Have D.C. charters cooperated with traditional schools to the point of mediocrity?

The leadership of the D.C. Public Charter School Board touts at every opportunity the collaborative relationship they have with the traditional school system.  For example, just recently a joint letter signed by Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, and Anston Wilson, Chancellor DCPS, was sent out regarding the events in Charlottesville, Virginia.  In addition, Jennifer Niles, the D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education has established a Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force.  But one has to question whether this strategy has now led to the academic achievement of these alternative schools being at the same lower level as DCPS.

There are now clear symptoms that this is exactly what has taken place.  A Washington Post editorial appearing in their newspaper yesterday touts the progress of the regular public schools without hardly mentioning charters that educate 46 percent of all school children in the nation’s capital.  No mention of the years of sweat and battles that charter leaders have endured for equal funding and the acquisition of facilities that have been a major distraction to a concentration on pedagogy.  No credit was given for schools that attracted the kids of so many parents, to the point that DCPS had lost about 30 percent of its population, that public school advocates finally woke up to the fact that something had to be done.  It was then, 10 years ago as the Post editors point out, that Adrien Fenty was elected to head the city’s government,  Mayoral control of the regular schools was instituted, Michelle Rhee was named the first Chancellor, and school modernization projects were started.

Charters did the best they could by fighting with commercial banks and landlords to lease space in their buildings, to obtain closed DCPS classrooms and renovate them at their own expense, and to put on a happy face each and every day while the traditional sector received a million dollars a year more than they did to teach children from the poorest wards in town.

So where has cooperation landed the charter sector?  We have PARCC standardized test scores at par or lower than those of DCPS, there is no solution to the funding inequity issue, and the facility acquisition problem is as intractable as it has ever been.  And the academic achievement gap?  It has grown to over 60 points.

I think its time for a new approach.

D.C.’s State Board of Education announces Every Student Succeeds Act Task Force members

Yesterday, the D.C. State Board of Education released the names of those whose nominations were accepted to serve on the task force overseeing implementation of the city’s plan around the Every Student Succeeds Act, the law that replaced No Child Left Behind.  The presence of pro-school choice individuals on this body is exceptionally important since the Office of the State Superintendent of Education will begin ranking both charters and traditional schools using a common grading system.  The resulting membership could not have been much better.

First of all, the task force is being headed by Dr. Lannette Woodruff, the SBOE Ward 4 Representative and wife of the chairman of the DC Public Charter School Board, Dr. Darren Woodruff.  Joining her will be my hero Donald Hense, founder and chairman of Friendship PCS.  The fact that Mr. Hense is involved will I’m sure let all charter leaders rest comfortably at night since the Friendship PCS founder is known to be direct.

Also part of this team will be Alexander Rose-Henig, Basis DC PCS dean of students; Anne Herr, the FOCUS director of quality; Deborah Williams, Inspired Teaching PCS head of school; Jacque Patterson, Rocketship D.C. PCS regional director; Julie Anne Green, executive director New Futures and previous long-time director of marketing at E.L. Haynes PCS; Ramona Edelin, executive director, D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools; Richard Pohlman, executive director Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS, and a representative from the DC Public Charter School Board.

While the charter presence is good I could not help noticing that of our ten people sitting on the Task Force, six of them are in one of ten non-voting slots.  But it really will not matter since I’m confident Mr. Hense will have us covered.  The only selection I would have included that is not on the list is someone from the think tank/advocacy world such as Mieka Wick, from CityBridge Education, or Keith Gordon of Fight for Children.

We will be monitoring the activity of this group here.  Let’s hope it makes more progress than the D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education’s Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force, although that sets the bar at an extremely low level.





District should settle charter school funding inequity lawsuit

Yesterday’s blog post generated some comments around my observation that the “FOCUS-coordinated funding inequity lawsuit never gets mentioned.”  It turns out that there currently is much discussion around this legal action. My understanding is that charter schools have been updated regarding progress. The lead attorney in the case tells me that it will take until at least March, 2017 and in all likelihood beyond this period.

