Is Mayor Bowser trying to shutdown D.C.’s public charter school board?

These are certainly strange times for the District of Columbia’s charter school movement. As I pointed out toward the end of last month, there are now three vacancies on the DC Public Charter School Board. Saba Bireda stepped down in September and Naomi Shelton’s term concluded in August. There is still no nominee from Mayor Muriel Bowser to replace Steve Bumbaugh, a position that D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson wondered about during a hearing in June.

Then a bombshell landed when Mr. Bumbaugh wrote a recent editorial promoted by anti-charter Washington Post columnist Valerie Strauss in which he calls into question the very existence of the alternative sector that now educates 46 percent of all public school students, numbering approximately 46,500, in the nation’s capital.

“The District must rethink its charter schools,” Mr. Bumbaugh asserted.

The timing of the column is curious as the writer goes on to mention that two more representatives of the PCSB will see their volunteer service come to an end in the coming year. This would leave only two of seven slots filled. If there is to be continuity regarding this organization, then members really should be added now.

Perhaps there is a reason for Ms. Bowser’s delay. The Washington Post’s Perry Stein is fond of stating that charter schools are public entities that are privately run. For years, the charter board has been criticized by those who oppose the sector as not being responsible to the citizenry. As the Mayor contemplates a run for a third term it is possible that she would like to take an action to quell these concerns. One move I could imagine her making is to fold responsibility for the city’s charters under the State Board of Education.

This is not so farfetched. The board was the original authorizer of charters in the District. They got out of the charter business at the same time that the Mayor took over control of the regular schools. One way for the Mayor to exert authority over these freewheeling charters is to group them with DCPS under one governing body. It would essentially put all 95,000 pupils under her purview.

We have a former member of the charter board stating that the 25 year experiment in school reform needs to be re-imagined. Scott Pearson’s replacement, Dr. Michelle Walker-Davis, has placed a twelve month pause on the approval of new schools and the grade level expansion of existing classrooms. Ms. Bowser is dictating the COVID response for both sectors. Now the Council has exceeded its powers in passing a law expanding virtual learning in charters.

From where I am sitting, it appears that the PCSB is coming to an end.

Number of D.C. students permitted to learn virtually now in charter school’s court

Yesterday, the D.C. Council went ahead and unanimously passed emergency legislation expanding the number of students permitted to take classes through distance learning, but the number was far less than Chairman Mendelson had in mind when he proposed the bill. As the Washington Post’s Perry Stein informed us on Tuesday, only an additional two hundred elementary school pupils and one hundred fifty middle school students will be able to participate “if their doctors recommend they stay at home or if they live with a relative who is at high risk for a severe case of the coronavirus.”

Those eligible will join approximately 285 DCPS scholars who are currently learning virtually.

The reason for the small incremental increase, according to Ms. Stein, was due to pressure from Mayor Bowser’s administration pointing to higher costs associated with allowing more children to be taught outside of the classroom. As I mentioned previously, the Council’s rule is that emergency legislation cannot include a rise in expenditures.

The act includes an extremely interesting caveat for charters. As stated in the Post story, “charter networks have more leeway, with the council saying each can decide how many eligible virtual learners to accommodate, though each network must cap it at no less than 3 percent of its student body.”

Actually, the situation has not changed for this sector over the past twenty-four hours. Do the DC PCSB, DC Charter School Alliance, and the sixty eight schools on one hundred thirty three campuses as independent local education agencies, fall in line blindly to the dictates of the Council, or do they legitimately take matters into their own hands in deciding how many students have to be in their buildings?

You already know my opinion as to the way things will play out. Stay with me as we watch events unfold.

D.C. Council set to battle with charter schools; my guess is that charters blink

When Scott Pearson was executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board and he testified in front of the D.C. Council, he had polite and respectful conversations with Education Committee Chairman David Grosso. However, there were a few occasions when conflict arose, especially when Mr. Grosso asked Mr. Pearson for an explanation regarding why charters were not complying with a particular law. Mr. Pearson had to clarify that in reference to the matter under discussion it was the charter sector’s view that the Council lacked jurisdiction.

Last Friday, the Washington Post’s Perry Stein revealed that Council Chairman Phil Mendelson is planning on introducing emergency legislation that would increase the number of students eligible for virtual instruction from home. She wrote:

“Under the legislation, which was still being modified Friday, students under12 who are ineligible for a coronavirus vaccine would be allowed to stay home if they live with someone who is immunocompromised.

