D.C. charter schools take cash in lieu of permanent facilities

Last February, which now seems like a decade ago, Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser recommended a four percent increase to the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula for DCPS and charter schools in her fiscal 2021 budget. Then the coronavirus hit. At the time the city had a $1.43 billion rainy day fund saved up. Now the Bowser Administration has revealed that the economic downturn the District is currently experiencing will result in $722 million less in revenue for the 2020 fiscal year and 774 million fewer dollars next year.

With numbers such as these there was tremendous fear on the minds of public education supporters that the proposed jump in the UPSFF would be eliminated. Yesterday, Ms. Bowser released her revised proposed budget for FY 2020 and the bump in the UPSFF went from four percent to three.

Charter representatives are beyond thrilled at the news. Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, exclaimed on Twitter, “To raise education funding during this time of fiscal hardship is truly heroic. Well done, @MayorBowser” Patricia Brantley, the CEO of Friendship PCS wrote on the same platform, “‘Our public schools & our children, our teachers, everybody… we know they are going to be coming back. When they come back, we want to send a clear message that their schools are going to be ready. We are not going to take a single step back.’ Thank you @MayorBowser

In a press release dated yesterday, Friends of Choice in Urban Schools interim executive director Anne Herr commented:

“COVID-19 has put incredible pressure on the district’s budget, and we recognize that Mayor Bowser had to make tough choices this year. We applaud her for increasing education funding and investing in DC students. These investments are critical to ensure students have access to the instructional and health supports that will be necessary to have them back on track by Summer 2021. We look forward to working with the Education Committee and other members of the D.C. Council to ensure that these increases are part of the final budget so that students have what they need to thrive.” 

However, an update on finances was not the only information the Mayor shared yesterday that is of interest to our local charter school movement. She also announced several decisions regarding excess DCPS facilities. As captured by the Washington Post’s Perry Stein:

“She plans to move the new Bard High School Early College to a permanent location in 2023 at the original Malcolm X Elementary — a shuttered campus in Southeast Washington — and allocate $80 million to the facility. The closed Spingarn High School in Northeast Washington would be home to the D.C. Infrastructure Academy. Excel Academy Public School will remain permanently at its current location at the old Birney building in Southeast Washington, which the city owns but has been leasing to charters. Bowser’s proposal would give charter school operators the option to lease the closed Wilkinson Elementary in Southeast Washington by 2024.”

Malcolm X and Springarn were two buildings charter supporters loudly and repeatedly called on Ms. Bowser to release for their use. Remember the collective disgust the sector expressed when a video of the empty and deteriorating Springarn made its appearance on social media?

If and when Wilkinson is actually turned over to charters that would make a total of two former DCPS building turned over to charters in Ms. Bowser’s two terms as chief executive. This is a horrible record.

But perhaps the bigger disappointment is what the decision regarding the Birney building means for DC Prep PCS. As you may recall, the charter has leased the ground floor of this location which it plans to use to house the fourth and fifth grade of its Anacostia Middle School. It still needs a permanent home. As detailed by DC Prep’s CEO Laura Maestas during my interview with her last December:

“Building Pathway’s lease with Excel is coming to an end, but for over a year we have not been able to get an answer as to whether Excel is staying or leaving the property.  The building lease is held by Building Pathways for 12 years with D.C.’s Department of General Services and it specifies that a charter school will be housed in the Birney Building.”

In 2018 Excel Academy relinquished its charter and became part of DCPS. Therefore, it really does not have the right to stay at its current location. Now it appears that DC Prep will have to go ahead and develop the property it purchased on Frankford Street, S.E., a scenario that in the past has received heavy criticism from the community. Alternately, it can once again begin the hunt for another space.

Highly discouraging is that in all the high fives delivered to the Mayor there was not a peep about the facility moves. It appears that Ms. Bowser found a perfectly effective way to silence our voices. The solution was money.

D.C. charter schools should not accept CARES Act funding

Yesterday, the Washington Post’s Perry Stein followed up on her original April 2nd article anticipating that D.C. charter schools may apply for federal funding aimed at aiding those who have not been receiving a paycheck due to business interruptions around the Covid-19 virus. At the time I made the case that these schools should look to the city and nonprofits to cover additional incremental costs they may be experiencing due to this crises.

