Washington Post finally comes to defense of charter schools but does not go far enough

Today the editors of the Washington Post come to the defense of D.C.’s charter schools in opposing the transparency law introduced by Council member Charles Allen. They point out that due to the popularity of these public schools with parents, this city’s charters have been able up to this point to escape the attacks that have characterized this movement in other localities. However, with the introduction of Mr. Allen’s statute the situation has now changed. They write:

“The opening volley in this effort is legislation being promoted as a well-meaning effort at transparency and accountability. Sponsored by D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), the measure would subject the independent nonprofit charter schools to the open-meetings and Freedom of Information Act requirements that apply to D.C. government entities.

We are firm believers in sunshine in public matters, but this legislation — which seems to be taken from the national teachers union playbook on how to kneecap charter schools — is not designed to benefit the public or help students. It ignores the fact that the D.C. Public Charter School Board, which oversees the city’s 123 public charter schools, is already subject to both the open-meetings law and freedom-of-information requests. The board, which has earned national renown for the rigor of its standards, requires charters to disclose financial information, including how they use resources from the government and what they accomplish with those resources. Charters participate in state testing and federal accountability programs, and the charter board leads the way in providing comprehensive evaluations of charters and the job they do in educating students.”

First of all the Post has it only partly right. Charters in the nation’s capital have not been subject to the same false diatribe that these schools in other cities, such as Los Angeles and Chicago, have experienced. However, we just went through a horrible and highly distracting unionization episode at one of our oldest networks. The editors seem to have had this recent escapade on their minds when they were constructing their piece:

“It is telling that one bit of information sought in the legislation proposed by Mr. Allen — who seems not to have consulted with charter officials and declined to discuss the bill with us — is a listing of the names of all charter school employees and their salaries. It’s hard to see how that’s critical to student learning but easy to see how it might help unions in their bid to organize at charter schools.”

In addition, the newspaper’s editors say nothing about the bill being advanced by education committee chairman David Grosso that contains its own transparency requirements. They observe that charters receive only 70 percent of the funding of the traditional schools, and therefore having to answer to Freedom of Information Act requests would be burdensome for their small administrative staffs. However, the data required to be shared by Mr. Grosso also imposes an unfunded mandate on this sector. The Council should worry about the academic performance of the 48,000 students that are enrolled in DCPS facilities and leave the charters to the DC Public Charter School Board. This body has its own list of onerous reporting requirements.

U.S. Education Secretary goes bold on D.C. voucher plan; others go weak

Another Democratic Congress, another chance to attack the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, the private school voucher plan for kids living in poverty in the nation’s capital. Last week, the Washington Post’s Jenna Portnoy revealed that D.C. Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, together with the the House Oversight and Reform and Education and Labor committees, wrote a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos seeking information expressing concerns about the OSP. According to the reporter:

“Lawmakers said they want to ensure that federal civil rights laws and safety regulations apply to students in the program, according to the three-page letter to DeVos from Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), Education Committee Chairman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.) and Norton.

They requested details about schools participating in the program, including whether they are accredited, whether they are religiously affiliated, how much of their funding comes from the voucher program, whether they have tested drinking water for lead, how many students are disabled and English-language learners, and how many students did not graduate or transferred to another school.”

The questioning comes as Ms. DeVos has moved to increase the number of vouchers awarded to low-income students by raising the budget of the program from its current $45 million dollars a year to $90 million.

The legislative SOAR Act that contains funding for the OSP has been supported locally by Mayor Muriel Bowser and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson because it provides equal dollars to private school vouchers, charter schools, and DCPS, following the three-sector approach championed by the late businessman and philanthropist Joseph E. Robert, Jr. Ms. Portnoy includes in her article the following reaction from the Bowser Administration regarding a challenge to the OSP:

“The program ‘has been instrumental in supporting the District’s three-sector approach on education by providing more opportunities and choices for our students and families,’ Bowser spokeswoman LaToya Foster said in a statement. ‘We have called on Congress to reauthorize and fully fund [it] so that we have the resources we need to continue ensuring every family in every neighborhood has a fair shot at high quality educational opportunities.’

Choices for families are needed now more than ever. The 2019 D.C. lottery just concluded, so we are expecting anytime this year’s charter school student wait list data. However, for the 2019-to-2020 school term there are 9,437 students on DCPS wait lists and last year there were over 11,000 pupils wanting to get into charters who could not. Having your child admitted to your desired public school continues to be a tremendously frustrating experience for District of Columbia families. Ms. DeVos is on exactly the right track.

Not so brave are those trying to defend charters from those that want to see them become a part of history. The latest assault comes in the form of a Trojan Horse complaint about the lack of transparency around charter school board meetings and finances. The D.C. Council has gotten into the act in the form of a bill introduced by Charles Allen that would force a long list of unfunded mandates on charters. In reaction, last week Council Education Chairman David Grosso brought forth an alternative that would force charters to comply with Open Meeting laws and detail expenses for all to see. The legislation is supported by all the remaining council members and, incomprehensibly, by FOCUS. My god, didn’t we just recently close a charter school in part to rid our movement of union activity? Couldn’t someone have similar guts to tell the Council to stay out of a school sector over which it has no authority?

