D.C. charter schools received $38 million in PPP money

Yesterday, the D.C. Council held an oversight hearing regarding DC Public Schools, the office of the Deputy Mayor for Education, and the charter sector. A few interesting items were brought up in the discussion involving DCPCSB chair Rick Cruz and the organization’s executive director Dr. Michelle Walker-Davis.

First, it was revealed that charters in the nation’s capital have received approximately $38 million in federal government PPP dollars. I have argued in the past that it was wrong for these schools to apply because their funding stream was never disrupted. Here’s some of what I wrote on the subject last July:

“As I drive to work everyday during the week and see all of the businesses that are closed, I think about all of the people now without jobs. My own family has been impacted by the pandemic. To me, taking these extremely limited PPE dollars away from those who are trying to figure out how to put food on the table is nothing less than disgusting.”

However, there is an even more fundamental reason that schools should not take these grants. Remember the FOCUS engineered funding inequity lawsuit? For years charters spoke in value-based terms as to the unfairness of DCPS receiving $100,000 a year in city support that charters could not access. Now the positions are reversed and the traditional schools were prevented from applying for the federal program because they are part of the government and not individual LEA’s. So what did many charters do when faced with this dilemma? They took the extra cash.

This is in addition to the millions of dollars in revenue charters will receive from the Covid-related recovery bills Congress has passed and the extra money Mayor Muriel Bowser has included in her proposed fiscal year 2022 budget. I cannot keep up with all the funding. It should be noted that D.C.’s largest charter networks like KIPP DC PCS and Friendship PCS could not participate in the PPP because they have more than 500 employees.

What happened to the days when charters did the difficult but right thing and set a shining example for others to follow?

One final observation. Council chairman Phil Mendelson asked the charter representatives if they have heard anything about replacement for vacant DC PCSB board seats. As I wrote about the other day, Steve Bumbaugh’s term expired. It turns out that Naomi Shelton’s tenure has also ended but the thought on Tuesday was that she would be re-nominated. I’m not so sure. During one of the recent DC PCSB meetings a member of the public testified that Ms. Shelton should be prevented from voting on the approval of Wildflower PCS’s school applications due to a conflict of interest. The board investigated the complaint with the appropriate agency and determined that the charge was baseless. The discussion resulted in Ms. Shelton providing a long impassioned polemic regarding her work on the board.

If the Mayor needs a nominee for the DC PCSB I just want to mention that I am available.

D.C. charter support organizations need to buy up empty buildings for future classrooms

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a major negative impact on the commercial real estate market in the District of Columbia, hitting especially hard the downtown area as explained by the Washington Post’s Emily Davies and Michael Brice-Saddler in a recent article:

“The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the vacancy rate in the central business district, forcing city leaders to consider drastic alternatives to fill unused office space. They’ve focused on attracting university researchers and medical professionals. Some are even pushing to convert commercial buildings into residences.”

The recent trend has continued a pattern seen before the virus interrupted American society. According to the Post:

“The question of whether the 9-to-5 ethos of downtown Washington will return after a year of mostly virtual work looms large as the city looks toward recovery from the pandemic. The mass exodus to makeshift home offices has led many businesses to reconsider whether they need large and expensive offices. The trend is exacerbating the emptying of downtown as organizations were already downsizing office space in the city’s core and some were moving to cheaper, newer buildings in the region before the pandemic.”

The glut of empty office space creates a tremendous opportunity for the District’s charter schools, which faced an intractable facility shortage as late as the beginning of 2020. The problem led to the creation of the End The List campaign that sought the release of surplus DCPS properties to charters as a way to end an 11,000 student wait list to gain admission to schools.

Now that properties are available and landlords are seeking alternative uses to office space, it is up to D.C.’s charter support organizations to buy these buildings so that new charters will have homes or as a method to provide existing charters places to expand and replicate.

I’m thinking that the logical group to take this bold move is Building Hope. But others can play this part operating on their own or in cooperation with others. I’m thinking of the DC PCSB, Education Forward, and CityBridge Education getting into the act. Perhaps the Walton Foundation can join the effort.

