Finally, a creative solution for D.C.’s charter school facility crises

Former D.C. Mayor and chief executive officer of the Federal City Council Anthony Williams had an editorial in yesterday’s Washington Post calling for several “investments” on our public schools. The column is timed to influence current D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s upcoming proposed 2021 fiscal year budget. Mr. Williams argues for stabilization of the 2.2 percent increase in the charter school facility allotment that was provided to schools last year, an at-risk student admission preference, an increase in the at-risk weighting in the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula, and a four percent across the board increase in the UPSFF.

The suggestions contained in the piece mirror those included in an “Open Letter to Mayor Bowser, Chairman Mendelson and the DC Council on 2020 Education Priorities” dated January 28, 2020 that is signed by 38 charter and public school advocacy group leaders, although these individuals state that they are writing on behalf of themselves and not their organizations. The letter supplements the recommendations of Mr. Williams, stating that the UPSFF at-risk student weighting should go up to 0.37 and remarks that the at-risk admission preference by schools be voluntary.

Both Mr. Williams and the Open Letter contain a intriguing incentive to increase charter school co-locations with traditional schools. As stated in the Post piece:

“We should also encourage more efficient use of existing public school buildings, including incentivizing co-locations of DCPS and public charter schools. One way to do that is by dedicating a portion of rent paid by a public charter school to the school-level budget of the “host” DCPS school. Doing so would provide resources for these schools schools without increasing the District’s overall budget while providing high-quality learning environments to more public school students. That is a true win-win.”

There you have it. The most promising positive suggestion regarding the stifling charter school facility shortage that I have seen in my 20 years of involvement in this movement. This concept desperately needs to be included in Ms. Bowser’s upcoming budget. In addition, she, together with the Deputy Mayor for Education, need to make co-location of charters with DCPS a priority of their school building utilization efforts going forward.

Now that we have a first step toward breaking the deadlock for charter classroom space what else can be done? Can the city provide developers a financial incentive to include schools in their projects? Can charters get first crack at properties that are condemned?

Here is one thing that should happen starting today. The Bowser Administration must follow the law and turn over vacant surplus DCPS building to them for their immediate use.

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.

Bowser administration admits that DCPS revenue outside of UPSFF is illegal

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser released her proposed 2020 budget this week and it has some good news for charter schools. First, she is requesting that the charter school per pupil facility fund be increased another 2.2 percent to $3,335. This would be the second year in a row that this number would go up by this proportion. The jump is important, because as Two Rivers PCS’s executive director Jessica Wodatch explained at last night’s 2019 FOCUS Gala, the cost of construction in the nation’s capital is rising tremendously.

Still, I’m not quite sure about the Mayor’s strategy here. It seems like instead of turning over vacant DCPS buildings to charters she is encouraging them to rent space in the commercial real estate market. Wouldn’t it be preferable to have these schools lease from the city instead of turning taxpayer money over to developers? What am I missing?

In addition, the mayor’s budget blueprint also has the per pupil expenditure rising by 2.2 percent. However, Irene Holtzman, FOCUS’s executive director, stated that this number is insufficient:

“FOCUS is pleased that Mayor Bowser delivered on her commitment to increase the facilities allotment for public charter schools by 2.2 percent. The predictability of facilities funding is crucial to public charter schools as they plan to make needed improvements to their buildings or lease facilities to accommodate their student bodies. This is a wise long-term investment that helps ensure that the nearly 50 percent of students attending public charter schools have buildings that enhance, rather than hinder, their experience.
 
Simultaneously, we are concerned that the increase to the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula (UPSFF) falls short of the needs of all D.C.’s students. The 2.2 percent increase in the base UPSFF does not keep pace with the District’s funding pressures or inflation, and increases the gap between the current level of funding and the city’s own definition of funding adequacy as defined in the 2013 report Cost of Student Achievement: Report of the DC Education Adequacy Study.
 
In addition, a broad coalition of advocates for children and youth have been working diligently to ensure that our schools have the mental health supports they need to manage the level of trauma experienced by our students. Not increasing the funding to support at-risk students  will leave schools scrambling to ensure that our most vulnerable students have the supports they need to be successful in school.
 
