Testimony of Scott Pearson, executive director of DC PCSB, regarding the Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019

Yesterday, Scott Pearson, executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, testified before the D.C. Council’s Committee of the Whole and the Committee on Education as part of a public hearing on the Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019 and Public Charter School Closure Amendment Act of 2019. I am reprinting his remarks today with commentary to follow in future posts.

Chairman Mendelson, Chairman Grosso, Councilmember Allen and councilmembers, thank you for inviting me to speak today on the issues of transparency and accountability for our city’s public charter schools. I am Scott Pearson, Executive Director of the Public Charter School Board.

The Public School Transparency Amendment Act would require public charter schools to be subject to the DC Open Meetings Act, the Freedom of Information Act, and several other requirements.

As I testified in June on another piece of legislation, we support the requirement that board meetings of public charter schools be made public when discussing expansion, budgets, or closure. We believe that there need to be a few closed session exemptions to account for areas where public charter schools as independent 501(c)(3)’s are different from government entities. This includes exemptions for information concerning individual students or staff or matters that would materially affect their competitive position in relation to other schools. By adding clarity to the law, it will benefit both the school’s boards, families, and staff.

To me, transparency is an essential part of the public charter school concept. It goes hand in hand with flexibility and accountability.

The question for me is not whether charter schools should be open and transparent. The question is what is the best way to achieve this end. Our primary goal is that our schools ensure students perform well academically. We have worked for years at the Public Charter School Board to make more information available to the public in the smartest way possible.

• When it comes to how public charter schools spend their money, every public charter school is subject to an annual audit by a third party certified public accountant approved by a committee of the Public Charter School Board, the OCFO, and OSSE. Those audits are published on our website, along with schools’ IRS tax returns and their annual budgets. Each is verified and accessible to anyone who wants to take a look. In addition, we require schools to break down their expenditures into four categories – occupancy, personnel, student support, and administration — so that school expenditures can be compared with each other on an apples to apples basis. This report is released to the public through our Financial Analysis Report.

• Looking at school operations, performance and governance, we post schools’ charter goals, their student handbooks, average high and low teacher salaries, academic data, student commute maps, enrollment and demographic data, annual reports, at-risk funding plans, and contact information for the school’s board. This year we are adding to this board of trustees meeting calendars, including which meetings are open to the public, approved school board meeting minutes, the current salaries of the five most highly compensated individuals in the organization, and the contact information for key staff.

• We post on our website extensive information about our oversight of each school, including a school’s five- or ten-year review and renewal reports, equity reports, performance reports, compliance review reports, and detailed writeups from our classroom observations.

All the information I’ve just described is publicly available and easy to locate on our website. We’ve tried to include everything a family would want to know about a school. If there is more information folks want, we are certainly open to discussing how we can make that available.

I have noticed that many have been conflating “transparency,” with FOIA. FOIA is a tool of transparency, one which we believe is inappropriate to apply towards small, independent 501(c)(3) organizations. It is a blunt instrument that will do little to provide families with the information they need and want while having the potential, through its cost and time demands, to take resources away from the school quality goals we all share. If our goal is transparency, FOIA misses the mark, especially for families with limited time and resources.

Years ago, policymakers decided to address the issue of sunshine in public charter schools by making DC PCSB subject to FOIA. As a result of working closely with schools across all issue areas, we can provide most, if not all, of the information sought after by the public. We receive requests from all types of citizens including journalists, academic researchers, union representatives, parents, and teachers. For FY 2018, the sum of requests totaled 73. This year, we have already surpassed that number.

But the number of requests only tells part of the story. The key metric in assessing a FOIA request is the scope. Some freedom of information requests are narrow and can be completed in under an hour. However, larger requests can take hundreds or even thousands of hours to complete and have the potential to paralyze a small organization. This is where our overall concern lies.

In recent months, DC PCSB itself has received multiple requests that encompass hundreds of thousands of responsive documents and will require hundreds of hours of review. There is a multiplier effect on the staff cost and hours. Documents must generally be reviewed by multiple staff members, including those with a legal background, to ensure that no protected student data or other confidential or privileged information is accidentally released.

Let me provide two recent examples:

• We recently received a request made asking for all emails DC PCSB staff have sent with a lengthy list of recipients going back to 2015. A preliminary search returned an estimated 3.2 million pages of responsive documents. So far, we’ve been able to narrow the request to 1.9 million pages, but the requestor has been largely unwilling to work with us on reducing it any further. We estimate this will take three employees working full time over a year to review all of these documents. Imagine a school dealing with this, and the diversion of resources from student facing work.

• Another recent example is a multi-part request that we completed. This request ultimately took nearly 500 hours of staff time to complete. That amounts to one staff member spending 12 and a half work weeks focusing on this issue alone. I would also note that, under current law, there is a very high threshold for a request to be considered overly broad or onerous.

I would hope most schools would not regularly receive requests like these. In fact, some schools may not receive any requests at all. But I would also expect schools experiencing turmoil, the schools that can least afford to spend time digging through and reviewing emails and other documents, will be the ones impacted.