In her most recent story Ms. Stein states that Statesman College Preparatory Academy for Boys PCS and Digital Pioneers PCS applied for CARE Act dollars and have received them. Both schools defended their decision to the reporter. She sought comment from Steve Hardnett, the founder and executive director of Statesman, who she wrote received a loan of $300,000:

“Hardnett had been relying on private funding until his school hits full capacity in two years. Most of his grants are set to lapse at the end of the academic year, and he had been searching for new private funding. But he says that won’t be possible now, and the federal funds will allow him to keep his staff through the summer and provide his students with extra academic services he says they will require once distance learning concludes.

‘Every dollar we find we should get into this building,’ Hardnett said.”

Digital Pioneers chief executive officer and principal Mashea Ashton justified her move to the Post this way:

“The school is concluding its second year, she said, and has high overhead costs, which private donations have enabled the school to afford. She said she spent money during the health emergency on technology and distance-learning training for her teachers.

‘If we don’t have these resources, then I would have to let go my P.E. and art teachers, and those who are not full time with us,’ she said. ‘And those positions are essential to delivering our mission.'” 

Ms. Perry revealed that DC Bilingual PCS and Paul PCS applied for the emergency financial support and did not receive it. She added that Friendship PCS and KIPP DC PCS have more than 500 employees and so are not eligible for the federal money. The reporter then listed a number of charters that she stated she asked as to whether they sought to participate in the program but did not respond to her inquiry.

I know that both the DC Public Charter School Board and the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools have encouraged charters to submit applications doe to the added expenses they have faced and uncertainly over future income. However, let me be as clear as possible. This aid was intended to help those small businesses that are unable to meet their payroll obligations because their revenue streams have been cut off. This is not the case for charter schools. District funding has not ended.

Ms. Perry states that several companies that have been won this cash have decided to return it such as Shake Shack and Ruth Chris Steakhouse. I think charter schools should follow this example. Any assistance that our schools need during this extremely difficult period should come from our local leaders.

Pandemic points to huge gap in online learning between D.C. charters and DCPS

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein delivered some startling news the other day regarding participation rates for DCPS with distance learning in the face of the Covid-19 virus:

“The attendance records look bleak. At an elementary school in Northeast Washington, just 50 percent of fourth- and fifth-graders are logging on to watch the PowerPoints that their teacher spends hours building each weekend. A special-education teacher in Northwest Washington said she’s struggling to schedule individualized virtual meetings with her students, many of whom have working parents who do not speak English and have never before used the school system’s Microsoft platform.

Sean Perin’s fifth-grade students at Garfield Elementary in Southeast Washington have parents who report to work each day at restaurants, stores and medical facilities, leaving their children with older siblings or relatives during the day. He said he has heard that at least two of his students have lost relatives to the virus. . .

The Washington Teachers’ Union surveyed its teachers last month to determine student participation. Fifty-seven percent of the 2,000 teachers who responded — around half of the teacher workforce — said less than half of their students are participating. Teachers at more affluent and more selective schools said attendance has been strong during remote learning.”

This is not what the charter sector has found. Teaching 47 percent of all public school students in the nation’s capital, equivalent to 43,393 scholars, these schools are reaching exceptionally high numbers of those enrolled. On May 1st the DC Public Charter School Board released data regarding the number of students with whom they have not been able to communicate. Here is its conclusion:

“There are 1,334 students in the charter sector that schools have not made contact with since school buildings closed due to the pandemic, based on an analysis conducted by the DC Public Charter School Board. Of those, 119 students are special education (8.9%); and 363 of the unreachable students are adult education students.”

The overall percentage of those who have not been able to be engaged with is 3.1 percent. For special education students the proportion is 1.9 percent.

It is an astonishing accomplishment. It is especially heartwarming to go to school websites and see the resources they have assembled for parents. As an example here is one from Ingenuity Prep PCS, a preKindergarten three to seventh grade school located in the center of Ward 8:

“Ingenuity Prep is committed to supporting student learning during our school’s closure caused by the COVID-19 virus. This page will be updated regularly throughout our closure with materials and resources to support the continued academic growth and development of our students. Check back for updates and more resources. We will also be keeping in touch with our school community through our regular school messaging platform – SignalKit. Should you not find the answer to your question on here, you can: 

Email us: distancelearning@ingenuityprep.org

Call us: (202) 562-0391″

To be fair, Ms. Stein quotes DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee as claiming that “Ninety-six percent of our students have engaged in some way. . . Instead of logging into a learning session, a student may be doing virtual meetings with a counselor or a school psychologist. When we talk about engagement, we’re not just talking about teaching and learning.”

In these exceptionally challenging times I am so proud of our teachers who have adapted to this new world as the professionals that they are. They are all heroes.