We urge the D.C. Council to remedy this gap in funding by making at least a 3 percent increase in the UPSFF, and, better yet, funding a 4 percent increase that, if followed annually, could get DC to ‘funding adequacy’ in five years. In addition, Council should prioritize increasing the at-risk weight to enable schools to continue to grow and strengthen the wraparound supports we know our students both need and deserve.”

I did some poking around the budget and I stumbled on something fascinating. Embedded in the document is an admission from the Mayor that all public funding for both charters and the traditional schools must come through the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula. Here is the exact language:

“The District’s public charter schools receive Local funding through the UPSFF. This system of funding was established by the District of Columbia School Reform Act of 1995 and was designed to ensure that all public schools across the District receive the same level of funding on a per-student basis, regardless of what neighborhood the school is in or where students live. The UPSFF is intended to cover all local education agency operational costs for District public schools including school-based instruction, student classroom support, utilities, administration, custodial services, and instructional support, such as curriculum and testing. The UPSFF is based on a foundation amount, which is then enhanced according to different weights for higher-cost grade levels and supplemental funding weights for students with special needs. The FY2020 UPSFF foundation increased 2.2% from $10,658 per pupil to $10,891 per pupil. The average cost per student, based on the proposed enrollment of 44,486 and a proposed gross budget of $898,494,213, is $20,197.”

In other words, the very argument that charters have been making for years that is contained in the FOCUS engineered funding inequity lawsuit against the city is affirmed in the administration’s own budget. Can we now settle this thing and reimburse charters for the approximately $100 million a year in revenue provided to DCPS that the other sector did not receive?

What is the next step?

For D.C. charter schools to survive they must remember they are part of a national movement others want ended

Washington City Paper writer Rachel Cohen has come out with her next in a series of articles meant to destroy our local charter school movement.  This one deals with the financial compensation that some school leaders are receiving. From her article:

“Summary statistics aside, the sector is replete with examples of steep salaries and quick raises. Allison Kokkoros, the head of Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School and the highest-paid charter official in D.C., received a 24 percent salary increase between 2015 and 2016, from $248,000 to $307,000. Then, in 2017, she received another 76 percent increase, bumping her compensation to $541,000. Patricia Brantley, head of Friendship Public Charter School, received a 33 percent raise between 2016 and 2017, increasing her pay from $231,000 to $308,000.

Outside of school heads, other high-ranking charter administrators also claimed significant salaries. In 2017, KIPP DC had four administrators making approximately $200,000 annually, and its president earned $257,000. The chair of Friendship, Donald Hense, earned over $355,000 annually between 2015 and 2017, and its CFO earned between $171,000 and $197,000 in each of those years. DC Prep’s Chief Academic Officer earned $203,000 in 2015, and $223,000 one year later. The board chair of AppleTree Early Learning earned over $231,000 annually each year since 2015, reaching $245,000 in 2017. 990 tax forms list another 110 charter administrators earning between $100,000 and $200,000 annually, although this list is likely not comprehensive, as schools are only required to disclose their top five highest-paid employees. 2018 figures are not yet available.

In one remarkable instance, Sonia Gutierrez, the founder and former CEO of Carlos Rosario, who now sits on the school’s board, earned $1,890,000 between 2015 and 2017. Board chair Patricia Sosa, when contacted about this large sum, says much of that had been awarded as deferred compensation from Gutierrez’s time working between July 2010 and December 2015. However, according to tax records, she was also paid an average of $326,000 annually during that period.”

I do not have sufficient information to say if these earnings are justified or not.  But I will make this important point.  Although charters were established in the nation’s capital over twenty years ago, there are still many people who wish they would go away.  The notion still exists that they are stealing money from DCPS and that charters are private schools run with public funds.  The issue is not unique to us locally.  For evidence of the hatred toward charters all you have to do is look at the inflammatory language that was targeted at them during the recent strike by teachers and their union in Los Angeles. Here is one key paragraph from the New York Times in a story written by Jennifer Medina and Dana Goldstein about the work stoppage:

“But the defeat in the court of public opinion is clear: After years of support from powerful local and national allies — including many Democrats — charter schools are now facing a backlash and severe skepticism.”

