U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s remarks at the 2017 National Charter School Conference

It’s great to be here with so many pioneers and champions who are fighting to give our nation’s families more quality options in their children’s education. We each have a different story of how we got here. Here’s mine…

Defenders of the status quo like to paint me as a “voucher-only proponent,” but the truth is I’ve long supported public charter schools as a quality option for students. I worked with many others to get Michigan’s first charter legislation passed in 1993 — the third state to do so. And my husband founded a charter high school in Michigan that focuses on aviation, educates kids in the STEM fields, and prepares them to contribute in significant ways to our 21st century economy.

Whatever your own journey looks like, we’re here because we came to the same conclusion that, as a nation, we are simply not doing a good enough job educating our kids.

We all saw too many kids languishing in schools that did not work for them. We knew that if given choices, these students and their families would find an environment that suited them and challenged them.

Let me be clear up front: This is in no way an indictment of the great teachers working every day on behalf of their students. In fact, they should be honored, celebrated, and freed up to do what they do best. If there are any teachers — past or present — here today, will you please stand up? Thank you for all that you do.

But they — and we — all live with the fact that the current structure of education is outdated and ultimately is not geared toward what is right and best for students.

Let me tell two stories that illustrate this reality:

I met Dan a few months ago. Dan and his wife weren’t happy with their children’s assigned school, so they did their research and found a school they thought would be a good fit for them. They had to stretch their family budget to buy a house in that school’s district, but they thought it was a worthwhile investment for their children’s futures.

Unfortunately for them, right after they closed on their house, the school board redrew the lines, and poof — Dan and his family were now assigned to a different school, this one with achievement levels much lower than the one they moved away from and the one they sacrificed their life savings for. When Dan took his case to the district, the response was, “Too bad.”

The second story: Sandy recently moved to Virginia. She was excited to be living in a highly regarded, high-performing district. Her son completed the local school’s assessments, and while he had just finished first grade, he tested at the fourth-grade level. Yet the school told Sandy they didn’t have anything to offer a gifted student like him and he would have to stay in second grade because of his age.

So while the school district is well regarded for its high performance, it shows that not even a great district is the best fit for every child.

I can’t justify either situation to these parents when they ask the same question each of us would ask: “Why?”

“Why can’t my children go to the school I chose?”

“Why isn’t there a program that meets my child at his level?”


The answer should not be “Take it or, literally, leave it.”

How can we be OK with an education structure that is so inflexible and so unaccommodating? Education is foundational to everything else in life, yet the process of acquiring it is based on a family’s income or neighborhood.

A system that denies parents the freedom to choose the education that best suits their children’s individual and unique needs denies them a basic human right. It is un-American, and it is fundamentally unjust.

Thankfully, you are among those who are working to give parents the freedom to find that education for their children.

It’s been more than a quarter-century since the first charter law was enacted in Minnesota in 1991. That law didn’t evolve out of a vacuum, and it wasn’t developed on a whim. It was passed in response to the stories of families like Dan’s and Sandy’s. Parents were desperate for more options, and they pressed for change.

What began as a handful of schools in Minnesota has blossomed into nearly 7,000 schools in 44 states and the District of Columbia, serving more than 3 million students nationwide.

Through your great work, you have proven that quality and choice can coexist. You’ve helped weave charter schools into the fabric of American education.

Charter schools are here to stay. We’re now seeing the first generation of charter students raising children of their own. They know the difference educational choice made in their lives, and now as parents they want the same options for their children.
But we must recognize that charters aren’t the right fit for every child. For many children, neither a traditional nor a charter public school works for them.

Charters are not the one cure-all to the ills that beset education. Let’s be honest: There’s no such thing as a cure-all in education. Even the best school in the country with the best-trained educators and the most resources will not be the perfect fit for every single child.

I suggest we focus less on what word comes before “school” — whether it be traditional, charter, virtual, magnet, home, parochial, private, or any approach yet to be developed — and focus instead on the individuals they are intended to serve. We need to get away from our orientation around buildings or systems or schools and shift our focus to individual students.

Today, the United States is third in per-pupil spending among developed countries, yet our students rank 19th in science, 20th in reading, and 24th in math. The problem is not how much we’re spending; the problem is the results we’re getting.

Charters alone are not sufficient. Private schools alone are not sufficient. Neither are traditional schools.

And that’s OK. Let’s humbly admit this fact and recognize that no top-down, one-size-fits-all approach will ever help us achieve the goal of giving every child an equal opportunity for a world-class education. When a learning environment is not the best fit for a student, it’s incumbent on us to facilitate their transition to one that does meet their needs.

I was in Miami a few months ago and saw firsthand how a community is acting intentionally to meet the diverse needs of its students by providing a wide range of educational options.

I visited three distinctly different schools: SLAM Charter School, Christian Academy for Reaching Excellence, or CARE, and Royal Palm Elementary.

SLAM charter school, founded by Armando Pérez – you may know him as “Pitbull” – serves a low-income community with a large number of English learners. Many of the students anticipate being the first in their families to graduate high school, and some even had to enroll themselves in the school. For these kids, SLAM is providing a state-of-the-art learning environment that embraces the arts and athletics.

CARE serves elementary-age children with a focused outreach to those who are homeless or victims of sexual assault. Located in a homeless shelter in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Miami, CARE gives these kids, who often struggled in a larger school setting, a safe and nurturing environment that addresses their unique needs. The vast majority of students attending CARE do so at no cost to their parents through Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

Miami-Dade Public Schools’ Royal Palm Elementary serves children from its neighborhood and beyond. Led by a dynamic principal and a creative group of teachers who clearly love their work, it was evident why the parents of these students chose this experience for their children.