This is of course, totally unacceptable.  The complaint was brought in 2014.  The law in this case is simple and straightforward.  The School Reform Act that authorized the creation of charter schools in the District as passed by the U.S. Congress established that a “uniform formula will be used to provide operating budgets on the basis of enrollment for the school system as a whole and for individual public charter schools.”

But from the beginning DCPS has received services and dollars to which charter schools have not had access, totaling over $770 million at the time that the legal challenge began.  It amounts to, according to the suit, “$14 million to nearly $80 million each year from 2008 through 2012 equating to $2,150 for each pupil per year that DCPS has received that charters have not.”  The lawsuit deals with operating funds and does not touch the additional great unfairness in the money the traditional schools are provided for facilities to which charters do not have access.

Enough is enough.  Instead of arguing this matter in the courts, Mayor Bowser’s administration should utilize the Cross Sector Collaboration Task Force or some other avenue to settle this matter once and for all.  The time is right.  We have in Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles someone who understands this issue first-hand as the founder of E.L. Haynes PCS.  Ms. Bowser has shown great leadership when it has come to attempting to reduce homelessness and increasing the quantity of affordable housing.  There is a great opportunity here to extend her influence to a matter that will directly impact the well-being of our city’s children.

D.C. charters and DCPS: collaboration but not capitulation

Yesterday, American University Radio WAMU and National Public Radio ran a story by Martin Austermuhle entitled  “After 20 Years, Are Charters and DCPS Learning To Get Along?” about the first two decades of charter schools operating in Washington, D.C.  In the piece, in which I’m quoted, the Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles comes to this conclusion:

“We have a very unique situation here in D.C., with 55 percent of our students attending DCPS, 45 percent attending public charter schools. And competition has gotten us this far, but going forward what’s going to get us [further] is the collaboration.”

She is absolutely right.  I returned a few weeks ago from the Amplify School Choice conference in Denver hosted by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity totally convinced that here in the nation’s capital we desperately need our version of this city’s District-Charter Collaboration Compact.  But before we link hands and commit to all getting along for the benefit of the children, we need to consider the details of what would be contained in such a contract.

First and foremost, charters would have to be guaranteed access to permanent facilities.  Ms. Niles formed her DC Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force, but she started with the pronouncement that a discussion of buildings was off the table.  Well, physical space is only the biggest challenge a charter faces, and securing it is a tremendous distraction to the school’s focus on academics.  Having charter leaders expend all of their energy on this issue while helplessly watching the traditional schools spend hundreds of millions of dollars renovating their own classrooms only adds painful insult to injury.

Next, there has to be a solution to the funding inequity between the two sectors.  Whether the city wants to provide the same services to charters that it provides for free to DCPS like building maintenance, lawyers, and information technology, or simply augment the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula to account for these expenses as recommended in the Adequacy Study is up to the Mayor.  But something desperately needs to be done so that the FOCUS-engineered lawsuit over this matter can be brought to a rightful conclusion.

Once these major issues are resolved then I honestly believe the sky is the limit for charter and DCPS cooperation.  There can be sharing of real estate, programs, professional development, feeder patterns, and yes, even planning around where new charters should or should not be located.  But before we can get to this point, and just like when we were in school, we have to take care of the fundamentals first.




School year begins with another verbal attack on D.C. charters

Today begins year 21 of public education reform in Washington, D.C., and I’m afraid we are not getting off to a tremendous start.  Our dynamic leader of DCPS, Chancellor Kaya Henderson, has resigned her post and then, while I was in Denver for the Amplify School Choice conference hosted by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, Elizabeth Davis, the president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, attacked Walmart for giving away gift cards to cover classroom supply expenses.  The reason for her tirade?  Walmart is owned by the Walton Family who fund the Walton Foundation that supports charter schools and educational freedom across the country, including here in the nation’s capital.  Ms. Davis accuses the foundation, through its support of charters, of promoting the privatization of public education in America and of diverting desperately needed dollars away from traditional schools.

Over the two days of lectures at the conference I came to understand that behavior such as this would almost certainly not have been exhibited by Denver’s teachers’ union chief, and if by some highly unusual circumstance similar words had been spoken, it would not be tolerated.  As I pointed out previously, in Denver charters and the regular schools get along.  The center of this cooperation is the District-Charter Collaboration Compact.  It is an agreement  we desperately need here.