In 2019, I took a tour of Chicago’s Noble Public Charter School Muchin College Prep campus that is located next to the Loop, a couple of blocks from the Art Institute. It is in a high-rise office tower. You might think that it was strange entering such a structure to visit a school but once inside it appeared no different than other classroom buildings. I have to say that it was exciting to be in this busy area of town intermingled with business people. It provides a great example of what kids can aspire to become later in life.

The same experience can be replicated for students in the nation’s capital. The Post article adds,

“D.C. business owners who for decades have thrived with corporate life downtown are desperate for customers to return.”

The time to act is now.

D.C. public school awash in cash

Last Thursday, D.C. Mayor Bowser announced her recommended public school funding for the fiscal 2022 school year, although her formal budget is not due to the Council now until the end of May. Her press release regarding the spending plan boasts that her administration is now allocating “more than $2 billion to serve an estimated 98,528 students in DC’s traditional public schools and public charter schools.”

The main increase comes from raising the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula by 3.6 percent. The Washington Post’s Perry Stein indicated that the base that each school receives per student would go from $11,310 to $11,720. The Mayor also enlarges the at-risk student weight and the weight for English Language Learners, while creating a new at-risk weight for adult students still in high school.

These local dollars come on top of $386 million from the U.S. Congress’ American Rescue Plan, with DCPS receiving approximately $191 million, and charters getting $156 million.

There was no news on the charter school facility fund front. Please recall that the DC Charter School Alliance called for a 3.1 percent increase in this $3,408 figure and continued 3.1 percent jumps over the next five years.

All of these dollars come with a significant catch. In her announcement of the school budget Ms. Bowser stated that “in the fall of 2021, she expects all public schools in Washington, DC to fully open for in-person learning, five days a week, with all educators back in the classroom.”

I sense a frustration by our city’s chief executive that the District is not further along in re-opening schools. According to Ms. Stein only twelve percent of pupils have returned to class. But with people getting vaccinated against Covid-19 at a faster pace here in D.C., I don’t see how reaching her target will be an issue.

When most students return to learn in physical buildings it will be about 17 months since they have been taught in person. Then the job of bringing them back to academic grade level begins. Will money be a sufficient means for reaching this goal? Not if the past provides any clues.

Important lesson for D.C. More money does not improve academic results

This morning I’m missing the CATO Institute’s Andrew Coulson who unfortunately passed away from brain cancer in 2016 at the age of 48. When he was alive, Mr. Coulson loved to share data when talking about the subject of public education. His most famous graph is reprinted below:

Media Name: Cato-tot-cost-scores-Coulson-Sept-2012-sm.gif

It shows that despite tremendous increases in government spending for decades, public school student test scores have not improved. In some cases, they have in fact declined. The subject is important and timely since at the end of this month D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser will released her proposed FY 2022 budget. Already, various constituencies are lining up to argue for additional dollars, needs which I’m sure have been heightened due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The public schools I’m sure will make a strong case for more taxpayer funds and already the DC Charter School Alliance has argued that both charters and the regular schools need more than $50 million from the previous year.

We need to keep Andrew Coulson’s work in our thoughts.

I guess my mind is wandering but I’m also thinking about the FOCUS-engineered lawsuit against the Mayor that argued that charter school revenue from the city is inequitable compared to what DCPS receives. What is the status of this cause? When FOCUS disappeared did the court case go away as well? I bring this up because in testimony before the D.C. Council Committee of the Whole yesterday the Alliance’s founding executive director Shannon Hodge, as well as making her points about needing more cash, also asked for more government assistance. She argued (and I’m quoting from the testimony):

  • The Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) should expand its summer offerings for students to help re-engage students, provide options for families, and alleviate pressure on already exhausted teachers and school staff.
  • The Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) should:
    • Provide internet access for adult students and students who are undocumented;
    • Better communicate with families, especially about how they can directly contact OCTO’s Internet for All program;
    • Provide better internet quality, speed, and connectivity, because households with multiple children and working parents suffer most from poor internet quality;
    • Provide help desk support in other languages;
    • Develop a citywide technical support system; 
    • Clarify whether OCTO or the City will reimburse schools for hotspots and data connectivity they’ve purchased directly; and
    • Articulate a plan for how OCTO will continue to support internet access next school year.
  • The DC Department of Transportation (DDOT) should:
    • Coordinate with the Kids Ride Free Program on a COVID safety campaign to encourage mask wearing, social distancing, and other coronavirus mitigation strategies on public transportation; and
    • Work with schools to improve its communications around projects that are located near schools. 
  • The Department of General Services (DGS) should regularly update charter schools on projects that affect the functioning of their schools and have a point of contact for school leaders.  