I celebrate the fact that each of these schools is helping students succeed in unique ways. The parents I met didn’t care that these were different types of schools; they cared that the school was working for their son or daughter. These schools are simply representative of what is possible in an environment of robust choices.

Education is not a zero-sum game. We should not think of it as such. There is no one right way to help kids learn, and just because a school educates children differently than you might propose to does not make them the enemy. Let’s applaud and encourage others who serve students well. It’s a both/and situation, not an either/or.

A zero-sum myth is continually perpetuated by the education establishment. We cannot — we must not — fall prey to that game. Charter schools were created to address the fact that for too many kids, their assigned public school wasn’t working for them. The early charter school leaders weren’t afraid to color outside of the lines, and in fact, they embraced the creativity, innovation, and flexibility charters represented.

But somewhere along the way, in the intervening 26 years and through the process of expansion, we’ve taken the colorful collage of charters and drawn our own set of lines around it to box others out, to mitigate risk, to play it safe. This is not what we set out to do, and, more importantly, it doesn’t help kids.

No one has a monopoly on innovation. No one has a monopoly on creativity. No one has a monopoly on knowing how every child learns.

Charters’ success should be celebrated, but it’s equally important not to “become the man.” I thought it was a tough but fair criticism when a friend recently wrote in an article that many who call themselves “reformers” have instead become just another breed of bureaucrats — a new education establishment.

We don’t need 500-page charter school applications. That’s not progress. That’s fundamentally at odds with why parents demanded charters in the first place.

Innovation, iteration, and improvement must be a constant in our work.

Today we have a great opportunity. While some of you have criticized the president’s budget — which you have every right to do — it’s important to remember that our budget proposal supports the greatest expansion of public school choice in the history of the United States. It significantly increases support for the Charter School Program, and adds an additional $1 billion for public school choice for states that choose to adopt it.

This administration has sent a clear message: We trust parents, and we believe in students. We will fight for every parent and every child, especially those who for too long have been forgotten.

The window of opportunity is narrow and the stakes are too high for us not to act. We must act boldly, and we must act now.

So let’s re-engage and recommit to the entrepreneurial spirit that gave rise to charters 26 years ago. Embracing more change, more choices, and more innovation will improve education opportunities and outcomes for all students.

Take a moment and picture a child whom you have helped get a great education.

For me, I picture Angie and Denisha…

Now think about Dan, and Sandy, and all the other families who need those same opportunities.

Drawing our own new lines won’t help those trapped inside them.

It’s time to put down the permanent marker and straight edge, and instead pick up your brush and palette and paint. Paint in bright, bold colors and continue to add to the colorful collage that was started 26 years ago.

We cannot let the opportunity go to waste.

Act — act now!  For Angie … for Denisha … for Dan … for Sandy … and for every parent and every child across America.

We owe it to them, and we owe it to our nation.

Thank you, and God bless you for all you do for America’s students.

The 2017 Richard Wright PCS Gala

My wife Michele and I had the distinct pleasure of attending last Saturday night’s Richard Wright Public Charter School of Journalism and Media Art’s sixth annual Black Tie Gala Film Festival.  What an elegant and inspiring evening.  The event, as in previous years, was held at the historic Warner Theater where over 1,000 men and women in evening attire gathered to celebrate the Reaching Our Excellence in Education (ROXIE) student productions.  The theme of the occasion was “Inspiring the Next Generation,” and I can attest that you could not walk out of that auditorium without wholeheartedly believing that the theme would be fulfilled.

Perhaps what makes this night so special has to do with the people who are honored.  These individuals included Bern Nadette Stanis, actress known for her role in “Good Times” and author; John Gibson, advisor for inclusion and multicultural outreach of the Motion Picture Association of America; Jim Watkins, WHUR-FM general manager; Denise Rolark Barnes, publisher of the Washington Informer; U.S. (Shadow) Representative for the District of Columbia Franklin Garcia; Renee Nash, WHUR-FM news and public affairs director; Ezekiel “Zeke” Dennison, Jr., third district representative for the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc.; Melissa Macaya, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists D.C. Chapter; and Reverend Tony Lee, founder and senior pastor for the Community of Hope A.M.E. Church.  In addition, a special Lifetime Legacy Award was presented to the Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.

I want to make a few observations about this portion of the program.  First, the awards were not given out all at once but were interspersed among the viewing of student films, which I thought was a nice touch.  Also, the two emcees, Mr. Joe Clair, host of the “Joe Clair Morning Show” on WPCG, and Dr. Renee Starlynn Allen, founder and chief executive officer of Star Entertainment Group, LLC, did an outstanding job of moving the agenda along at an upbeat pace, with Ms. Allen contributing the calming influence to Mr. Clair’s truly funny comedic antics.  The reaction by those receiving recognition of their careers in the service of others was uniform delight, and had the impact of providing the charter school with added credibility toward the creation, as stated by the charter’s board of director’s chairman Gregory Adams, “of endless possibilities within our school’s community, enabling our students to have the power to decide their futures with confidence.”

Guests could read detailed descriptions of the outstanding achievements of these awardees in the 45-page highly professional glossy brochure that was provided to each guest.  The booklet included declarations by U.S. House of Representative Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, At-Large Councilman and chairperson of the committee on education David Grosso, and six other members of the D.C. Council congratulating the school on reaching the milestone of its sixth annual ceremony.