Let’s look at some of the language of this document that was signed by both traditional and charter school leaders back in 2010.  It begins:

“We believe that all students can achieve and deserve the highest quality public schools.  We believe that it is the collective responsibility of all schools – district, charter, performance, magnet, or innovation – to ensure all students have access to excellent education that successfully prepares them for college and career.  These opportunities must be available to all students in all socioeconomics, language, citizenship status, or special needs of students.  We believe that our students and parents should be able to exercise choice among high-performing schools in their neighborhoods and across the city.”

The paragraph is so perfectly written and the goals so directly expressed that it brings tears to my eyes every time I read it.

The compact then goes on to talk about specific joint commitments from district and charter schools.  Here are a couple, and I am not making these up:

“The children living withing Denver do not belong to a particular district school or to a particular charter school – the children in Denver are all our children.  Expect all schools to meet or exceed district-wide performance standards that are rigorous, consistent, and transparent.  Collaborate to refine and improve the School Performance Framework,” and

“Embrace the opportunity and need to help the most effective schools reach substantially greater levels of scale, whether those schools are district-run or charter schools, thereby increasing the number of high performing seats in the district.”

I imagine that if this language was in place here the dozen or so existing surplus DCPS facilities would have long ago been turned over to charters.  What do charters need to do as part of this accord?  Here are some examples:

“To the greatest extent possible and without restricting opportunities for new schools arising outside of district plans, commit to locating new schools in the highest-need areas, aligned to district plans and connected to district feeder patterns,” and

“Commit to highlighting the partnership with Denver Public Schools in newsletters, marketing materials, and special events and when speaking with the media.”

There are a total of seven standards for charters, eight for district schools, and ten that are shared.  For the traditional sector these institutions must, among other things:

“Commit to ensuring equitable resources for charter schools.  This includes not only per pupil revenue, but, to the greatest extent possible, an equitable share of all other district resources including Title funds, existing bond funds, application opportunities for future bond funds, mill levy funds, curriculum and materials purchased with federal funds, and grants for programs that could benefit charters,” and

“Commit to broadly informing district and charter school students and families about all of the choice options available to them and developing and implementing a common enrollment system that allows families to easily exercise these choice options.”

Mayor Bowser’s DC Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force is about halfway through its allotted time span to develop recommendations for how our city’s charters and DCPS can better unite their efforts.  I therefore have some fantastic news.  The group could save a tremendous amount of deliberation by simply copying Denver’s District-Charter Collaboration Compact.


Did Cross Collaboration Task Force leave off important members?

Recently the Deputy Mayor for Education released a schedule of focus group meetings beginning in February in preparation for the work of the D.C. public schools Cross Collaboration Task Force.  Taking another look at the membership of this body I’m wondering if some individuals who could have played a major role in advancing coordination of efforts between DCPS and charters were purposely left off the list.

For example, Dr. Ramona Edelin, the long-term executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools, did not make the cut.  Now this is highly unusual in that I am not aware of any serious discussion regarding charter schools in the nation’s capital over more than a decade in which she was not included.  Also not sitting around the table will be Martha Cutts, the head of school of Washington Latin PCS, one of the leading players in our local movement.  So these omissions got me thinking.

Were these people not given a ticket to participate because they are two of the three parties that brought the FOCUS engineered lawsuit regarding funding inequity for charter schools against the city?  Perhaps this is the case since there is also no representative of Eagle Academy PCS on the task force and this school also joined the legal initiative.

Whether this action was intentional or not, the oversight of these names brings up another larger point.  How in the world can there be a group working on the development of closer ties between the traditional and charter sectors when one is suing the city over revenue that the other one gets that it does not?  Please keep in mind that this is no small matter because it has been estimated that DCPS is illegally provided about $100 million a year in cash over what charters receive.  Add to this the issue of surplus DCPS facilities that charter schools have been blocked from using for their students and we find that we don’t really have the best environment for everyone gathered in the meeting room actually getting along.