There is of course, nothing inherently wrong with these suggestions. But I recall that the main theme of the FOCUS lawsuit was that the traditional schools receive services from the Wilson Building that charter schools cannot access. Perhaps that whole issue has now disappeared?

Did the pandemic end the D.C. charter school facility crisis?

A few months before the lockdown caused by the Covid-19 virus, a fight was being waged between charter supporters and Mayor Muriel Bowser over her refusal to turn over surplus DCPS buildings to the alternative school sector. The call was to End The List, a reference to the approximately 12,000 students on charter school waitlists due, in part, to the inability of these institutions to replicate and grow because of a severe shortage of available facilities. The D.C. commercial real estate market was on fire and those schools needing buildings in which to open or expand had literally nowhere to go.

But as the virus was raging a glimmer of hope for resolution of the facility crunch emerged. Here is what I observed back in May:

“The last five charters that have been approved for new locations will open in commercial space. Capital Village PCS has taken over the former home of City Arts and Prep PCS, and Girls Global Academy PCS has settled into 733 8th Street, N.W., the site of the Calvary Baptist Church. Appletree Early Learning PCS will join the Richard Wright PCS for Journalism and Media Arts at 475 School Street, S.E. that was part of the campus of the closed Southeastern University. Finally Rocketship PCS will open in Ward 5 in a building owned by the Cafritz Foundation.”

Now, of course, the ecosystem around office space has completely changed. Remote work and Zoom meetings have become the norm. With people becoming vaccinated, and the spread of the virus diminishing, there are calls to bring life back to a new sense of normal. Some schools are open and others are seriously working to bring pupils once again to the classroom.

So the great question will become, when offices reopen will there be room for charters? I believe the answer is yes. My contention is that landlords, desperate for income, are beginning to realize that charter schools make great tenants. They hardly ever close, and their students equal a consistent revenue steam that is never interrupted even through the greatest of catastrophes.

However, the pandemic provides the traditional school system with an additional justification for holding onto empty structures. It will argue that physical distancing requirements translate into a requirement for more square feet for the same number of students. Alternately, I could see a system desperate for cash deciding to sell properties that can never be imagined to be needed again in the future.

In any case, my hope is that I no longer need to be concerned with this topic. The goal is to get more and more students into charter schools to offer them the best chance to learn and become successful in the future. We really could get to the point that there is a quality seat for every child who needs one. One piece of the puzzle in reaching this accomplishment may have been solved.

Former N.Y.C. Mayor Bloomberg calls for schools to re-open; time for D.C. to listen

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg had much to say on television a couple of days ago, according to the New York Post’s Lia Eustachewich, regarding the issue of whether schools should re-open in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. She wrote:

“Former Big Apple Mayor Mike Bloomberg urged President Biden to ‘stand up’ to unions and tell teachers to ‘suck it up’ and return to in-person learning, calling virtual learning ‘a disgrace.’

The former Democratic presidential candidate sounded off on teachers’ resistance to the push to reopen schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic, calling on the president to push the prioritization of children’s wellbeing.

‘It’s time for Joe Biden to stand up and to say, the kids are the most important things, important players here,’ Bloomberg said Wednesday on MSNBC. ‘And the teachers just are going to have to suck it up and stand up and provide an education.’

He added, ‘Teachers say, “Well, I don’t want to go back because it’s dangerous.” We have a lot of city and state and federal employees who run risks, that’s part of the job. You run risks to help America, to help your state, to help your city, to help your family and there’s just no reason not to have the schools open.’

Slamming virtual learning as ‘a joke — worse than a joke,’ the billionaire philanthropist said the remote instruction hurts ‘poor people’ the most.