There were nine student films.  Last year my wife and I had a conflict and could not attend the gala so the last time we were in attendance was in 2015. In just those two years the quality of the movies has gone up exponentially.  We were really blown away.  Immediately from the start of “Because I Love Him,” a piece about a woman who is being physically abused by her male significant other, we sat riveted before the screen.  Exceptionally moving and flawlessly written and produced was “The Perfect Child” which followed from her mother’s point of view the medical diagnosis, treatment, and recovery of her daughter, a Richard Wright student who had contracted stage four lymphoma.  She nearly died from the disease.  The young lady approached the podium at the end to speak to cheers and tears from the audience.

But I think the absolute highlight for us was the still-in-development documentary, “Reverend Jesse Jackson:  Keeping Hope Alive.  Mr. Jackson recently paid a visit to the charter and it is apparent he spent considerable time with the kids.  This segment followed Mr. Jackson as he took the pupils through his front-seat involvement in this nation’s civil rights movement, including the day he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968 when Martin Luther King was shot and killed.  Michele and I visited the hotel a year ago so the film was especially poignant to us.  Mixing news reels in with Reverend Jackson’s passionate reflections made you feel you were standing right next to him at the time.

At the conclusion of the film presentations and before Team Familiar, a high energy band that included vocals and a full horn section, entertained the audience, the founder and C.E.O. of the school and my personal hero Dr. Marco Clark addressed the guests.  But by this point there was little he had to say.  The students had already definitively shown the packed house the superlative progress in academics and character development being made by those attending Richard Wright PCS.


Exclusive interview with Shannon Hodge, executive director of Kingsman Academy PCS

I had the fortunate opportunity recently to speak with Shannon Hodge, the co-founder and executive director of the Kingsman Academy PCS.  Kingsman Academy, of course, is the school that replaced Options PCS in the aftermath of the financial controversies surrounding the former school’s management group.  I asked Ms. Hodge how things were progressing at the charter.

“Things are going very well,” the Kingsman Academy executive director answered without hesitation.  “We are in our second year.  We took extremely seriously what we committed to doing in our charter.  Our goal is to be a national model for the education of children with disabilities.  It is certainly not a straight line from where we started to where we want to be.  I look back at July, 2015, when we opened, and believe it is now much improved.  I can see where we are going and what we have to do to get there.  During the past two years we have learned much about what works with our students and how to adjust to some of the challenges they face.”  These are remarkably inspiring words coming from a leader of a charter school specializing in teaching at-risk young people.  But how she got here is equally extraordinary.

Ms. Hodge explained to me that she had been introduced to the charter as one of the attorneys working for the Hogan Lovells law firm assigned to represent Josh Kern after he became the court-appointed Receiver for Options PCS.  She had applied to be, and was subsequently hired to become, the charter’s executive director during the last year of the previous school’s operation.

It turns out that since the time that she attended Harvard University to obtain her bachelor’s degree, Ms. Hodge’s interests were always split between law and education.  As an only child, Ms. Hodge throughout her life put significant pressure on herself to do well.  So only naturally when in primary and secondary school Ms. Hodge did everything she was told to do and earned almost straight A’s.  From an early age she saw the opportunity that education presented to address inequalities in society.

While her B.A. is in Afro-American studies, Ms. Hodge also completed the Undergraduate Teacher Education Program in which she graduated as a certified teacher.  While Ms. Hodge finished her undergraduate education she also concluded her student teaching in Boston Public Schools, but she quickly realized that she needed additional preparation to work with students with significant needs and challenges.  So she obtained a master’s degree in educational and psychoeducational studies from Purdue University.  In order to learn the administrative side of teaching, the Kingsman Academy executive director accepted a position as a guidance counselor, first in middle school and then in high school, in Indiana.  She eventually became head of the department, but when she started she was the first professional African-American hired in the school system.

Ms. Hodge noticed many similarities between her students in Boston and those living in poverty in her high school.  She saw her job as helping her scholars see what was possible for their lives after graduation.  It was at this time that the No Child Left Behind law was being implemented.  Ms. Hodge sadly observed that the law’s testing requirements did not account for the challenges that many students and their schools face.

She decided she wanted to go to graduate school and so obtained her second degree from Harvard in educational administration, planning, and social policy.  She was there working on her doctoral degree when a law class that she was taking convinced her to attend Stanford to pursue her J.D.  After obtaining her law degree, and clerking in Richmond and Chicago, Ms. Hodge joined Hogan Lovells.

Ms. Hodge has come to understand that the District of Columbia students she serves need the most and deserve the greatest effort and energy that the staff can provide.  She learned much from Mr. Kern and greatly appreciates his ability to see past the first five or six levels of an issue.  When she became involved in the school through him she became aware of the firm determination of its talented staff which led her to become convinced there was tremendous potential here.  Ms. Hodge thought she could utilize her skills to join the challenge of advancing the charter’s strategic vision.

The 6th through 12th grade charter currently teaches 246 students:  26 in middle school, 208 in high school, and 12 enrolled in non-public schools.  The student to teacher ratio is 12 to 1.  The school demographics include 88 percent of students considered at-risk; 57 percent possess disabilities, and 62 percent of high school students are over-aged and under-credited.  Ms. Hodge informed me that 17 percent of those attending Kingsman Academy PCS are homeless.  Not known is how many have been incarcerated or otherwise detained within the last 12 months, but it is believed to be at least 10 percent of the student population.  79 percent of the pupils come from Wards 6, 7, and 8.

The breakdown of special education levels at Kingsman is as follows:  7 percent are at Level 1, 29 percent are at Level 2, 18 percent are at Level 3, and 47 percent are at Level 4.  This compares to the overall student population in the city as being 36.1 percent at Level 1, 30.5 percent at Level 2, 11.6 percent at Level 3, and 21.9 percent at Level 4.