In order to reduce the likelihood of backlash and skepticism, all financial decisions at charter schools must be viewed through the lens that this information will end up on the front page of the Washington Post or the City Paper.  If the school’s action can withstand this level of scrutiny, then it is appropriate.  But if spending does not pass the smell test for being an ethical and market-based expenditure, then it needs to be abandoned.  No less than the future of our sector is dependent on making these calls correctly.

When I was a board chair I would open many of our meetings with a news article that described controversies involving charter schools.  I wanted the trustees to understand that they were part of something that others found distasteful.  Because of the political environment in which we operate, everyone involved with charters has to conduct business at an exemplary level of integrity.  It is a standard that as courageous professionals we should accept and embrace so that we can continue to provide the exceptionally high quality education our students deserve.

D.C. charter school lawsuit continues; a second one should be filed

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein reported last week that the ruling issued almost exactly a year ago by a federal judge against the FOCUS coordinated charter school funding inequity lawsuit brought by Washington Latin PCS, Eagle Academy PCS, and the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools, has been appealed.  A federal judge heard oral arguments on November 5th that mostly revolved around whether it is appropriate that the matter be heard in federal court.  The original legal action by the plaintiffs claimed that charter schools receive less money in revenue from the city compared to the regular schools, a figure that has totaled $770 million from 2008 to 2015, and equates to $1,600 to $2,600 per pupil every year.

The supplemental payments to DCPS have come mostly in the form of services the regular schools receive for free that charters do not, such as building maintenance and legal assistance.

The most significant information coming out of Ms. Stein’s story is that legal representation for the charter schools is now being provided by an attorney from WilmerHale, a law firm handling the case on a pro bono basis.  The attorney replaces Stephen Marcus, who was intimately involved in this lawsuit even before it was brought before the court four years ago.

The charter school argument is based upon the School Reform Act.  Passed by Congress and incorporated into local law by the D.C. Council, it states that all financial support for public schools, both charter and traditional, must come through the Uniform Per Student funding formula.  This means that the additional no-charge benefits that DCPS has been receiving over the past twenty years are illegal.

The current situation is unjust and is harming charter schools’ ability to care for the almost 44,000 children sitting it its classrooms.

It is, in fact, difficult to find a more straightforward public policy.  However, you are in luck.  Because on this dark and cold November morning I have found one more, a legal rule that I consider practically a tie in clarity with the dictate on the manner in which our schools receive their operating cash.  Ready, here it is:

All excess DCPS buildings will be offered to charter schools on a right of first offer basis.

As I pointed out yesterday, it is estimated that there is approximately one million square feet of vacant or underutilized DCPS facility space to which charters cannot get access.  An empty site has not been turned over to charters for about four years.  This is severely negatively impacting their ability to expand and replicate.  Now I will ask you a really simple question.  It is early so I don’t want to make it too difficult.  If charters can sue over illegal funding should not the sector also mount a court battle over access to physical structures?

I’ll await your response.

 

 

 

D.C. charters must appeal funding inequity lawsuit ruling

Patricia Brantley, the chief executive officer of Friendship Public Charter School, and Irene Holtzman, the executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, wrote an excellent editorial that appeared in yesterday’s Washington Post regarding the recent decision by a federal judge throwing out the funding inequity lawsuit brought by charters against the city.  It makes the point that if you were to see children playing on a public park equally enjoying the amenities you would have no idea that, when it comes to their education, there is a substantial difference regarding the funding the school they are enrolled in receives depending upon whether it is a part of DCPS or a charter.

Charters receive less money.  Much less.  The disparity in revenue is estimated to have equaled $770 million from 2008 to 2015.  This corresponds to $1,600 to $2,600 fewer dollars per student per year.

The fundamental problem, and it is truly fundamental, is that the regular schools are provided revenue and services by the Mayor or the city council outside of the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula.  But the 1995 School Reform Act, which dictates how schools cover operating expenses, could not be clearer on the mechanism for providing taxpayer money to all public schools:

“Annual payment under paragraph (1) of this subsection shall be calculated by multiplying a uniform dollar amount used in the formula established under such paragraph by:

(A) The number of students calculated under § 38-1804.02 that are enrolled at District of Columbia public schools, in the case of the payment under paragraph (1)(A) of this subsection; or

(B) The number of students calculated under § 38-1804.02 that are enrolled at each public charter school, in the case of a payment under paragraph (1)(B) of this subsection.”