It would also allow any student to participate in virtual learning if their doctors recommend that they remain home because they have a health condition that would put them at higher risk for complications if they contract the virus. The virtual learning plan would also apply to both the traditional public and charter sectors, according to a draft bill.”

Now here is the problem. The Council lacks authority to mandate that charter schools provide on-line classes. While there is no debate that the city’s representatives can legislate charters regarding issues of health and safety, not in the broadest interpretation of this criteria would it be acceptable for the legislative body to encroach on the autonomy of the alternative school sector regarding distance learning.

Mayor Muriel Bowser reacted immediately and unequivocally when she heard about Mr. Mendelson’s plan. Ms. Stein says she expressed her viewpoint in a letter to the Council. She wrote:

“It is therefore of paramount importance that we do not disrupt our hard-won, in-person learning for the tens of thousands of students who are in dire need of consistent and quality instruction and socialization. As such, I am very troubled and angered by any legislation that aims to disrupt learning or that will tax and burden our schools.”

While the Mayor is strongly defending her authority to manage DCPS, charters are not so bold. The Post states that DC Charter School Alliance founding executive director Shannon Hodge responded to the news about the emergency act this way:

“The legislation reflects concerns from parents and that there are a ‘significant’ number of students who have completed enrollment paperwork but have not attended school, suggesting they could be staying home for coronavirus-related reasons.”

The comment is especially ironic because charters were apparently directed by PCSB staff not to offer on-line classes. One leader of a prominent network of schools told me recently the organization was dissuaded from filing a charter amendment to provide virtual instruction after being informed that it would be denied. The feeling was this decision was coming out of fear of interfering with Ms. Bowser’s muscular push to have all kids back in the classroom.

If I had to conjecture, I would say that the PCSB and Alliance will roll over and acquiesce to the Council’s directive.

Complicating the passage of the Council Chairman’s bill is the requirement that emergency legislation cannot increase costs. The Mayor has already insinuated that the new law comes with a price tag.

There is one additional portion of the act which is worth noting, as Ms. Perry details:

“The bill also would allow students to receive excused absences if they remain home for pandemic-related reasons. Parents testified at a D.C. Council hearing last month that if one of their children was quarantined and they kept another child home, which the city does not recommend, the sibling would accrue unexcused absences. Too many could lead to a call, and a possible neglect investigation, from the Child and Family Services Agency.”

The Council is set to vote on the measure today. It takes nine councilmembers to pass emergency legislation.

Individual D.C. public schools are having to perform their own Covid-19 contact tracing

Yesterday, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson held a seven-hour public hearing to gather information on the process of re-opening schools this fall. The Washington Post’s Perry Stein covered the event, focusing only on the experiences of DCPS. For example, she writes:

“Publicly available data indicates that, as of Friday, D.C. Public Schools had reported 370 positive cases among its 52,000 students and 1,088 students were quarantined. There had also been 120 positive cases among the system’s 7,500 employees. The District has an asymptomatic testing program, but so far, it has failed to meet its goal to test at least 10 percent of students for the virus in every school each week.”

Ms. Stein leaves out the 43,857 scholars who learn in our nation’s capital charters, I guess because she insists that these schools are “publicly funded but privately run.” I mean really, if your job is to put into words what is happening in this town’s classrooms cover both sectors or simply refer to yourself as the government-run school reporter.

In her piece she documents parent complaints about how the year is going, including unstandardized procedures if a student tests positive, the lack of a virtual option for families that would rather keep their kids at home, and a dearth of study material when students have to quarantine. But here is the part that I found particularly disturbing:

“The union representing the principals has said the administration of contact tracing has wrongly fallen to individual schools.”

This statement appears to be accurate because the issue is also mentioned by DC Public Charter School Board executive director Dr. Michelle Walker-Davis in her testimony:

“And schools are adapting protocols to keep up with the evolving guidance. The flexibility afforded to LEAs in the interpretation of the guidance has put a lot of pressure and tough decisions on school leaders. Some of that flexibility, intended to account for the unique characteristics of each school community, has made it difficult to explain protocols and procedures to families to get them comfortable with safety plans.

We also hear contact tracing needs to improve. Currently, contact tracing is done at the individual school level by the school staff, based on guidance from DC Health and with support from OSSE. This process is burdensome, taxing already stressed educators, including those at our state education agency, whose primary focus should be on teaching and learning.”

Really, on top of trying to teach kids wearing masks all day and using energy that should be channeled to instruction on keeping scholars safe, the individual staffs of our charters need to contact trace? You have got to be joking. This is the best plan that Mayor Bowser, Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn, and acting D.C. State Superintendent of Education Christina Grant can come up with after all these months on planning? This is ridiculous.