It was interesting to learn from Ms. Hodge that 43 percent of the student body has no identified disability.  According to the Kingsman Academy executive director, in addition to students who may be drawn to the school because of its programming for students with learning or emotional disabilities, the charter attracts families who simply want their children to attend a small school or are familiar with its mission “to provide an individualized and rigorous education in a supportive environment to prepare scholars for post-secondary success and responsible citizenship.”  That mission is carried out through a project-based academic model and a four-tiered system of interventions designed to meet students’ academic, behavior, and engagement needs.

For most of the student body, Kingsman Academy looks like many charters in the city with a Monday through Friday schedule from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.  There are five periods that include subjects such as science, math, Spanish, and humanities.  Each Wednesday morning, students complete electives such as soccer, Community Club, life skills, photography, natural hair, mural arts, and etiquette. Many students participate in ace360, an athletics development program the school designed to prepare student athletes for success after high school. Each Wednesday afternoon there is a half day of professional development for the staff.

For those over-aged, under-credited pupils most at risk of dropping out, Kingsman Academy PCS offers the R.I.S.E. program. The acronym stands for Raising Individual Scholars towards Excellence.  Students participating in R.I.S.E. have before and after school classes and sessions on Saturdays.  The charter has found blended learning to be especially helpful with this population of young people.

In the future, the DC Public Charter School Board’s Alternative Accountability Framework tool will be relied upon to provide a public quality report.  However, Ms. Hodge is not waiting for this measure to develop a high performing organization.  “Success at Kingsman Academy means more than making sure students earn a high school diploma. It means preparing students to lead successful lives after graduation. We want our graduates to thrive in college, in the workforce, or in the military,” the Kingsman Academy executive director related passionately.  “We want them to be active leaders and responsible citizens, to provide for their families, to be lifelong learners. They deserve nothing less.”

D.C. charter board approves three new schools

A fascinating evening last night as the DC Public Charter School Board held its monthly meeting with a action-packed agenda.   First up was a public hearing regarding consideration of replication of two of our city’s finest charters, Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom PCS and Mundo Verde Bilingual PCS.  Each of these schools have extensive student waiting lists for next year’s terms, with Whitlow Stokes at 1,595 pupils and Mundo Verde with 1,335 students wanting admission.  Both charters are rated at Tier 1 on the Performance Management Framework.

The session even included appearances during the public comment period of Theola DuBose, past director of communications for the PCSB, and Ariana Quinones, former PCSB board member and staff member of FOCUS and Fight for Children.

The most interesting part to me of the replication discussion was that both of these schools are feeders into the District of Columbia International PCS.  Therefore, the issue naturally comes up that if these charters begin accepting more students will their scholars eventually gain entrance to DCI when they graduate the fifth grade?  The response from both institutions was similar in that they may work out an arrangement with other schools for acceptance of students if there are no openings at DCI and could consider in the future creating their own middle schools.  There was also hope that DCI would expand in coming years.

The other noticeable aspect of this hearing was that both charters made a point of highlighting that they are no out of school suspension schools, thereby formally institutionalizing the brand-new unwritten requirement first introduced with D.C. Prep PCS this month that charters must have exceedingly low out of school student suspension rates to be candidates to open new campuses.

Elsie Whitlow Stokes will have no problem being approved to add 400 pupils to its current 350 student body in the 2018 to 2019 school year, especially since it wants its new campus for bilingual education to be in Ward 7 or 8.  The story is not the same with Mundo Verde, which seeks to add 600 students to its current enrollment of 635 during the 2019 to 2020 term in a building on 8th Street, N.E.  More than a dozen parents testified that the expansion plans for this school was coming too soon with complaints that there was high teacher turnover occurring at the charter, although the school stated that it has a retention rate of over 80 percent.  They also contended that the school had just reached its current maximum enrollment this year, and therefore it was premature in its relatively short six year history to grow to another site.  The negative statements resulted in spurring PCSB executive director Scott Pearson to interject a couple of times in the discussion to point out Mundo Verde’s impressive track record.

In the past I would say that Mundo Verde would be approved for replication because it meets most of the charter board’s criteria for expansion, but based upon the D.C. Prep experience I’m now not so sure.

Next on the agenda was the approval of new charter school applications.  Here I was surprised with the results.  First, it was announced that CyberTech High School’s bid had been withdrawn.  I thought this school would not be approved.  Also, as I had anticipated, the Adult Career Technical Education Public Charter School was denied a charter.  Digital Pioneers Academy Public Charter School was given the green light which I had felt would happen.  The Family Place was also approved, a school that my heart wanted to be approved to open but whose application I thought had some weaknesses.  North Star College Preparatory Academy for Boys was given a charter despite the PCSB staff’s concerns that research has not shown benefits of having an all male school.

Two schools that I thought would be granted charters were not.   The board members liked the idea of the Waldorf approach of the Washington School of Arts and Academics PCS, but expressed that starting with this pedagogy in high school was too late.  The shocker to me was the denial of Citizen of the World’s application.  Apparently, board members whom had visited the other national campuses of this experienced operator were not overly impressed  with what they saw.

Congratulations to those charters that were approved to open in the 2018 to 2019 school year.