‘Poor people don’t have iPads, they don’t have WiFi, they don’t have somebody at home to sit during the day and force the child to pay attention and without that, the virtual learning just does not exist,’ he said.”

Mr. Bloomberg urged Mr. Biden to fight back against the teachers’ unions.

Battle the teachers’ unions is exactly what the former Mayor did during his twelve years leading New York City. His brave work in making it possible to fire bad traditional school teachers, in creating charter schools, and strengthening the professional training of those in the education field are perfectly documented in Joel Klein’s excellent 2014 book entitled Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools.

The words above are the Michael Bloomberg I remember. The one that went to work each and every day trying to improve the lives of his citizens. He brought tremendous prosperity to the place my family loves in almost every area in which he could have influence.

His campaign for President was disappointing in that it appears he got tied up in following liberal talking points in order to try and win the Democratic nomination. He also had difficulty expressing his past accomplishments. But now apparently he is back telling it like it is.

In an editorial Mr. Bloomberg wrote at the end of January he observed:

“Early research suggests sharply reduced learning gains; widening racial disparities in achievement; and an eruption of anxiety, loneliness, depression and other mental-health afflictions among students isolated from their peers and stuck at home. Some districts have seen a rash of suicides. Education analysts warn that the long-term consequences — for disadvantaged kids, for racial equity, even for America’s global competitiveness — could be disastrous.

In short, getting kids back into classrooms should be a national priority. More local leaders are recognizing that, but in some cases, districts have tried to reopen, only to be stymied by unions. In Chicago — which has one of the country’s largest school systems, and where more than 75% of students are economically disadvantaged — the union has simply defied the city’s reopening plans. In Montclair, New Jersey, the local union is blocking even two-day-a-week instruction. In Fairfax County, Virginia, the union got teachers moved to the front of the line for vaccines — and then decided that in-class instruction shouldn’t resume until vaccinations were ready for students. No vaccines are currently authorized for those under age 16.”

As teachers receive the vaccine in the nation’s capital we have reached a point where both charters and regular schools need to figure out how to safely open to our children.

We cannot let disparities in public education opportunity continue in the nation’s capital

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein wrote in her newspaper yesterday that efforts to bring students back to in-person learning in the District are demonstrating an uneven response depending upon where families live:

“The partial reopening is a relief to families of all incomes, but the mismatch across the city has teachers and parents questioning whether the city should be pouring resources during the pandemic into an in-person learning program that White students are disproportionately enrolling in. . . In D.C., families in the poorest ward rejected offers for an elementary school spot a twice the rate of families in the wealthiest one.”

However, because pupils in the city are predominately Black or Hispanic, Mr. Stein points out that “most students returning are students of color.”

Here are some other interesting demographic statistics from the piece:

“Of the elementary students expected to return to classrooms, 60 percent are homeless, learning English as a second language, receiving special education services or designated as at-risk, which means they are in foster care or their families qualify for public assistance. At the middle and high school level, 70 percent of students fall into one of these categories.

White children, who make up 16 percent of the D.C. school system’s population, are a minority of the total number of students expected to return to classrooms — 28 percent of the 6,300 children at the prekindergarten and elementary level, according to city data — but a larger percentage of them chose in-person learning.

As a result, some campuses in the wealthiest neighborhoods have most of their students — hundreds of children — returning. And on the other side of the Anacostia River, some schools have just a couple dozen students listed.”

So far, the Post reporter states that 9,200 pupils have committed to returning to the traditional schools out of a total allotment of 15,000 spaces. There are approximately 50,927 students currently enrolled in DCPS, which is operated by the Mayor but is publicly funded.

The decision as to whether to send a child back to school is complicated depending on safety concerns, childcare arrangements, and other parental responsibilities such as a job. In addition, the traditional school system is not offering after-care.

Also, returning to in-person school is not a all-or-nothing proposition. The high school student I tutor through the Latino Student Fund can return to Woodrow Wilson High School beginning Monday, but that is only for two days a week. He must balance going back with helping the family take care of other siblings.