Since many schools do not have an in-house legal team, much of the work of information gathering and review will fall on teachers and staff. Therefore, most will need to work with outside attorneys who are not on school email systems, and do not have the ability to search through the communications of staff. In practice, this means the work of searching will likely be performed by the teachers whose work is implicated by the request. The results will then be sent to the legal counsel to apply any exemptions and redactions, at a substantial hourly fee.

There are more effective and efficient ways to satisfy the public’s desire to understand the work of public charter schools. FOIA will not give families information on their student’s performance or IEP decisions they can’t already obtain under federal law. FOIA will not improve communication between families and schools. FOIA will not help a family understand a budget. FOIA may not even produce deliberative emails between board members, which will be searched, reviewed, and ultimately redacted.

The harmful effects of FOIA go beyond the trouble of searching and reviewing documents and emails. As members and staff of the Council know only too well, the presence of FOIA inhibits free and open electronic communication. This makes decision makers less able to engage in the kind of open electronic communication that allows organizations to operate at peak performance.

The process of FOIA takes time and focus off students and off the operations of the school. And this is the fundamental issue we have with this bill: it will do nothing to improve student achievement; instead, it will make it harder for schools to be truly excellent. We honestly believe that FOIA will not further the cause of quality schools and instead result in school spending hours and dollars that could otherwise be spent on students for a gain in transparency that we believe will ultimately be negligible.

With this reality in mind, I ask that we work together to identify inaccessible information and figure out ways we can make that public instead of subjecting individual schools to this catch-all tool of FOIA. In the long run, it will be more helpful for schools to give families and communities specific information rather than inundate them with thousands of pages of irrelevant documents.

Public Charter School Closure Amendment Act of 2019

Before I conclude my testimony, I would like to turn my attention to the Public Charter School Closure Amendment Act of 2019 to express my support. As an independent authorizer, DC PCSB is required to hold each public charter school to high standards — we must not only hold school leaders accountable for academic success, but also ensure they are acting in the best interest of all students attending the school.

Over the next two school years, DC PCSB will conduct a high-stakes review of 29 different public charter schools. Some of these reviews could result in a school closure.

Closing a school and settling its finances is a complex process that requires robust oversight. During the public charter school closure process, our oversight of school operations is hampered by the fact that the school’s charter has already been revoked or non-renewed. Our ultimate leverage is gone. As such, it becomes more difficult to address issues that may arise during the school’s wind-down period, such as those involving the school’s expenditures and finances; oversight of school personnel; and cooperation with the transition efforts of the acquiring school in the event of an asset acquisition.

The ability to impose conditions will help DC PCSB perform its oversight obligations more effectively during a closing school’s final months of operation. Importantly, DC PCSB will be better able to safeguard public funds that a school might otherwise use inappropriately. For example, we could impose a condition that all of a school’s expenditures over $10,000 would be subject to DC PCSB approval, which could prevent a school leader from receiving a golden parachute. Those funds, if otherwise unspent, would go back to OSSE and be redistributed upon dissolution of the school.

The proposed bill will also help the DC PCSB ensure positive outcomes for students in the closing school, including helping those students enroll in a high-quality school for the following school year. For example, we could require that schools hire more staff if there is an uptick in safety incidents. We could require schools to offer retention bonuses to teachers or employees to help ensure students finish out the school year in a safe and stable environment. We could demand that schools turn over contact lists to our enrollment specialists or require schools to allow us to send enrollment specialists to school property to ensure families are apprised of their options.

I know I usually appear before you to advocate for preserving school autonomy, and I recognize this bill goes in the opposite direction. However, it applies only in the narrowest of cases – specifically those few months between when the board votes to close a school and when it actually closes its doors and winds down its operations. We believe it will considerably improve our ability to safeguard public funds and ensure better outcomes for students in closing schools.

As the sole charter authorizer in our nation’s capital, DC PCSB has been long committed to providing families, students, and the public with information on public charter school performance. That is why we collect and publish so much detailed information about every single public charter school in the District. DC PCSB remains committed to working closely with schools across all issue areas, to provide most, if not all, of the information sought by the public in the interest of what is best for students. Thank you again for this opportunity to testify. I am happy to answer any questions.

D.C. Mayor Bowser does right thing on education; much more to do

Last Friday, Fenit Nirappil of the Washington Post revealed that Mayor Bowser utilized her first veto to reject D.C. Council-approved legislation permitting this year’s chronically absent high school seniors to receive diplomas.  The act would have also allowed students who missed significant portions of the term to be socially promoted to the next grade.  Her move should be applauded but is not all together surprising since it came in the aftermath of the following comments about the bill from interim Deputy Mayor for Education Ahnna Smith as quoted by the Post’s Perry Stein:

“This emergency legislation undermines [the school system’s] efforts and sends a troubling message about the importance of school attendance, suggesting that students need a waiver to excuse absences.  We will continue to stress the importance of attendance because every day counts.”

The Council passed the law early last month by a vote of 12 to 1.  Shockingly, one of the sponsors was David Grosso, the chairman of the Council’s education committee.  What a stunning sad example for our kids.  It would have excused students who missed more than 30 days of class but who were otherwise in academically satisfactory standing.  Mr. Nirappil explains that the measure would have increased the graduation grand total by 26 pupils.