E.L. Hayne PCS’s sixth annual Toast to Transformation

I simply love going to events where the organizing body has taken steps to improve its fine performance from the year before.  So it was with the E.L. Haynes Public Charter School’s sixth annual Toast to Transformation held as it traditionally has been at the LongView Gallery.  Here’s just a snippet of one of the positive changes: when guests arrived they were serenaded by 14 members of the school’s  steel drum band set up on the sidewalk in front of the gallery.  Bystanders passing by together with visitors to the D.C. Convention Center across the street immediately began taking videos with their cell phones of the festivities.  As participants entered the space, students lined up to welcome everyone to the party with firm handshakes and a copy of the night’s program.

Food is an important ingredient to a successful evening and in this area attendees were not about to go hungry.  Besides the appetizers being circulated and cheeseburger and crab cake sliders, there were portable taco carts boasting either shrimp or short ribs.  Important note for anyone wanting to keep my wife Michele and I coming back to a gathering:  arrange for the taco cart.

But this gala was really about the scholars, and so soon after arriving elementary school students did a fine rendition of portions of the musical “The Lion King.”  Shortly after this performance I met Jennifer Arevalo, a E.L. Haynes senior who is planning on attending Old Dominion University in the fall.  She informed me, and it was as if I was speaking to an adult who had already spent years in the professional work world, that she has been enrolled at Haynes since the sixth grade.  I thought this would be a perfect individual to ask as to whether she liked the school.  “I’ve loved it,” she answered without hesitation with a gigantic smile lighting up her face.  I just had to inquire as to the reason for her conclusion.  Ms. Arevalo explained that the instructors are extremely supportive.  She stated that she had taken A.P. calculus and the teacher provided office hours for assistance with the material before and after school and on Saturdays and Sundays. She added that it was left up to the students to initiate consultations with the teacher during those hours in order to encourage them to learn to take responsibility for their education.

“Let me give you an another example,” Ms. Arevalo said.  “During the eighth grade I was having difficulty getting to school on time each day and it was negatively impacting my grades.  A teacher noticed and decided to help me.  She picked me up every morning at my house so I would be in my seat when the first class begun.”  This is when tears started flowing from my eyes.

It was time for the formal program so the packed audience gathered in the back of the room in front of the stage.  We were first entertained with a highly energetic and perfectly synchronized routine by the high school step team that had formed only a year ago.  Then we received welcoming remarks from Hilary Darilek, the E.L. Haynes Chief Executive Officer.  She mentioned that she has been in her role for 18 months.  I found it impossible to believe that she has been in this position that long.  But someone who had no difficulty with this information was D.C.’s Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles, who of course was the founder of this charter school and was its long-time executive director.  I was standing right next to Ms. Niles, and I could see from her expression that she could not be more proud of the strong positive trajectory of this well-respected academic institution.

Honored at the celebration was John King, Jr., who is now the president and C.E.O. of The Education Trust, and was recently the U.S. Secretary of Education.  I have to admit that before this gathering I knew little about Mr. King.  But after he spoke I understood completely why he was selected by President Obama for this role.

Mr. King explained that our country is at an important point in its history for the quality of opportunity for its kids.  He stated that many may want to turn away from the crucial role of public education.  But he stated that a majority of pupils attending our public schools are now minorities.  He warned we will weaken our democracy if we fail to support underserved African Americans and Latinos.

Mr. King related that his mother passed away when he was eight years old and in the fourth grade.  His father had an non-diagnosed early form of Alzheimer’s Disease who died when he was twelve.  Mr. King recalled that in the absence of his parents school was the centerpiece of his life.  He pointed out that his public school teachers invested in him and gave him hope for the future.

Mr. King observed that we must be champions for public education and champions for equity.  The former Education Secretary implored those standing before him to act with a sense of urgency to close the academic achievement gap demonstrated by affluent students scoring at the 74 percent proficiency rate and those living in poverty coming in at 11 percent for the same statistic.  Mr. King asserted boldly that “we all ought to have our hair on fire” regarding this disparity.

You might think that the atmosphere could not have become anymore energized after Mr. King’s words but in this case you would be mistaken.  Immediately following the speech a nine year old elementary student named Rein, backed up by the elementary school choir, gave about as moving a vocal performance as I have seen as she sang the song “Rise Up.”

The presentations came to an end with remarks by Abigail Smith, the E.L. Haynes board chair, parent trustee, and former D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education, who was ecstatic to reveal that she has a child who is a member of the steel drum band.  I ran into Ms. Darilek as guests resumed their conversations and I asked her what she was excited about regarding the 2017 Toast to Transformation.  “I’m just so pleased to have had John King here,” she beamed.  “The ideas he stands for as far as striving to support diversity and equity in public education is exactly what E.L. Haynes PCS is all about.”  From this day’s proceedings it would be impossible to come away believing anything else.

Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS’s 17th Annual Shining Star Gala

Last Thursday evening my wife Michele and I had the great pleasure of attending the 17th annual Shining Star Gala at Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS entitled “Going the Extra Mile.”  For us the honor of joining this ceremony is a highlight of the year.  Let me explain the reasons we love this event as much as we do.

If you have never been to Thurgood Marshall the structure itself, the old Nichols Avenue School, is beautiful in its classic form.  It perfectly foretells the academic rigor taking place in the classrooms.  But you don’t have to guess what is going on in this walls.  Banners hung from the ceiling give the story away with phrases such as “100% of our students accepted to college,” and “93 percent enroll within 1 year of graduating.”  You still don’t get the idea?  Then all you have to do is refer to one of the placards adoring the cocktail tables spread around the hallways.  “90% of students are promoted to the next grade.”  “80% of students reside in Wards 7 & 8.” “75% of our faculty and staff have graduate degrees and teachers have an average of 6.5 years of teaching experience.”  “82% of graduates from 2009 to 2015 are currently enrolled.”