To make maters more confusing, as if all of this was not confusing enough, according to Ms. Stein, “every school has a different reopening plan.”

When this mess is over we really have to solve the inequities of education opportunity across this town. I’ve argued for decades that the most powerful solution for reaching this goal to to turn all schools into charters. If the regular schools can have different reopening plans then they can have different curriculum, different hours, different schedules, different personnel rules and responsibilities.

Since this is now 2021, and one of my New Year’s resolutions has been to increase my flexibility, I’ll allow that under the new plan some of the previously designated neighborhood schools will be able to remain open for enrollment to anyone who wants to attend them in the community. But as far as the hierarchical structure of these institutions, I draw a red bright line. They are all to be independently managed and reporting to a board of directors.

The pandemic has cost minorities tremendously regarding illness and death. This was all predictable based upon the tremendous achievement gap between affluent and poor in Washington D.C., which is an echo of the gap in the social determinants of health.

Our community has suffered enough. Time for a change. Do something. Don’t just sit there.

Let’s together change the model of schooling after this series of traumatic events. We can follow the precedent established by New Orleans after the Hurricane Katrina. There public schools reopened as charters. We have the example. Now let’s implement.

D.C. traditional schools may open on Monday; charters wait

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein reported yesterday that the Washington Teachers’ Union has thrown a roadblock in the plans of the traditional schools in the nation’s capital to open Monday to about 8,000 pupils. The attendance level represents approximately 15.7 percent of all students enrolled in DCPS, which is operated by the Mayor but is publicly funded.

Ms. Stein describes the move by the union this way:

“The union alleges the District has not met all safety guidelines outlined in the agreement signed last month, and it also says the city needs to share more school-specific data on the number of students returning to campuses. The union fears the city is calling for more teachers to return than necessary. Under the agreement, schools that do not adhere to the guidelines that cover safety and staffing issues are not allowed to reopen.”

Apparently, the matter now goes to arbitration. The Chancellor of DCPS, Lewis Ferebee, is not buying the union’s argument. According to the Post, Mr. Ferebee responded:

“We have spent many months and millions of dollars to prepare. . . We know our students are ready, we know our buildings are ready, and we know our staff is ready and efforts to reopen schools on Monday will continue as planned.”

With DCPS planning on returning such a small percentage of children to in-classroom learning, I’m not sure this really meets the definition of opening, which Mayor Muriel Bowser has stated emphatically the regular schools must do.

Meanwhile, the city’s charter schools that educate about 43,485 students, or 46 percent of all those that attend public schools, are waiting the pandemic out. Ms. Stein informed us the other day that many are planning on re-opening in late February or March as more staff become vaccinated against Covid-19 and the number of people who have the virus begins to decrease. The Washington Post staff member added that 2,505 scholars received some in-classroom education in January, which, if we apply the same standard that DCPS is using, may mean that the sector has re-opened.

Commented Raymond Weeden, the Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS executive director, to Ms. Stein about the plans of his school, “I don’t think we have the staffing, and I don’t think we have the family appetite to pull it off.”

I have purposely stayed out the re-opening debate. My experience working in a hospital has taught me over the past ten months that concerns around safety mean we have to take this virus extremely seriously. I’ve seen how easily it can spread, and there is a growing concern by many that as this crisis has gone on people are lowering their guard due to fatigue with the protective measures that we have all been taught to practice.

I’m proud that D.C.’s charters are taking their time to protect their students and staff, and I’m confident that during this period these 66 schools on 128 campuses are providing exceptionally high quality virtual instruction.

D.C. charter schools turn to city for help in re-opening

I have such mixed feelings about District of Columbia schools re-opening in the midst of this pandemic. Working in healthcare, I see the highly contagious nature of Covid-19. In addition, my wife and I have a grandson going through the distance learning experience with Montgomery County public schools. It has been difficult for us because we have had to severely limit our social interactions with our family, and it has been challenging for our daughter and her husband with two young kids at home.

However, the situation has not been nearly as devastating as it has been for so many people across the United States and world. In this environment, I do not think there is any one answer for re-opening our schools. While this is an important goal, especially for those students living in poverty or who have special needs, we cannot put the health and safety of our community at risk. I write this with the knowledge that some charters have brought a limited number of its scholars back to school for in-person learning.