The Council could override Ms. Bowser’s veto but this course is not likely since the body is out for summer recess until September.  Mr. Nirappil points out that it is not clear at this point that there are nine representatives who would vote to reverse her decision.

Now that the Mayor has taken this bold step, it is time she corrects some other deficiencies currently present in the city’s education landscape.

First, the chief executive needs to ensure equitable funding between charter schools and DCPS.  Its way past time that the playing field between these two sectors is made equitable to the tune of $100 million a year that the traditional schools receive that charters do not.

In addition, Mayor Bowser must immediately turn all surplus DCPS buildings over to charters.  Charter leaders and parents are desperate for a way to reduce the wait list of over 11,000 children wanting urgently to get into one of these institutions that now educate 47.5 percent of all public school students.

Lastly, she needs to hire a new Chancellor that understands and accepts the power that school choice has exerted in the nation’s capital to provide its children with a high quality alternative to the regular schools and to incentivize DCPS to improve.  Perhaps the new head of DCPS can work with the DC Public Charter School Board to create a charter and traditional school compact that would guarantee a permanent home for any charter that needs one.

 

 

 

D.C. Council passes emergency legislation to allow 26 high school students to graduate

As follow-up to an issue reported here last week, the D.C. Council, by a 12 to 1 vote, yesterday passed emergency legislation to allow high school seniors who missed more than 30 days of class, or 6 weeks, to receive a diploma.  The bill was approved despite opposition from D.C. Mayor Bowser, interim Deputy Mayor for Education Smith, and the traditional school system management.

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein indicates that because the act is classified as “emergency” it would not be reviewed by Congress. However, if ever there was a time that members on Capitol Hill should provide oversight it is this case. Apparently, our local representatives don’t understand the concept of accountability.

In perfect DCPS fashion, the exact number of students who would be impacted by this move is uncertain.  At first the number was 64 but yesterday it went down by 59 percent to 26 pupils. The purported reason for the steep decline is that many of whom have been chronically absent have also failed to pass their classes academically.  Ms. Stein states that “A D.C. schools spokesman said the number of students the legislation will affect is not final.”  There are 3,623 seniors in the traditional schools.

Mr. Grosso, who along with Councilmember Robert White sponsored the legislation, asserts that, according to Ms. Stein, “the school system started enforcing long-ignored attendance policies in the middle of the year, amid the graduation imbroglio. They said it is unfair that students have to pay the price for the city’s mistake.”

The Mayor has not made a decision as to whether she will veto the measure.  The bright light in all of this is the steadfast dignity of the Deputy Mayor for Education.  Ms. Stein quotes Ms. Smith as commenting, “This emergency legislation undermines [the school system’s] efforts and sends a troubling message about the importance of school attendance, suggesting that students need a waiver to excuse absences.  We will continue to stress the importance of attendance because every day counts.”

Every day does count and words matter. Mr. Grosso has championed himself as a civil rights leader for equality.  With this move, he is sending a powerful signal that some individuals are more equal than others.

 

Two D.C. Council members want to continue bigotry of low expectations; Ahnna Smith says no

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein revealed yesterday that a couple of D.C. Council members, David Grosso, the chairman of the education committee, and Robert White, Jr., plan to introduce emergency legislation next week that would allow students who had excessive absences from school to receive a high school diploma anyway.  According to Ms. Stein:

“The legislation comes amid stricter enforcement of long-ignored attendance policies, which received scrutiny this year after a city-commissioned report found that 1 in 3 high school graduates in 2017 received their diplomas despite accruing too many absences or improperly enrolling in makeup classes. Some students and teachers have argued it was unfair to change the enforcement of attendance policies midyear.”

Remember that this emergency legislation is coming in the wake of a DCPS graduation scandal that demonstrated for all to see that the 2017 four-year 73.2 rate of students receiving high school diplomas was a sham.  Administrators and teachers let students pass who were chronically truant from class and who also should have failed their classes academically.  It has been calculated that the actual  graduation rate would have been in the 40 percent range if the established rules were followed.  The 2018 traditional school graduation rate has been estimated to be 46 percent.

Now Mr. Grosso and Mr. White want to alter this year’s statistic.  Their preference is to wait until the next school year to enforce attendance requirements that should have been adhered to all along.

This whole episode brings me right back to the article last week by the Washington City Paper’s Rachel Cohen reporting on her investigative look at the work of TenSquare.  One way to view her assertions is that she is arguing that it was perfectly alright for Septima Clark PCS and IDEA PCS to post low academic results for their students.  After all, if the DC Public Charter School Board had not held these schools to strict academic standards, there would have been no need for these institutions when they got in trouble to contract with TenSquare in the first place.  She went out of her way to defend those who are not fulfilling the professional responsibilities they were being paid to do, like the teachers and administrators at Cesar Chavez PCS and William E. Doar, Jr. PCS, and cast Josh Kern and his team as evil for making the changes necessary to build the next generation of our city’s leaders.  It is all right out of an Ayn Rand novel where an ill society has reversed the heroes and the villains.

Coming to the rescue in defiance of those who dwell in the cesspool of low expectations is my friend Ahnna Smith, the interim D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education.  She is having none of the excuses culture.  In an email she wrote, according to the Post, “that the legislation fails to prepare students for college and careers.”