I wish that the DC PCSB and the DC Charter School Alliance had listened to me. Charters have throughout their history taken matters into their own hands. When no one would provide them with a building, even though they are public schools, they figured out how to get them. When the payment from the city didn’t come on time they somehow managed to meet payroll. When a long line of education experts said they couldn’t close the academic achievement gap they produced standardized test scores as high as selective institutions.

The movement needs to stop feeling like they are somehow inferior to traditional facilities. Also, they have to end their fear of the Mayor. Charters must once again be bold in the face of all the odds stacked against them. That is the way we will reach the golden goal of equity.



Membership on the D.C. charter board dwindling

Last evening’s monthly meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board started strangely. Long-term member and previous vice chair Saba Bireda announced that this was her last meeting. Also on the Zoom broadcast for a short period was Naomi Shelton. She revealed that her last meeting was actually the August session. She had joined just to say her farewells. Both individuals received accolades from the remaining members of the board.

Recall that last June during a D.C. Council oversight hearing on the charter sector, Chairman Mendelson asked whether DC PCSB chair Rick Cruz and executive director Dr. Michelle Walker-Davis were aware of Mayor Muriel Bowser naming a replacement board member for Steve Bumbaugh whose term had ended, and whether she intended to renew the term of Ms. Shelton. Neither had any information. Now here we are at the end of September with Ms. Bireda having to step down apparently because she has accepted a position with the federal government that conflicts with her PCSB service and, as I postulated three months ago, Ms. Shelton will not get a second appointment to the board. This leaves the charter board with only four members. I cannot recall a time in the approximately twenty-five year history of the PCSB that the number of members has dropped so low.

I do not know if it is the impact of this terrible pandemic or the lack of support for his body from D.C.’s chief executive, but chair Rick Cruz appeared dejected. Or it could have been due to a general lack of enthusiasm by the populace for the charter movement as a whole. For also on this night, Ms. Walker-Davis announced that her organization is in the midst of reviewing the application process for new schools and for replication. Of course, this evaluation is long overdue, and I have called for years to make it simpler both for charters to open and grow. Charter school expansion has been much too bureaucratic. However, I was shocked to hear that because of this deliberation no new charter applications will be accepted until the 2023 cycle and all existing schools will also be prevented from adding additional grade levels until that time. Charter amendments for expansion of student ceiling limits will still be entertained. It felt to me that perhaps we should simply end this entire experiment in school reform.

Or maybe it already has stopped. Earlier in the day the Mayor mandated that all school employees and contractors, no matter what their role, will now have to vaccinated against Covid-19, without an option to skip the shot and be tested. This is something Rocketship PCS, Perry Street PCS, and Monument Academy PCS adopted weeks ago and a mandate that the charter movement should have led as it used to proudly set high standards. The DC Charter School Alliance went along with the move with founding executive director Shannon Hodge stating, “Charter school leaders and the DC Charter School Alliance are prepared to work together with Mayor Bowser, DC Public Schools, and DC Health to ensure we provide safe spaces to learn and adequately protect students and staff in the fight against COVID-19.” Really, what else could she say at this point?

As if all of this was not depressing enough, WAMU’s Martin Austermuhle reported last week that eleven charter schools have agreed to include an admission preference for at-risk students. The ability to offer this preference was granted to charters by the D.C. Council in 2020, and is in addition to admission preferences that include siblings of existing enrolled students, children of school employees, and special education students. As a school choice purist, I am fine with the admission advantage for siblings and employees but I stop there. In the most simple terms I do not believe anyone should be discriminated against when trying to gain a seat at these schools. The answer for charters wanting a greater proportion of at-risk students is to open more campuses that can serve these scholars, especially if we can accomplish this by taking over failing traditional schools. It is what we should have been doing for years.

Last month I observed a brief spark in our local charter ecosystem and I was hoping this was the start of a flame. It looks like the match has burned out.

Washington D.C. should offer virtual school instruction this fall

Yesterday, WTOP revealed that all Prince George’s public school parents who want to enroll their Kindergarten through six grade students in virtual learning will be able to do so. This program will be in effect until a Covid-19 vaccine is available for children under twelve years old. It makes sense.

There are still details we do not understand about this virus. My wife Michele and I vacationed in Provincetown, Massachusetts right before Independence Day. No one was wearing masks and social distancing was not being practiced. However, I’m confident that one hundred percent of the people walking on Commercial Street were vaccinated. Approximately, one thousand people contracted the virus that weekend, some needing to be hospitalized. I listened to one individual who became ill state that he had experienced the worse forty-eight hours of his life.