I quickly ran into Richard Pohlman, the school’s executive director.  I asked him what he was excited about this year.  He answered without hesitation.  “I’m excited about everything.  The students and teachers are what really impress me,” Mr. Pohlman replied.  “In 2017 Thurgood Marshall had its first Washington Post Teacher of the Year nomination with Tara Allen, one of our extremely skilled math teachers.  We continue to have 100 percent college acceptance with students attending 85 colleges across the country including institutions such as New York University, the University of Virginia, and Spelman College.  We have an alumni program that helps remove barriers to students completing their post-secondary education.”

When you attend the gala there are student representatives positioned throughout the facility to assist guests in navigating through the celebration.  There are a couple of ways to approach the program.  Guests can pick one of the classrooms to experience the various student demonstrations such as the Stem fair; English language arts highlighting the school’s legal curriculum, an introduction to Spanish instruction, or our favorite from last year, the social studies room where student scholars debate issues of the day.  Alternatively, you could decide to organize your time based upon the classroom buffet station selections which on this evening included Indian, Asian, Italian, or my preference, the gourmet sliders where I found miniature New England lobster rolls.  But as a reporter on this day, I concentrated on the academics.

I received directions from Jazmyne Bradford, an extremely articulate eleventh grader.  She has attended TMA since the ninth grade and loves the school because of the faculty that Ms. Bradford explained to me “helps me reach my goals and aspirations.”  She wants to go into arts media and entertainment when she graduates college, and is looking to attend either Full Sail University or McNally College of Music due to her chosen major.

Between the passed appetizers I wandered into the English room where I spoke to eleventh grader Donovan Raymond, another highly impressive eleventh grader who came to the charter last year.  He discussed with me the book, “A Gathering of Old Men,” by Ernest Gaines.  After providing me with a quick synopsis of the plot, Mr. Raymond asserted that the work was assigned as an example of “how fiction can be utilized to give voice to the voiceless.”

In the hallway I ran into Irene Holtzman, the FOCUS executive director.  She informed me that she is glad to be here at TMA and exceptionally excited about her organization’s annual gala that is coming up next week.  Next to her was Matt Schorr, a tenth and twelfth grade geometry and statics instructor who teaches an honors geometry course.  He is completing his first year at Thurgood Marshall and is highly enthusiastic about the school.  He detailed that the students are what makes this place great and he is moved by the amount of support he receives from the administration.  Mr. Schorr introduced me to Anthony James, one of his tenth grade students.  Mr. James thinks the world of Mr. Schorr because he knows that this teacher wants him to succeed.  Mr. James plans to become a brain surgeon after attending UCLA.  His future career, he explained, is being driven by his interest in geometry.

The event has two parts.  After the classroom demonstrations attendees are asked to transfer into the gymnasium for dessert and other refreshments.  As part of the formal ceremony, Mr. Pohlman presented the Warrior Award to retiring board chair George Brown.  The glossy professional brochure that is provided to guests details that Mr. Brown “has excelled in both the private and public sectors as he has sought to promote and ensure fair and equitable housing opportunities. . . George is probably best described by one of his latest partners-in-crime, Lou Durden, who says ‘He has a fantastic sense of humor – and he zeros in on the ridiculous; he is smart in about ten different ways; and he has a terrific sense of place – he knows where he is and how he fits, whether he can see the space or not.’”

Sitting next to me at the table was Sanjay Mitchell, the charter’s director of college and alumni programs.  He casually let me know that TMA’s seniors have earned approximately $8.5 million in scholarships this year which includes one Posse Scholarship.  He leads student through a discovery process of selecting five colleges that they may be interested in attending beginning in their junior year.  Mr. Mitchell commented that “We try to identify the schools that are going to nurture these young people as individuals.”  From my time spent at TMA, it is clear that this is the goal of every adult in the building.

Two new D.C. charter school applications; look for one to be approved

At Monday night’s monthly meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board two applicants made their case to open new schools in the 2018 to 2019 term.  Remember that in March the PCSB announced that it has received eight submissions for charters, but since then one applicant, Interactive Academy, has withdrawn.  In listening to the presentations and reviewing the proposals look for fifty percent approval.  However, this prediction is not easy and it is not the one you might expect.

Let me start the discussion by stating that both schools have submitted high quality applications and the representatives of each did a fine job making their case before the board.  Also, credit goes to the PCSB for making public the capacity interviews that it held with charter representatives.

First up was North Star College Preparatory Academy for Boys.  North Star wants to be a middle school eventually instructing 425 pupils in grades four through eight in Ward 7 or 8.  The school is led by the impressive Shawn Hardnett, its founder, CEO, and head of school.  Mr. Hardnett has a background of raising student academic achievement as a teacher and school administrator at KIPP PCS, Friendship PCS, and Center City PCS.

It was interesting that much of the early conversation involving the board that night and the staff during the capacity interview revolved around the academic track record of all-boys schools.  The PCSB clearly believes that data does not demonstrate an improvement for students in this model with the applicant taking the opposing view.  Add to this disagreement the local charter movement’s extremely painful experience closing Septima Clark PCS in 2013 which served male students and you could detect skepticism coming from the questioners.

The timing of this meeting could not have been more appropriate.  Just last week I met with former PCSB member Herb Tillery.    Mr. Tillery is the executive director of the College Success Foundation, a non-profit that uses best practices to help low income students graduate from high school and college.  The work that this organization is doing is so exciting that during our session it brought tears to my eyes.  Mr. Tillery’s group started over a decade ago as focused solely on helping boys.  But it realized over the years that it was leaving women behind, and therefore expanded its mission to include young people of both sexes.  I think North Star should learn from this experience and change its target for who it is serving.   Only after it makes this revision should the school be considered for approval.