In other words, revenue for both DCPS and charters is to be provided by law though the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula based upon a dollar amount multiplied by the number of kids enrolled.

Because the law, and the intention behind the law, are so clear, charters really have no choice but to appeal the court’s decision.  They cannot give up because people involved in our local charter movement never give up.  These are the same individuals who find teachers when there are none to be had, obtain facilities when no buildings are available, and make payroll when the bank account has been expended.  I have known these brave souls for more than 20 years.  I have been on the other end of the telephone line when it appeared all hope of continuing was lost, only to find them fighting to keep going for another day.

Over 41,500 pupils, 47 percent of all public school students, are depending upon them not giving up.

One judge made one bad decision.  So what?  There are plenty more judges out there.

 

 

Federal judge dismisses D.C. charter school funding inequity lawsuit

The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss reported last evening that U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan has rejected a three year old lawsuit coordinated by FOCUS and brought by Washington Latin PCS, Eagle Academy PCS, and the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools charging that DCPS has for years illegally received, and continues to receive, funding outside of the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula.

Charters contend that the traditional schools have been provided about $100 million per year more than the charters through services and other revenue sources to which charters do not have access.  The case was a major test of language contained in the School Reform Act dictating that money for public schools must be allocated according to the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula based solely on the number of pupils enrolled.  The argument, most forcefully made by the former FOCUS executive director Robert Cane, was that the Mayor and City Council have no legal authority to provide dollars to the regular school system to which charters are not also granted.  His point was solidly supported in the 2013 Adequacy Study, which was completed under the prior Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith.

Apparently, the decision came down last Saturday.  Little information is currently available about the ruling except for Ms. Strauss’ assertion that “the judge stated clearly that the District’s funding practices do not violate the School Reform Act and that the plaintiffs have ‘no standing to challenge the District’s enrollment calculation method for’ D.C. Public Schools.”

The legal action only came about after years of negotiations between charter and government leaders got nowhere.  The news of a lawsuit was announced here.

This is a major blow for funding equity in the nation’s capital between the two sectors, and it will have major implications.  For example, as part of the new DCPS contract with the D.C. Teachers’ Union, and the retroactive raise in salaries that it contains, it was estimated that charters would get an additional $51.2 million in extra funding due to the UPSFF.  Now, it is unclear whether the city is bound to that commitment.

More information will be shared as the ruling becomes publicly available.  Also, not known at this time is whether attorney Stephen Marcus is planning on appealing Judge Chutkan’s opinion.

But for now, it is an extremely dark day for fairness, equality, justice, and dignity when it comes to the way our city, the nation’s capital, supports our public schools.

 

 

New union contract for D.C. traditional school teachers is a boon for charters

The contract is retroactive to last October and includes a four percent pay increase for that year, a three percent increase for the following year, and a two percent raise for year three.  The Post points out that it amounts to a 1.3 percent bump in salary for each year from 2012 to 2019.  Most significantly, it raises the starting salary of new teachers to $56,313 a year, which the writers say is the highest teacher starting compensation in the country.  The agreement also apparently has the fastest route to earning over $100,000 and a new cap at $126,000 a year.

The additional dollars, which needs to be approved by union members and the D.C. Council, would be paid for out of the city’s surplus reserve.

The reporters indicate that because of the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula charters would get an additional $51.2 million over three years, roughly equivalent to the 46 percent share of students with DCPS getting $61.6 million.  It is encouraging to see the city comply with the law when it comes to the union agreement.  However, we still have no resolution to the FOCUS-coordinated charter school funding inequity law suit that has been going on now for three years.  As a reminder, when the legal action was taken, it was estimated that charters received over the last seven years $1,600 to $2,600 per student in less revenue compared to the regular schools.  With Mayor Bowser beginning to think about re-election this would be a fantastic moment to settle this matter once and for all.