She stated “The proposed legislation would inexcusably exempt absences, signaling to students that mastery of content and preparation for the future are not what are most important.  The legislation also ignores the hard work teachers, administrators, students, and families have put in over the last six months, to create individualized graduation plans that will ensure our students receive the preparation they need for the future.”

Good for her.  Ms. Perry states that her opposition to the law will most likely kill it.  I know that Ms Smith does not want the Deputy Mayor of Education job permanently but perhaps we can persuade her to accept it.

Meanwhile, Mr. Grosso admits that the bill he is co-sponsoring would not return the DCPS graduation rate back to last year’s phony number.  Over 1,000 pupils will not graduate due to poor academic performance.  But give him some time and perhaps he will figure out a solution to this obstacle as well.

 

 

D.C. Council passes The Student Fair Access to School Act

Yesterday, the D.C. Council unanimously approved Education Chairman David Grosso’s bill entitled “The Student Fair Access to School Act.”  The legislation is an attempt to limit public schools ‘ ability to suspend students in grades Kindergarten through twelfth grade out of school.  The legislation was opposed by FOCUS, the DC Public Charter School Board, and most charter schools.  There was powerful testimony published here against the bill by Michael Musante, FOCUS’s senior director of government relations; Scott Pearson, executive director of the DC PCSB; and Shannon Hodge, executive director of Kingsman Academy PCS.

Mr. Grosso commented upon the vote of the council:

“The Student Fair Access to School Act is transformational—it breaks the traditional model of school discipline which pushes students out of school and, too often, into the courts.  This shifting mindset will result in students being better prepared to succeed academically and safer school environments for all. . . The Student Fair Access to School Act is the result of over a year of work, which included input from students, parents, teachers, school leaders, student and family advocates, researchers, mental health practitioners, government agency heads, and my colleagues. I appreciate that time and input immensely and urge the mayor to join us in this effort on behalf of students by signing Fair Access into law.”

In other local education news, WAMU’s Martin Austermuhle reports that Mayor Bowser may be open to having an outside group perform a top-to-bottom review of what ails DCPS.  Apparently there have been discussions between Ms. Bowser and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson about creating such a commission, which is modeled after what Virginia Governor McAuliffe did in his bid to reform Metro.  This proposal is in addition to D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh’s idea to create a research arm of the government that would evaluate data coming out of the city’s schools.

I could really save them all a lot of time.  Simply figure out how to increase dramatically the number of charter schools and private school vouchers in the nation’s capital.

 

D.C. students are being held accountable; the adults not so much

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein reported on Tuesday about the students caught up in the inflated graduation rate mess that has engulfed DCPS:

“Taahir Kelly, a junior at Roosevelt in Northwest Washington, said he never knew accruing 30 unexcused absences in a course would automatically result in a failing grade. He has eight older brothers who graduated from the school, and they also did not realize that such a policy existed, he said.”

Tragically, there are going to be many Taahir Kellys this year.  Last week DCPS announced that the 2018 high school graduation rate is expected to be 42 percent.  Last year it was 73 percent.  That is a lot of students who, with three months remaining in the school year, are finding out that their future path is about to take a detour.  Again from the Post article:

“Kelly said he and his friends think the school’s attendance policy is reasonable. But they object to the sudden enforcement and believe the city should have waited until at least next year to adopt the tougher policy.”

The grownups in the traditional school system have let these young people down, pure and simple.  By setting low expectations and failing to hold these children accountable, they set them up for failure.  They have reignited the school-to-prison pipeline.

All I can really think about at this moment is Dr. Howard Fuller’s words at this year’s FOCUS Charter School Conference:

“On Feb. 1, 1960, 58 years ago today, four Black students from North Carolina A&T sat down at a lunch counter and demanded to be served. And by doing so they changed the course of history. And here we are in 2018: four Black students sit down at a lunch counter where they are welcomed and can’t read the menu.

Here is my question – quoting Beyonce from “Drunken Love” – How did this shhhhh happen?  It has happened because there is no real political commitment in this country to create excellence and equity for Black and brown children, particularly poor Black and brown children. And furthermore it has happened because we have allowed it to happen and continue to do so today. We talked about leaving no child behind a few years ago and now we are talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion. In a few years there will be some new buzz words. We have conferences, give out awards, and praise ourselves for being awesome but where is the anger. Where is the outrage that year after year we continue to allow them and us to fail far too many of our neediest students.”

Three people that I am aware of have lost their jobs after it was discovered that over 30 percent of kids received high school diplomas who should not have been allowed to graduate.  This includes Jane Spence, the DCPS chief of secondary schools, who has been placed on administrative leave; Ballou High School principal Yetunde Reeves, who has been reassigned; and assistant principal Shamele Straughter, also been placed on administrative leave.  But both the Chancellor Antwan Wilson and the Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles were able to stay in their positions until the latest controversy erupted about the transfer of Mr. Wilson’s child from one school to another while avoiding the lottery.