Towards the aim of bringing all children back to the classroom, the DC Charter School Alliance issued a press release yesterday, signed by 70 charter leaders, calling on the city to provide resources for placing medical professionals in schools, guidance around public health procedures, and mechanisms for performing coronavirus testing of pupils and adults. I am not sure about the rationale for such a document. In the past, when charter schools needed to accomplish a common goal, they would take the initiative and figure it out themselves. It is a clear indicator about how murky the current situation is that the Alliance is not able to work with these schools to devise and implement uniform recommended operating procedures.

The editors of the Washington Post have called for a concerted effort to re-open schools. They write:

“There needs to be more urgency in getting students back in the classroom. If grocery stores and hair salons and gyms and restaurants can adapt, why is there not similar impetus to get children back to school in a way that is safe for them and their teachers?”

Grocery stores have adopted by offering more delivery and the ability to pick up orders curbside. Hair salons, gyms, and restaurants have severely reduced the number of people who can be utilize these services at one time while implementing personal protective equipment protocols. Statements like the one by the Post editors offering simple recipes to what ails us now do not help.

I tutor a middle school student on-line through the Latino Student Fund. She attends the National Cathedral School. Last Monday, NCS started bringing its students back for alternating weeks learning in person and remotely. Perhaps we can gain insight from their example as to how to do this with the best interest of everyone in mind.

How did D.C. do after first week of school? Cannot tell based on Washington Post report

Last Sunday, the Washington Post’s Perry Stein wrote an article purported to illustrate what parents, students, and teachers experienced during the first week of the new school year in the District of Columbia. She began:

“One week into the academic year, the District’s school system is still struggling to meet its projected enrollment numbers and to deliver technology to some of its hardest-to-reach students. But teachers and parents also say that each day, remote learning in the nation’s capital is improving. Technology troubles are becoming less frequent, more students are showing up to virtual classes, and everyone is becoming more adept at using unfamiliar computer platforms.”

The only problem with her claims is that the lengthy report did not mention one charter school by name. In fact, readers would have no idea that there was another public school sector that teaches 46 percent of all pupils in the city. On this particular day, she left out the accounts of 43,485 students. It is as if the newspaper went back in time to 1995, the year before the first charter opened here. In paragraph seven she even wrote, “D.C. Public Schools educate about 52,000 students.” The total of all those attending public schools is actually approaching one hundred thousand.

In a way, the story did remind me of twenty-five years ago when the traditional schools were crumbling physically and characterized by the frequent absence of professional instruction. Ms. Perry stated that the regular schools were not quite ready for school to start:

“The city’s biggest technological setback has come at the early-childhood level. The school system had wrongly predicted it would be able to get the youngest learners into school buildings a few days a week and did not plan to have virtual learning for them. When officials learned that school would be all virtual in late July, they ordered iPads for thousands of students, which have not yet arrived. They plan to distribute them in mid-September, with many prekindergarten students starting the school year with paper packets.

‘We placed the order later than we did the other technology,’ Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn told residents at the town hall. ‘That is a problem of procurement.'” 

Really? I’m sorry, this was not a “problem of procurement.” It was a failure of planning. Since last spring, chances were never good that kids would be able to return to classrooms like before the pandemic hit. Allow me to remind you that it was before the advent of charters that children in DCPS often started the school year off without textbooks. This was one of the first things that Michelle Rhee corrected when she rode into our city.

There was one area of her article in which charter schools were referenced, but it was in an oblique way. The only teacher interviewed was Liz Koenig, who is identified as a “prekindergarten teacher at LaSalle-Backus Education Campus in Northeast Washington.” Ms. Koenig is known for teaming up with anti-charter school freelance writer Rachel Cohen in attacking the movement, specifically detailing her dismissal from Bridges PCS. This was the best source that Ms. Perry could find?

I will guarantee you that the first week was much different regarding charters. Technology issues aside, I am sure that each was ready to go on day one. But how would we know for sure? The education reporter for the Washington Post is pretending that we are living in a community in which school reform never happened.