The other applicant on this evening was the Washington School of Arts and Academics PCS.   As board chair Dr. Darren Woodruff pointed out, it is not every day that the PCSB sees a Waldorf curriculum-based school come before it.  The charter plans to enroll 400 students in grades nine through twelve in Ward 7 or 8.

The Association of Waldorf Schools of North America describes it model this way:

“Waldorf schools offer a developmentally appropriate, experiential, and academically rigorous approach to education. They integrate the arts in all academic disciplines for children from preschool through twelfth grade to enhance and enrich learning. Waldorf Education aims to inspire life-long learning in all students and to enable them to fully develop their unique capacities.

Founded in the early 20th century, Waldorf Education is based on the insights, teachings and principles of education outlined by the world renowned artist, and scientist, Rudolf Steiner. The principles of Waldorf Education evolve from an understanding of human development that address the needs of the growing child.

Music, dance and theater, writing, literature, legends and myths are not simply subjects to be read about and tested. They are experienced. Through these experiences, Waldorf students cultivate their intellectual, emotional, physical and spiritual capacities to be individuals certain of their paths and to be of service to the world”

One aspect of the charter’s application I appreciated is that the school envisions breaking up its student body into randomly grouped cohorts that would spend much of the day learning together.  This would also include, whenever possible, special education students.

My wife Michele and I have good friends that sent their children to a local Waldorf School.  The parents and their son and daughter loved the experience.  Unfortunately, the impression most people have of these facilities is that they serve primary white students in a private school environment.  Bringing this pedagogical philosophy to a public school targeting an under-served high school population is exciting and broadens the portfolio of public charter schools.  This application should be given the green light.

The PCSB will hear from five other proposals on Monday, May 1st.

A plan to charterize traditional public schools

Yesterday, in a fascinating public policy forum over at the American Enterprise Institute, Andy Smarick of Bellweather Education Partners presented his paper written for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools entitled “Charter Accountability for District-Run Schools.”  Mr. Smarick’s thesis is that with the passage by the U.S. Congress of the Every Student Succeeds Act, states are now developing accountability systems for public schools.  His point is that many of these evaluation tools are already in place in localities in which charter schools operate.  He contends that these same standards be applied to all educational institutions, and be administered by the same organization that currently authorizes charters.

According to the author, his plan would make traditional schools look a lot more like charters.  They would be held to performance contracts under which the schools could be closed for poor outcomes.  The new system would certainly help parents since all schools would be graded according to the same standards.  The idea would also be attractive to regular school administrators, Mr. Smarick believes, since this would finally provide them with the autonomy that many of them have been seeking under their current bureaucratic structures.

In a twist on this concept with which I don’t agree, the Bellweather analyst sees a continuing role for state education superintendents.  He asserts that these individuals would still run the regular schools as far as establishing policies and negotiating contracts.  I believe that this suggestion in practice would be quickly eliminated since it clearly flies in the face of true independence of schools.

The event included a panel discussion of the paper that included Chris Barbic, of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation;  John King Jr., from The Education Trust and former U.S. Education Secretary; Scott Pearson, executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board; and Christy Wolfe, from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.  Mr. Pearson’s remarks were the most enlightening.

The PCSB executive director stated he was excited by the suggestions he was hearing at the conference.  Then he made some interesting points.

Mr. Pearson drew an immediate analogy between Mr. Smarick’s ideas and the situation regarding the public schools in Denver, Colorado that I have written much about.  In Denver, both traditional and charter schools are authorized and held accountable under one system by Denver Public Schools.  The body has in recent years closed dozens of under-performing traditional schools and replaced them with charters with positive academic results.

But he explained that if charters become closer to looking like district schools then there are commitments they would have to make.  For example, Mr. Pearson revealed that they would need to admit students at any grade and at any point in the school year, which are policies that many charters do not currently follow.  In addition, while the PCSB executive director is proud that here in the nation’s capital charters teach the same proportion of special education students as the regular schools, he indicated that this is not the always case nationally, and that would have to change under Mr. Smarick’s concept.  Finally he talked about what I would call the democratization of public schools.  He said there is a lot of pressure from political representatives who come to the regular schools to incorporate constituent suggestions such as all schools having libraries or an hour of physical education each day.  Mr. Pearson observed that while now this democratic pressure is applied mostly to DCPS, under a model where there is a single school authorizer charters may face the call for similar requirements.

I was encouraged by the discussion.  As our local charters grow to take on a greater market share of students their student bodies will naturally more closely resemble that of neighborhood schools.  When this occurs we will have theories such as Mr. Smarick’s, and practical examples such as public education in Denver, to guide us on how to proceed.

Paul PCS will not have unionized teachers

This past Friday, WAMU reporter Martin Austermuhle broke the story that last Wednesday, twenty-four hours before the teachers and staff at Paul Public Charter School were scheduled to vote, the American Federation of Teachers called off the move to form the affiliated District of Columbia Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff once it realized that the ballot measure would go down in defeat.  In an early article about this effort, Rachel Cohen of the American Prospect revealed that 75 percent of the educators had agreed to join DC ACTS.  Mr. Austermuhle, in his excellent reporting, quotes history instructor David Koening, the lead teacher behind the effort to unionize, as stating:

“Our organizing committee felt that we had the votes to win, and voted to go ahead with the election, but we did not have enough people who were wiling to be public with their support to convince the AFT that we were definitely going to win.”