On another subject, one of the authors of the piece on the DCPS teachers’ contract is Emma Brown.  Ms. Brown announced last week on Twitter that she will be ending her coverage of education to join the Washington Post’s investigative team. While I often strongly disagreed with Ms. Brown, especially regarding her views on private school vouchers, I have found her to be a talented and thorough writer.  Let’s hope that the Post’s educational reporting does not suffer with her transition.

 

D.C. school Chancellor admits money does not increase school academic quality

Yesterday, the D.C. council’s education committee under chairman David Grosso voted to increase the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula by 2.38 percent as part of the city’s fiscal 2018 budget.  The move is significant because Mayor Bowser proposed just 1.5 percent more in per pupil spending after an Office of State Superintendent of Education task force that included many leaders in our local charter school movement recommended a 3.5 percent jump.  There was a broad boisterous outcry from members of the public when Ms. Bowser released her planned allocation of education dollars.

Except from her new D.C.P.S. Chancellor.  Antwan Wilson stated that he was fine with the money he was to receive, and yesterday, in an article by the Washington Post’s Alejandra Matos,

His words are actually a breath of fresh air.  The Chancellor must be recalling the fine work of the Cato Institute’s Andrew Coulson, who, before he passed away in last year, loved to show the graph below to anyone who would listen.  The chart clearly illustrates that while the money spent on public education has grown exponentially over time reading and math test scores have remained flat.

At last week’s FOCUS Gala, Mayor Bowser announced a one-time bump for the UPSFF to 2.0 percent.  Now the Council has gone beyond her suggestion in pumping another $12.5 million into her $105 million hike.  Look for the full Council to easily approve the new number.  This change comes on top of a 2.2 percent growth of the charter school facility allotment to $3,193 per pupil.

OSSE recommends 3.5% increase in funding education in the District; Mayor budgets 1.5%

There was outrage on Tuesday by many leaders of D.C.’s charter school movement as the Mayor released her proposed fiscal year 2018 budget that included a 1.5 percent increase in the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula.  This despite the fact that for the first time in years Ms. Bowser put in a 2.2 percent increase in the per pupil facility allotment.  What’s the reason for the controversy?

The reason is simple.  In 2016, as is required by law to be done every 24 months, the State Superintendent of Education convened a working group to review the level of the UPSFF.  Participating in this body, among 13 others, were Irene Holtzman, the executive director of FOCUS; Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board; and representatives from KIPP DC PCS, Two Rivers PCS, Appletree PCS, DC Prep PCS, Friendship PCS, E.L. Haynes PCS, Next Step PCS, and St. Coletta PCS.  This is the group that came up with the push for the recommended increase.  It is fascinating to see the reason for their conclusion.  From the report:

“Increasing the base rate significantly, above the rate of inflation, continues to treat the Adequacy Study, the most recent, thorough and comprehensively researched examination of the UPSFF, as the “North Star” for guidance on the rate. By default, an increase in the base rate impacts the amounts in weights across the board.

An increase in the base rate provides: The greatest flexibility to meet the diverse needs of the greatest number of schools, and schools with varying demographic populations, including alternative schools, charter schools and DCPS schools. Funding for the single greatest cost for providing students a high quality education: the cost of salaries and benefits for the educator workforce. This includes, for example, the rising cost of healthcare and the interest of DC schools to have competitive compensation with surrounding jurisdictions.

  • A significant increase of 3.5% to the base rate specifically helps to:
    Further defray the costs of transition from the previous summer school weight to the implementation of the at-risk weight, especially given evidence that some LEAs and schools gained more funding from this transition than others.
  • Provide the most flexible funding for core program services, and is enough to help fill identified gaps in funding at DCPS. Ensure that there is adequate funding for all students, and ensure that funding distributed from the at- risk weight is better leveraged and remains a supplement for the needs of those students most at risk.”

Is is astonishing that after six months of work the Mayor would ignore the findings of the task force whose membership possesses so much expertise in the area of  school funding. But for me there was one silver lining contained in this document.  It refers back, as stated above, to the Adequacy Study as the “North Star” for “guidance on the rate.”  The Adequacy Study was groundbreaking in that it put in writing for the first time by the government that the traditional schools were receiving significant dollars in the neighborhood of $100 million a year, in dollars outside of the UPSFF which is against the law.  When then, will the FOCUS engineered lawsuit on the inequitable funding of charter schools be resolved?