Today, the Post’s Peter Jamison revealed that Mayor Muriel Bowser is refusing to testify under oath in front of the D.C. Council’s Education Committee about Mr. Wilson’s discretionary school placement of his daughter.  Ms. Bowser has asserted she learned of it on February 12th from the D.C. Inspector General.  Mr. Wilson now states that the Mayor was first told that his child was attending Woodrow Wilson High School last October. Councilmember Grosso, who, when he found out about the school transfer initially, said he was going to hold an emergency Education Committee meeting, now has stated, according to Mr. Jamison, that he “preferred a public hearing but might settle for some alternative.”

I’m completely out of patience and I feel that both Ms. Bowser and Mr. Grosso have to go.  If you want to know how I came to this conclusion, recall what Dr. Fuller remarked about charter schools at the 2017 FOCUS Charter School Conference:

“The strength of the charter school effort is not just our existence; it is understanding the purpose of our existence.  I support charter schools as long as they work for our children. If they don’t work, then they have no value. Work for me is more than test scores: It’s treating our kids with respect; It’s understanding all of the issues that impact them before they ever get to school; It’s confronting the issues of race and class in our facilities and in our behavior towards our children; In the rules and regulations that we set up in so many instances to control our children because we are unable to manage them. It’s recognizing that as Paul Tough said in his latest book, that poor children are capable of deep learning.”

These people have abandoned their responsibility to our children.

 

 

Tragedy at D.C.’s traditional schools; Mayor Bowser to blame

Yesterday, we received the answer to a question that has been floating above the news that DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson had circumvented a policy he himself had created and signed when he moved his daughter from Duke Ellington School of the Arts to Woodrow Wilson High School without going through the lottery.  After his action was exposed by the media it was Jennie Niles, the Deputy Mayor for Education and former founder and executive director of E.L. Haynes PCS, who was immediately forced to resign by Ms. Bowser.  The move appeared odd because Mr. Wilson was allowed to stay in his position.  “My decision was wrong and I take full responsibility for my mistake,” the Washington Post’s Perry Stein and Peter Jamison report him saying at the time.  The Mayor immediately reacted to his admission with the assertion, “I have confidence in his vision and leadership.”

Now we can comprehend, as revealed by the same two Post journalists, the reason the Mayor tried to protect Mr. Wilson.  It turns out that she was informed by Mr. Wilson what he had done four months before he was let go.

With the exception of Ms. Niles, we are not dealing with the most honorable people here. As soon as word got out about Mr. Wilson’s policy violation against discretionary school placements by public officials the former Chancellor blamed the Deputy Mayor and his own wife.  From the original Washington Post story about Jennie Niles vacating her job:

“A few weeks into the academic year, the family decided the arts magnet school was a poor match, and Wilson approached Niles. The administration official said Wilson, knowing strict rules govern school placement, had his wife speak and coordinate with Niles.  Wilson’s daughter was transferred to Wilson High, a high-performing neighborhood school in Northwest D.C. with a wait list.”  The wait list at Wilson is more than 600 students.

In the aftermath of Mr. Wilson receiving his $140,000 severance package, one half of his annual salary, he clearly feels free to set the record straight about his discussions with the Mayor.  In an interview with The Washington Post he claimed that he related to Ms. Bowser last September that he was working with Ms. Niles to have his child exit Duke Ellington.  He also stated that he told her the following month that she was now enrolled at Wilson.  According to the former  Chancellor, in the days before February 12th, when D.C. Inspector General Daniel Lucas informed the Mayor that he was investigating the student’s transfer, the Mayor would inquire of Mr. Wilson how his daughter was doing at her new school when they would run into each other at events.

Ms. Bowser denies all of it.  From the Post story on February 16th announcing that Ms. Niles had stepped down:  “Bowser said she was not aware the chancellor’s daughter had transferred to Wilson High. A spokeswoman for Bowser said the mayor’s chief of staff and top advisers were also unaware.”  Then again yesterday:  “In a brief interview Monday, the mayor again denied she knew about the school transfer. ‘I in no way approved of a transfer or knew about an illegal transfer,’ she said.”

The Washington Post quotes the Mayor as stating that “the decision by Wilson and Niles to move the girl to a new school in the way they had was ‘inexplicable’ and ‘indefensible.'”  Yes, that is true.  But what is equally inexplicable and indefensible is misleading the public about what you knew and when you knew it.  No wonder DCPS is handing out diplomas to kids who don’t deserve them and letting students into D.C. schools who don’t live in the District without having them pay tuition.  When dishonesty starts at the top, it tends to run downhill.

Testimony of Michael Musante, FOCUS senior director of government relations, at the Committee on Education for the Student Fair Access to School Act of 2017

One note about Mr. Musante’s testimony.  If you watch the hearing you will almost certainly notice the tension between Chairman Grosso and those who oppose this legislation.  At one point the councilmember cuts off the testimony of a physics teacher from Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS.  Mr. Musante, in his remarks, is calling attention to the manner in which the hearing was organized and the way in which those who disagreed with Mr. Grosso were treated.  

Good afternoon, Chairman Grosso, and members of the Committee on Education. My name is Michael Musante and I am the Senior Director of Government Relations at FOCUS.  FOCUS supports the diverse set of public charter schools in DC by advocating for and supporting school autonomy, equity, and quality.  Thank you for the opportunity to testify today.