Also Wednesday, the DC State Board of Education sent a letter to Mayor Muriel Bowser requesting that a virtual option be granted for pupils. In rationally spelled out arguments the board requests Ms. Bowser to also relax attendance rules, allow waivers for in-person learning to include one for household members who have a health exemption, end referrals of student absences due to Covid to the Child and Family Services Agency, increase weekly Covid testing to all students and staff from the current policy of ten percent of unvaccinated individuals, add a requirement that all staff and students older than sixteen be required to be vaccinated according to CDC guidelines, and increase resources for mental heath care and treatment. In addition, the communication includes a request that the Mayor issue a new public health emergency so that the city pays for Covid testing, and reverse the mandate that prevents school nurses from caring for students and staff that may have contracted the disease. These recommendations are completely logical to me.

The critical factor is that charter schools may decide on their own to again offer online classrooms. The DC Public Charter School Board can begin today approving amendments from schools that request them to make this a reality. I spoke to one prominent charter leader recently who explained that the school had been encouraged to apply for a virtual teaching amendment only to later be told that the request would be denied. I will not conjecture here about the reason behind the reversal.

CNN reports today that over one hundred thousand people are now hospitalized in the United States, more than double this time last year. From the article:

“With no vaccines available to children under 12 and school starting up across the country, experts are concerned about the growing number of infections among children. Texas Children’s Hospital is seeing an unprecedented surge of coronavirus cases, with a record number of kids being hospitalized for the virus, and children are showing up sicker than before, Dr. Jim Versalovic, interim pediatrician in chief at the Houston-based hospital system told CNN Wednesday.”

Many in our community have first-hand experience with the devastating impact of Covid-19. The impact has been particularly bleak for the Black community, where eighty percent of Covid deaths occurred. It is the prudent and dignified action to take to offer these families a virtual learning option.

D.C. parents and educators fight over bringing children back to in classroom learning

Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has mandated that children return to the classroom when DCPS starts school on August 30th. But many parents and instructors are raising concerns. Yesterday in an excellent article the Washington City Paper’s Ambar Castillo captured these issues as expressed at a State Board of Education meeting last Wednesday evening, which revolve around fear of the rise of Covid-19’s Delta variant, the inability of students to accomplish social distancing due to a lack of space, the fact that there is no available vaccine for children younger than twelve years old, and the lack of a virtual learning option. In addition, parents argued that lunch should be provided outdoors, which led Raymond Weeden, the Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS executive director, to explain that this is not possible for his attendees because of the large number of shootings around the school’s Anacostia neighborhood.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the City Paper piece was the revelation that the founder and long-term head of Achievement Prep PCS has now joined the DC Charter School Alliance. Sarah Lewis is listed on the school’s website as the interim CEO. Ms. Castillo wrote:

“Shantelle Wright, the DC Charter School Alliance Interim Director of Advocacy and Policy, expressed a need for “a citywide contingency plan should the District have an unexpected outbreak that puts schools remaining open at risk.” She said the alliance is asking the mayor to include charter schools when the city coordinates a protocol to tackle an even worse COVID caseload crisis.”

Ms. Wright is expressing a point of view previously expressed by the Alliance that is driving me up the wall. What happened to the days when charters took control of their own destiny? Isn’t it possible for the Alliance or the DC Public Charter School Board to devise a contingency plan for an unexpected outbreak? How hard can it be? Wouldn’t the answer be to return to distance learning lesson plans?

The DCPCS has granted permission to KIPP DC PCS and Maya Angelou PCS to offer limited virtual learning going forward. The board turned down a request for Howard University PCS’s request to do the same although no reason was given. Apparently, AppleTree PCS withdrew an initial request to be able to provide virtual instruction. Friendship PCS already has an online institute.

At the same meeting complaints were raised about Ms. Bowser’s expressed policy that school nurses will not be allowed to care for students or teachers who may have contracted the virus. This would be handled by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. WTOP’s Acacia James captured Washington Latin PCS’s head of school Peter Anderson explaining that his school’s nurse resigned due to this condition. From her article:

“’When we pushed back on this, our nurse also tried to push back on this, was told nothing’s going to change and so she quit,’ Anderson said. ‘And so now we no longer have a nurse and we don’t know what the situation is going to be for us.’”

There is also controversy over testing. Ms. James stated that the city will cover the cost of testing ten percent of students. However, if a school decides to test more than this number, it will have to pay.

It appears that D.C.’s school sectors are about to begin a grand experiment of teaching children in person during a pandemic.

 

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.