It seems to me that bringing together this Cross Collaboration Task Force is way too premature.  Before the two sides can really team up together in a meaningful way that will not be a waste of everyone’s valuable time the concerns contained in the lawsuit must be settled. Only then will stakeholders have a solid foundation on which to build pillars of common goals and metrics.


Exclusive interview with Irene Holtzman, executive director of FOCUS

I had the distinct privilege of sitting down recently with Irene Holtzman, the newly selected executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools. The first question I wanted to ask her is why she was the one selected for the position. “Well, you would really have to ask our board of directors that question,” Ms. Holtzman explained. “I had substantial advocacy experience in my decade of work at KIPP DC interacting with OSSE, the D.C. Council, and the DC Public Charter School Board. Most of my efforts were around the fair and equal treatment of schools. As a result of this activity, I developed close relationships with charter school leaders based primarily on trust. It took me 10 years to cultivate these bonds and I am still continually trying to strengthen them.”

Ms. Holtzman thought that another reason she may have been picked is that she understands the environment that is necessary for a charter school to succeed. “KIPP DC thrives under the conditions of autonomy, equity, and accountability,” the FOCUS executive director asserted, “and I believe all schools deserve the opportunity to operate under these settings.”

I next wanted to know what it felt like to follow Robert Cane in her new role. Ms. Holtzman answered without hesitation. “These are extremely big shoes to fill. He was here almost from the beginning. Robert is a highly effective attorney and a great orator. He has a tremendous belief in the good work that these schools and school leaders do on a daily basis. In my opinion, what really led him to doing a fantastic job here at FOCUS was his constant vigilance around protecting charter school autonomy and fighting for financial equity. As most of us know, Robert was also not afraid to take controversial positions. While my leadership style is different, if I can accomplish half of what he did I will be happy.”

We then talked about her initial plans for her organization. “My immediate goal was to visit all schools in my first 90 days, although I didn’t quite make it,” Ms. Holtzman detailed. “In general, I would like to further strengthen our partnerships with the charter schools and the charter support sector so we can present a unified agenda. Toward this aim we have begun developing our new strategic plan for FOCUS. But the first subject on my mind is the acquisition of facilities for charter schools.”

I asked her if she had a plan to accomplish this task. “I think we should start by holding the city accountable for conducting a meaningful, transparent Request for Offer process for surplus traditional school buildings. Though DCPS enrollment has increased in recent years, if you look at the numbers, I do not think they will not need all of the vacant school buildings they have over the next 25 years. There are numerous charter schools that could use these facilities now to give students a great education. Instead, we often have to put our charter school students in expensive commercial building that lack green space and other amenities. We are not where we need to be regarding equity for our public school students.”

Perhaps, I wondered, would FOCUS be willing to use legal action to obtain access to surplus building for charters. Ms. Holtzman was not enthusiastic about this suggestion. She observed, “In terms of legal action, FOCUS would not have standing in court because it is not a school. I am hopeful that the city will do the right thing and we will not have to resort to lawyers to enforce existing legislation. But there is a finite limit to the number of tools we have in our toolbox.”

Ms. Holtzman was eager to continue to speak to her plans as executive director. “We want to work directly with the Office of the State Superintendent of Education in a highly cooperative manner. There are many things that Superintendent Hanseul Kang wants to accomplish, and we want to support OSSE’s involvement with the charter school sector in a way that makes sense for the schools.”

A subject on the mind of many involved in public education reform is Mayor Muriel Bowser’s upcoming Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force. I wanted to know from the new FOCUS executive director what she hoped to see come out of its efforts. “First of all, I strongly believe that the group should be composed mostly of leaders from public schools, both charters and DCPS. I feel that there are many areas where partnerships could be formed between the two sectors, but they cannot be mandated. For example, a conversation about establishing feeder pattern across Local Education Agencies is definitely worth having. I could imagine such a relationship being established, as a hypothetical, between existing Montessori elementary schools and a newly established Montessori middle or high school.”

Ms. Holtzman added that the idea of neighborhood admission preference should be discussed further, but again only if it is voluntary. “But in this area,” she added, “we have to be careful. I would first like to see data about the impact of this policy. Schools certainly could not have a one hundred percent neighborhood preference because this would block admittance for low income children to particular institutions. The end goal has to be to provide meaningful school choice to all families.”