The legislation being discussed today has been itself an opportunity, an opportunity to have the complicated conversation about how to ensure that schools are safe and that discipline is fair. This committee has missed an opportunity, however, in how you engineered today’s 90-person witness list.  Almost to an individual, the educators who welcome DC students into their school buildings every day, teach DC students in their classes, counsel DC students, coach them and otherwise guide them are last on your list. And almost to a person, those educators—in charter schools and in DCPS schools—oppose this legislation.

Instead, for a conversation supposedly about equity and fairness, you have inequitably devoted this committee’s prime time and attention to speakers who don’t stand in front of DC students every day.  It is clear that the voices you value most are out-of-town academics, and self-promoting authors.

DC’s school leaders and principals care deeply about this issue, and at least two dozen of them signed up to speak today.  Some can’t be here this evening because they’re preparing to be back at school tomorrow.

They would be offended to hear an earlier witness say that anyone taking issue with this legislation is prioritizing adult needs.  They would be offended to hear the suggestion that their schools are not spending UPSFF increases (Five years of COLA increases for which we fought tooth and nail) to cover additional supports.  And they would be offended that you chose to beam in witnesses from California, Illinois and Ohio today before hearing from school leaders and teachers in your own city.

The intention behind this legislation is noble–we know that students who are in school consistently have more positive life outcomes than those who are habitually absent or suspended. However, bans that tie educators’ hands will not improve student outcomes.

Further, the bill conflicts with the School Reform Act.  The SRA grants public charter schools in the district exclusive control over their expenditures, administration, personnel, and instructional methods, which includes discipline policies and procedures. That aside, the legislation, as proposed, will not ensure uniform data collection across LEAs, may have unintended consequences on school climate and culture, and fails to provide appropriate resources to equip schools to meet the needs of students who need the most support.

Quality data collection and transparency both leverages changes in school behavior and enables good policy decision-making.  While the current version of the bill moves us forward in uniformly defining suspension and expulsion, it does nothing to improve the quality of data related to actual student behaviors.  Working with schools to create a uniform set of infractions will enable more accurate comparisons of school responses to student behavior.  School use of exclusionary discipline in both sectors has been on a steady decline despite this lack of comparability.  State equity reports, introduced in the-13 school year, provided the first uniform glimpse into school use of exclusionary discipline across subgroups.  Imagine how much more impactful this data reporting could be if it compared use of discipline across infractions and was interactive and sortable by school?  Collecting, disaggregating, and sharing data in this way would turbocharge the trend we started six years ago.  We encourage the Committee to consider improving data definitions, collection, and reporting before implementing any policy changes that limit schools’ available responses to student behavior.

While the body of research is clear there is a correlation between exclusionary discipline and other negative student outcomes, the impact on school culture and climate is unclear.  School leaders have the difficult reality of balancing what is good for each individual student with what is good for all students and their schools as a whole.  In My School DC’s recent analysis of reasons for mid-year transfers, student safety ranked just behind transportation challenges as the reason that a family was seeking a new school for their child.  Limiting school leader autonomy and flexibility in maintaining the delicate balance of high behavioral expectations, victim safety and well-being, and compassionate, therapeutic responses to students who exhibit troublesome behaviors is short-sighted and may ultimately result in a degradation of the very school culture and climate we wish to improve.

Our students and schools need resources not restrictions.  When speaking with school leaders, our organization has heard over and over again many feel ill-equipped to meet the needs of students experiencing the highest level of trauma.  Consider Camden City schools–in their high schools, they were able to cut suspensions by nearly 75% in one year. What did that take on the resource side? An additional four FTEs per school–one coordinator for school culture and climate, and three mental and behavioral health technicians working directly with students.  We are asking our leaders in the city do to the same thing without the guarantee of the appropriate resources to manage student behavior in the building.  Schools need funding for training in practices like PBIS and restorative justice. Schools need funding for additional mental and behavioral health professionals.  Schools need support from city agencies (CFSA,DBH, DYRS) in coordinating services for the students who are most traumatized and marginalized. Schools need additional staff and physical space to work with students whose behavior may be unmanageable in a classroom setting. Before we drop the hammer of banning suspensions–let’s listen to school leaders and ensure that students have access to the robust wrap-around services they need and that those services are coordinated seamlessly between schools, community-based organizations, and the city government.

Again, I think this Committee missed an opportunity today. We invite you to seek out the voices you may not hear from:  school leaders, teachers, students, and those who advocate on their behalf to ensure that this legislation improves data collection and reporting, allows leaders maximum flexibility in making decisions, and ensures schools are adequately resourced to serve their students.

Testimony of Shannon Hodge, co-founder and executive director of Kingsman Academy Public Charter School, at the Committee on Education for the Student Fair Access to School Act of 2017

Good afternoon, Councilmember Grosso and members of the Committee on Education. I am Shannon Hodge, co-founder and executive director of Kingsman Academy, a public charter middle and high school in Ward 6.

Kingsman Academy serves about 270 students in grades 6 through 12, in a project-based academic program that emphasizes a therapeutic approach to education. Our students face challenges like homelessness and incarceration, and 81 percent of our high school students are over-aged and under-credited. Forty-five percent of our students have disabilities, and a quarter of those students have emotional disabilities.