This story is a tremendous lesson for managers everywhere.  The best way to avoid union activity at your place of employment is to carefully listen to your employees, and react constructively to the information they are providing.  Here are Paul CEO Jami Dunham’s comments about this point as quoted in the WAMU piece:

“Our board, our leaders, our administration definitely sought input and feedback and asked questions and listened and wanted to hear issues and concerns. . . I feel like that’s something we’ve always done. . . We had a renewed energy around it, because we wanted to make sure that we responded to our staff for them to feel heard and supported.  We made sure we listened.  We did a ton of listening.”

The school really dodged a bullet.  The union would have placed a major barrier between the staff and administration as is always the case whenever employees are represented by a third party.  It also would have also prevented the school from making rapid changes in its structure, systems, and processes to address the needs of its students since modifications would have had to be negotiated through a collective bargaining agreement.  Perhaps those working at Paul looked back and recollected the union activity in 1999 when Paul became the first and only DCPS school to convert to becoming a charter, as I previously illustrated and as explained by Josephine Baker, former executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, in her book The Evolution & Revolution of DC Charter Schools:

“The announcement of the approval of Paul’s application to convert to charter school status was the beginning of intense activity to thwart the conversion.  First, teachers’ union members of Paul’s faculty organized a student walk-out to protest the conversion. The students, who may or may not have cared about the implications of the school changing its governance structure, seemed to offer little resistance to the opportunity to ‘spontaneously’ leave their classes at the suggestion of their teachers.  At least one teacher who helped facilitate teacher signatures of the conversion petition reported being harassed by the teachers’ union representatives” (p. 49).

In addition, if teachers at Paul became unionized there is no telling which school would be next.  This news is especially important in light of the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board’s recent suggestion that a unionized charter would add to the diversity of its portfolio.

D.C. has nation’s strongest charter school law says Center for Education Reform

This morning, the Center for Education Reform released its 17th edition of its National Charter School Law Ranking & Scorecard.  As in 2015, the last time this report came out, Washington, D.C. is ranked at the top of the list primarily because of the independence and leadership of the DC Public Charter School Board.  But in many ways the document is a sobering analysis of the health of our movement across the country.  From the introduction by Jeanne Allen, CER’s founder and CEO:

“We are now well into the third decade since Minnesota passed the first state charter statute. The number of charter schools has continued to increase each year at a steady but relatively slow pace. But this past year, that growth abruptly came to a near halt. Overall, the nation’s nearly 7,000 charter schools still serve a fairly small percentage of the total number of students receiving public education, roughly six percent. Some states and cities have far more market share and point the way to what healthy expansive choice does for the whole of public education.”

Ms. Allen’s words are critically important for those of us who defend, and desperately want to see expanded, the ability of parents to chooose the best educational setting for their children.  Therefore, allow me to continue with her observations:

“CER noted in its 2015 report that while ‘…demand [for charter schools] continues to outstrip supply…’ there has been a ‘lack of progress made in state houses across the country over the past few years to improve the policy environment for charter schools’ and, more specifically, ‘… it is abundantly clear that little to no progress has been made over the past year…’

In recent years, there has been significant attention—especially, but not exclusively, among authorizers—on a perceived need to focus on charter ‘quality over quantity.’ The strategies discussed have included more stringent approval processes as well as ‘culling the herd’ during charter renewal to let only those schools deemed strong performers to continue.

This year, the movement crept to a near halt, a result of these very ill-conceived state policies and what is being termed ‘regulatory reload.’  There is widespread evidence of creeping regulatory intrusion in decisions regarding academic programming, curriculum, discipline and teacher qualifications. The problem, it appears, is policymakers who are given numerous recommendations and no longer know the difference between policies that advance the cause of effective charter schools and those that strangle them.”

D.C. is called out as particularly vulnerable to this trend of regulatory reload.  Again, from Ms. Allen:

“While still number one in our rankings, DC risks losing ground if it continues on a slow but slippery slope of allowing the city and its agencies to micromanage the authorizer’s processes. It’s also unique in that it has one authorizer that was created when the city did not have a ‘state’ board of education, and when the city was under the control of an independent board itself from the city council. That legacy of independence is now threatened by the restoration of city structures that have begun to assert various controls over chartering in the city. The law provides for the establishment of new entities for authorizing, such as universities. Pursuing additional authorizers would allow the existing DC Public Charter Board to stay on its feet, and create alternative innovations for opening and managing new schools.”

Reading this document brings me back to the debate over the future of Latin American Youth Center Career Academy PCS which this week the DC PCSB voted to begin revocation proceedings against.  It appears that the board is trying to fit this school, which serves those that others have abandoned, into some preconceived standardized model.  Here’s one more paragraph from the CER CEO’s study preface that makes it appear that she was at Monday night’s meeting in which the process was initiated to close the school:

“Charter regulation, approval and oversight should be transparent, predictable, and avoid micro-management of academics, discipline and staff hiring and termination. Regulation should be flexible enough to encourage charter schools designed to meet the needs of special populations by allowing them to meet requirements that are reasonable and appropriate for their students. And yet, it is precisely that regulation that is discouraging new charter school growth. With barely 6 percent of all public school students in charter schools nationwide, two percent growth over one year is totally unacceptable and an indication that something is amiss. Risk-averse, highly bureaucratic state and local actors are causing the stagnation. It comes not just from opponents, but from heavy-handed friends. Their heavy reliance on government to solve perceived issues of quality will bring charter schools to a screeching halt unless the policies they espouse reverse course.”

I hope those over at the DC PCSB are listening.