Reaction to D.C. Councilmember Allen’s charter school transparency bill has been highly disappointing

It is less than 24 hours since D.C. Councilmember Charles Allen announced he was introducing a bill to sidestep efforts by the DC Public Charter Board to increase the transparency of information available about the schools it oversees. The PCSB is set to vote on its version of a new policy as soon as this coming Monday. But at the urging of EmpowerED DC, a group which apparently over the last three-quarters of a year has been trying to impose open meeting and FOIA laws on our city’s charters, together with the American Federation of Teachers, Mr. Allen could not find a way to respect the work of the nation’s leading charter school authorizer and felt the need to circumvent their efforts. In the aftermath of his decision, I’m frankly disheartened by the reaction of our city’s charter public policy leaders.

Cordilia James and Ingalisa Schrobsdorff of WAMU state that the charter board referred to Mr. Allen’s proposed legislation as “misguided,” adding that it “fails to take into account the extraordinary transparency measures already taken by the Public Charter School Board … Nothing in this bill will help close the achievement gap, reduce the number of students living in poverty, or reduce truancy. We support a smart, reasonable approach that provides the transparency parents need, but does not divert school efforts, attention, and funds away from educating students.”

Next up is Irene Holtzman, the executive director of FOCUS. She commented, according to the WAMU reporters, “We’re already funded at just 70 percent of traditional public schools. Another unfunded mandate is unreasonable. Where is the focus on outcomes? How will these requirements help parents or anyone else evaluate how effectively and equitably all our public schools are serving students?”

It appears from these quotes that people are simply trying to change the subject. There is only one point that needs to be made at this crucial moment: stay out of our business. The School Reform Act is clear. The PCSB oversees charter schools in the nation’s capital. This is not the job of the Mayor, and certainly does not fall under the purview of the D.C. Council.

Perhaps the reaction to Mr. Allen’s law is a symptom of what is wrong with our local movement. By law, the city must turn over surplus DCPS facilities to charters, but when it refuses to do so there are no consequences. Charters are required to receive funding equal to the traditional schools through the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula. When this does not occur we reluctantly bring a lawsuit while prioritizing collaboration with the same individuals and groups who are biding their time setting up roadblocks in our ability to care for our students.

Where is Robert Cane when you need him?

Councilmember Allen aligns himself with teachers’ union fighting to end D.C.’s charter school movement

Today, D.C. Councilmember Charles Allen will declare his intention to introduce a bill that among other things will force charter schools to comply with open meeting and Freedom of Information Act regulations. He will announce his legislation, the Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019, on the steps of the Wilson Building at 10:30 a.m., and will be joined by none other than Christian Herr, the Cesar Chavez Prep PCS science teacher who was behind the disastrous move to unionize the Bruce Building campus. Checking the Chavez calendar demonstrates that school is in session on this Wednesday. In fact, this week is Prep’s spirit celebration. I guess Mr. Herr is playing hooky.

The proposed law contains other requirements intentionally included to divert charter school attention from their mission of providing a world-class education to children, most of whom are living in poverty and are at risk of not making it alive to their eighteenth year.

Here a few disgusting nuggets:

  • Charter school boards must include two teachers and, in high schools and adult learning schools, must add a student;
  • Charter schools must include a list of all contracts in their annual reports;
  • The DC Public Charter School Board must make public all contracts initiated by its schools that are over $25,000 and therefore subject to a request for proposal, to include the vendor selected, and the reason behind the choice. It also removes an exemption for schools, requiring them to issue an RFP for contracting with management organizations. This provision is implicitly directed at the union’s declared enemy TenSquare Consulting but the unintended consequence of this rule will be to strongly discourage high performing CMO’s to come to our city;
  • Annual reports of charter schools must include the amount of money donated to a charter school by name when the contribution is over $500. Currently, those giving over $500 must be listed by name but not the specific number of dollars gifted; and
  • Charter schools must list the names of all employees and their salaries, also in the annual report.

A highly interesting bit of information about the draft directives is that they are a complete surprise to chairman Phil Mendelson and education committee chairman David Grosso.

Mr. Allen seems to know that he is doing something unseemly. In his press release about today’s event he writes, “Still, recognizing that charter schools are structured and run differently than traditional schools, the bill includes measures to evaluate any administrative challenges so the Council and the Mayor can adjust in future years.”

The evaluation he is referring to is just another unfunded mandate on charters. The initial year this statute is in effect, schools would need to report to the Council the number of FOIA requests they have received and the expenses related to complying with them.

The one glaring advantage charters have in this situation is that the D.C. Council has no authority over them in regards to the specifics of Mr. Allen’s rules. So now this representative has drawn a red line in the sand over the self-determination granted to charters as part of the 1995 School Reform Act.

Who will be brave enough to defend charter school autonomy once and for all. FOCUS? The DCPCSB? Education Forward DC? CityBridge Education? Charter Board Partners? PAVE? Democrats for Education Reform?

Those of us who believe in educational freedom will be watching.