While I support the Council’s efforts to tackle the overuse and disproportionality of school exclusion, I do not support the Student Fair Access to School Act in its current form. I take this position even though Kingsman Academy has not suspended or expelled a single student in over a year and a half.

I oppose this bill as proposed primarily because it focuses on the symptom and misses an opportunity to address the problems.[1] School exclusion is a symptom of an education system struggling to meet demands to educate the whole child, to reach all students where they are, and to demonstrate high academic achievement using inadequate metrics. School exclusion is a symptom of schools willing but unprepared to take on the challenge of educating all students to high standards while also managing the effects of trauma, mental illness, and intergenerational poverty.  School exclusion is a symptom of recognition and accolades going to schools who show great results on limited metrics with little exploration of the sometimes less-than-desirable tactics used to get there. School exclusion is a symptom of distributing resources for citywide issues, such as improving school climate and special education services, to a limited number of schools on a competitive basis.

Over two years ago, Kingsman Academy made the decision to reduce school exclusion because of its role in the school-to-prison pipeline. None of this work was legislatively mandated. None of this work was required by our authorizer. None of this work was easy.

We made the decision because we experienced firsthand the futility of suspending and expelling students who were already struggling in school. In fact, many of our students came to us from other schools they were suspended from, expelled from, or counseled out of. We realized we needed a different approach to get different outcomes.

At our commencement ceremonies in June 2017, one graduate spoke about being suspended for thirty days as a fifth grader for bringing a knife to school, being kicked out of school in the eighth grade, dropping out of high school for a couple years, and finally making his way to us. He shared with the audience how Kingsman Academy saved his life, gave him hope, never gave up on him, and provided him an opportunity to make his family proud. We did that without excluding him, and he felt and spoke to the difference.

Ending suspensions and expulsions was an arduous process that required much more than simply making the decision to do so. We revisited our code of conduct and ensured that all faculty and staff were familiar with the range of responses available. We implemented positive behavior interventions. We spent time working to identify and address each underlying issue, and many families reported this was the first time a school had done so. We reviewed and revised our interventions system month after month.

We dedicated a significant portion of our limited resources to staffing to be able to change our response to student disciplinary infractions. We have an adult-to-student ratio of 5-to-1 and a student-to-teacher ratio of 13-to-1. One-third of our staff, including 3 social workers and 9 interventionists, are assigned full-time to respond to students’ socioemotional, behavioral, and engagement needs.

We continuously research evidence-based practices appropriate for our student population. With OSSE’s support, we receive ongoing assistance on restorative practices, school climate, and teacher recruitment and retention strategies.

We also experienced unintended consequences. We lost and let go of good teachers who were not willing to work through the change or teach in classrooms where students knew that they would not be suspended. We lost students whose parents did not believe their children were safe in an environment where their peers were not suspended.

Even though we have one of the most challenging populations in the city, we have not needed to suspend or expel a student in a year and a half. Yet our work is not done. We need more. We need the resources to address the problems that result in exclusion. We need resources distributed to schools based on student and school need, not competition. We need improved collaboration between government agencies, community support organizations, mental health practitioners, and schools. We  need to be able to work with the agencies providing our students therapy and medication, but we rarely have the opportunity. The Council can facilitate that collaboration through legislation addressing challenges such as information-sharing and by creating incentives for schools and organizations to create model partnerships to support these students.

Actually reducing school exclusion–and not just on paper–will require more than just the prospect of punishment.

Thank you, Councilmember Grosso and the Committee on Education, for your willingness to tackle this very difficult matter, and we look forward to supporting that work however we can.

[1] In addition, I am concerned that the bill in its current form adds untenable requirements and unreasonable deadlines to the Individual with Disabilities Education Act. Furthermore, the bill as proposed disadvantages single-site charter schools, which often do not have “victim transfer” or “safety transfer” options available to them and need to be able to exercise discretion to ensure the safety of their students.

Testimony of Scott Pearson, executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, at the Committee on Education for the Student Fair Access to School Act of 2017

Chairman Grosso, members of the Education Committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today. My name is Scott Pearson, Executive Director of the DC Public Charter School Board.

The Student Fair Access to School Act of 2017 is a bill which aims to reduce the use of exclusionary discipline in schools, an issue that is very personal to me. You see, I was a “discipline” problem when I was an adolescent. I was suspended multiple times, and, probably would have been expelled had it not been for the intervention of my teacher, Dr. Lorber, who believed I deserved another chance. My school had the choice to expel me and there were moments when perhaps they should have. As I think back, I wasn’t expelled for several reasons. One of the reasons was the trusting relationship between me and my teacher mattered. But so too were the wake-up calls I and my parents received when I was suspended. Frankly, for me they served as a strong warning that some of my riskier behaviors would not be tolerated and that I needed to change.

Many years later, as an official in the Obama Administration managing the federal charter school program, I saw how some charter schools were using school discipline as a way to avoid their obligations as public schools. I am a passionate supporter of charter schools as a way to improve public schools but I am equally passionate that they are public schools who need to serve all children.