One subject the FOCUS executive director was not open to being part of the discussion is where charter schools can be located. “Providing charter schools with access to vacant facilities or under-utilized schools has to be a priority,” Ms. Hotlzman asserted. “In general charter schools have had to work around the limitations and use innovative methods to acquire space. However, the failure of the city to turn over surplus buildings is limiting the number of quality charter school seats available in the nation’s capital.”

Before we ended our meeting Ms. Holtzman wanted me to be aware of a couple of other initiatives that FOCUS offers and is in the process of strengthening. First, the organization is proud of its charter school startup program through which is helps potential charter schools create strong school models that lead to additional high quality seats for District students. The executive director pointed out that during the last application cycle before the PCSB only those schools that went through this program were approved.

In addition, Ms. Holtzman detailed that FOCUS provides performance management consulting services in which data is utilized to help schools improve. But I have to admit that by this point in the interview I had gathered all the information I needed because I had come to an important realization.

I understood that I had answered for myself my initial question of why Ms. Holtzman is now FOCUS’s executive director. Throughout our time together Ms. Holtzman consistently answered my questions in a direct, down-to-earth manner. She is obviously passionate about the success of D.C.’s charter schools, but that passion is expressed in a matter-of-fact casual style. It is as if there is no need to argue a polemic; she is just stating what is true. Her approach gave me a great sense of confidence that FOCUS is in extremely good hands, and therefore so too is our local charter school movement.

Is it time for D.C. charters to get help from Congress?

Over the weekend the editors of the Washington Post raised the issue of D.C. Mayor Bowser’s Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force complete with all of the dangers for charter schools I had identified when the group was first announced.  But there is one other point that needs to be addressed.

The Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles explained that the Task Force will meet for a couple of years before a report will be created.  Really?  This means it could be another 24 months before additional excess facilities are turned over to charters.  Another 24 months before some sort of resolution is reached over the FOCUS-coordinated funding inequity lawsuit?  Two more years to determine if these alternative schools will have to provide a neighborhood admissions preference?

Two more years to find out if DCPS will have to adopt the same high academic standards that charters face?

Perhaps this is the moment when school choice advocates approach Congress to obtain the policy prescriptions that cannot be achieved locally.  As the gap between white and black and rich and poor students grows this may be the time to say enough is enough.  It appears that a new injection of passion is in order, an emotion sadly absent in the Wilson Building.

We can sit back and do nothing and the situation we are in today could go on for another two years or another two hundred years.  Or, we can take a different path.

DME launches Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force with plenty of dangers for D.C. charters

D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles announced yesterday the creation of the long anticipated Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force that will investigate ways in which DCPS and the charter sector can collaborate on improving public education in the nation’s capital.

The group poses several dangers for our local charter school movement.

First and foremost, the committee may try and prevent new or replicating charters from locating near traditional schools where they could draw students away from Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s system.  Sure enough in the article about the Task Force by the Washington Post’s Allison Michael Chandler the reporter immediately brings up the controversy around Washington Global PCS.  She writes:

“Washington Global, a charter middle school opening this school year with an international program, drew criticism for opening its doors near Jefferson Middle, a traditional school that is working to build a similar program.”

There are other fears about potential conclusions of this group.  For instance, it could recommend, as Mayor Muriel Bowser has advocated, that charters be required to provide an admission preference to neighborhood children, thereby limiting school choice to those living in low income areas of the city as another task force determined.  It could codify the position of Ms. Henderson that no other shuttered DCPS facilities be turned over to charters because DCPS is growing in enrollment.  Finally, it could call for a cap on the number of charters as a way to decrease competition for students with the regular schools.

When I interviewed DC Public Charter School Board chairman Dr. Darren Woodruff recently he was looking forward to the work of the Task Force as a mean of spreading the high academic expectations of charters to all educational institutions across town.  Let’s sincerely hope for the future of our kids that he is correct.

Perhaps Ms. Niles should include me as a member so that I can support the PCSB chair.  I wouldn’t hold your breath on this one.