1 million more than its projected budget.  But a trio of calamities, including the finding that more than fifty percent of the students who attend Ellington do so without living in the District while falsifying their permanent addresses so they don’t have to pay tuition; drove the hasty decision to relocate the event to the University of the District of Columbia where it was staged last year.  The Administration put forth the excuse that there was better access to parking, the subway, and buses at this location.

If you are dying to know what Ms. Bowser said about the pressing topics of the forced resignation of her Deputy Mayor for Education and the Chancellor over the school placement of Mr. Wilson’s child outside of the lottery, the grossly inflated graduation rates of high school students, and residency fraud, I will provide a service by saving you the time of having to read her entire remarks before getting to the end where these subjects were discussed.  Here we go:

“In recent months, there have been bumps in the roads – frankly, there have been some mountains. But now the band aid has been ripped off, and we understand better than ever the challenges we face. . . I recognize that there is trust that needs to be rebuilt between our school system and parents, and systems of accountability and oversight that need to be reinforced and reviewed.  Under the leadership of interim Chancellor Amanda Alexander, we will finish this school year strong and be ready to start the next one.”

That is it.  Nothing about the search for a new Chancellor or who will be the next Deputy Mayor for Education, and not a word about steps that will be taken to correct the abject failures of “accountability and oversight.”  But more significantly, not one mention about charter schools that now educate over 43,000 children in the city, a number representing 47 percent of those in our public schools.

The 2018 FOCUS Gala is next week.  What a perfect opportunity this would have been to announce that she was turning over twelve former DCPS facilities for use by charters.  She could have added that she will make room for pupils from this sector in over a dozen other traditional schools that are severely under-enrolled.  The Mayor might have offered that she is the Chief Executive of Equality, and therefore will immediately seek to end the funding inequity lawsuit against the city by providing revenue in the same proportions to charters and the regular schools as the law demands through the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula.  Finally, she could have acknowledged the nationally recognized progress that charters in this town have made by stating that she will seek to emulate management of her schools by studying the work of these institutions and the DC PCSB.

I am so sorry.  It is extremely early in the morning, and I must still be dreaming.

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.