Because of my experiences as a student and my work at the Department of Education, school discipline was a priority for me from the moment I began as PCSB’s Executive Director in 2012. Immediately after joining, we reorganized the agency by creating a team focused exclusively on non-academic matters, like discipline. We immediately began publishing discipline data that had previously been hidden, and we created strict data submission policies to be sure we were getting timely and accurate data. We introduced Equity Reports to the city, which published suspension rates by subgroup for every school, comparing them with citywide averages. Our staff meet monthly to review suspension and expulsion data and we notify outlier schools to tell them their rates are high or disproportionate. We created an audit policy to more deeply investigate disproportionate suspensions. We created and have held dozens of “board to board meetings” where our board raises the issue of high or disproportionate rates directly with school’s boards. We review every school’s discipline policies every year, to be sure they offer due process protections, safeguards for students with disabilities, and clarity for the school community. We have sponsored many professional development sessions on reducing out-of-school discipline.

This focus has produced meaningful, significant results. In school year 2011, public charter schools expelled 395 students – more than 1% of their student body. Last year, despite serving more than 10,000 additional students than in 2011, expulsions fell to just 90, or one fifth of one percent. We are now well below the national average for similar populations.

Regarding suspensions, since school year 12-13 suspension rates have fallen by more than half in public charter schools, from 14.3% of all students suspended to 9.3% in 16-17. Based on data through December, we forecast this year to be around 7%. A specific challenge that our board is actively addressing is reducing suspensions at a small group of outlier schools. In spite of our overall progress with reducing suspensions we have a small number of schools with highly disproportionate suspension rates between subgroups, including students with disabilities, African American males, and at-risk students. Highly disproportionate rates of exclusionary discipline concern us and we will examine the cause of this disproportionality in order to ensure that students are being disciplined in a fair and equitable manner. We are working with school leaders to address this challenge without disrupting the good work and steady progress occurring at the majority of our schools.

To summarize: expulsions are down more than 80% and suspensions have been cut in half.

We are proud of these results, even as we recognize that we have further to go. We are confident that the approach we have taken will continue to produce meaningful declines in suspension rates.

But as proud as we are of the reduction in suspensions and expulsions, we are equally proud of the WAY we achieved these results. We put in place no edicts, no requirements, no numerical limits, no top-down mandates. Through transparency, dialogue, best-practice sharing, good data, and focused attention, we have brought about change in a way that honors each school’s mission and community. Moreover, we have avoided the negative effects we have been hearing about all day that strict mandates can produce.

While our education community has slashed student suspension and expulsion numbers, test scores at our schools continue to rise even as our schools serve an increasingly vulnerable student population. Due to their flexibility, public charter schools evolved their practices, their philosophies, and their cultures using their own methods in response to each individual school’s changing student demographics. They have moved deliberately, ensuring that teachers and staff had the training and the resources they need.

The thoughtful evolution of these practices would not have been possible if, instead of being allowed the liberty to study the problem and craft their own solution, schools were forced to cede day-to-day decisions made by educators to the Wilson building.

I and our school leaders agree with the spirit and goals of reducing disciplinary rates. But we are concerned we are pressing the gas pedal as we are heading toward a curve. The proposals in this bill could put our progress at risk and undo the excellent work being done at the school level.

We must heed the warnings from other jurisdictions. In Highline, Washington, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Los Angeles, California, school discipline reform occurred abruptly and without adequate funding. Teachers were not trained in alternative discipline methods and school climates had to adjust overnight. Because of this, these districts have seen a higher than average teacher turnover rate and an increase in in-class disruption. I appreciate the desire to go faster and push harder but I urge this Council to pause and not tie the hands of educators. Where Council can help students, teachers and school leaders most is to support the core social and emotional needs of students in the District.

Our schools work with a high percentage of at-risk students and we know many inappropriate classroom behaviors can be attributed to underlying issues. Increasingly, schools are asked to address the non-academic issues facing our students. Those same schools are not necessarily equipped with teachers and proper supports to handle some of those new expectations. As you may have seen reported in the Washington Post, 47% of students in the District have faced some sort of trauma. Students are dealing with myriad issues before they even enter a school building and often struggle to get in the best position to learn. Homelessness, poverty, and safe passage, along with mental and physical health are taking their toll on a school’s ability to educate its students. If we as a city want to truly create equity and see DC on the rise, we need to reimagine support for public schools that helps students outside of the classroom. Without this, I fear we will not be able to make the progress this city’s residents expect, deserve and fund.

As an alternative to this legislation, which I believe is the least helpful approach to accomplishing the goal of reducing exclusionary discipline, I am asking Council to take a more deliberate approach to this important issue. We need an approach that supports schools instead of tying their hands. That approach needs to include parent and student representation, which I would note, was lacking in this summer’s working group meetings.

Our great city is well-positioned financially to meet the challenges we face. We need meaningful mental healthcare. We need to make sure students not only feel but are safe traveling to and from school. We need to make sure housing in this city is affordable and that our housing policies aren’t destabilizing student’s school experiences. We need to empower DC nonprofits who are supporting schools and students every day in so many areas. So, I ask you, before the upcoming budget season, please look at areas where each Council committee can help contribute to making sure the whole child is taken care of and schools can get down to the business of educating DC’s students.

Thank you again for the opportunity to testify. I am happy to answer any questions that you may have.