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.

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.

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.

With no hope of D.C. charter funding equity with DCPS, the alternative sector should change course

Not widely known is that the FOCUS engineered lawsuit brought by Washington Latin PCS, Eagle Academy PCS, and the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools ended quietly in July of 2019 when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit dismissed the legal action on the grounds that the case did not belong in federal court. The original action was brought in part because of an analysis by Mary Levy that found that between the 2008 and 2012 school years the traditional schools received between $72 million and $127 million annually in funding outside of the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula to which charters did not have access. As stipulated in the School Reform Act, all revenue for public school funding must come through the UPSFF.

So now what? Should a new court case be started? This would be my preference but in reality I recognize that the chances of a sequel are nil. FOCUS, who organized the past effort, is no more, replaced by the DC Charter School Alliance. One of the plaintiffs, the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools, also ended operating, being melded into the Alliance. I sense that with charters struggling to open in the face of the pandemic, a fight with the city is about the last thing these institutions want to concentrate on.

I’m calling for a new strategy, one that is already in play. What I’m seeing is that the Alliance is actively seeking assistance from city agencies. Take for example, this recent testimony by founding executive director Shannon Hodge before the D.C. Council’s Committee on Health:

“First, in November, charter school leaders laid out what schools needed from city officials that would enable schools to safely bring more students back to building for in-person learning. We asked the city to provide equitable access to health-related services, including providing at least one nurse or medical professional in every school building who could serve all students, teachers, and staff on site. We also asked for asymptomatic COVID-19 testing. But more importantly, we asked for DC Health to provide clear, updated orders and public health guidance to enable schools to provide quality in-person learning environments for more students during the pandemic. The city responded. DC Health updated public health guidance, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) issued a Frequently Asked Questions document for school leaders, and public charter schools now have access to the city’s asymptomatic testing program. As a result, we have more students in charter school buildings.”

The 2013 Adequacy Study, that the Alliance likes to quote, called out all of the money that DCPS receives to which charters do not receive. This includes “Teacher Pensions,” “Educational Furnishings and Equipment,” “Information Technology Services and Equipment,” “Risk Management, Legal Services, and Settlement,” “General Maintenance—Buildings and Grounds,” “Custodial Services,” and “Utilities.”

Instead of trying to have the Mayor and city council increase funding to charters to cover these expenses, charters should demand that these services also be proved to charters. The argument is simple. It is a matter of equity.

Now I can hear the counterargument in my mind already. Many charter leaders will state that they don’t want things like housekeeping provided by the D.C. government; they believe that it will be done better by the vendor of their choosing. My response to this line of reasoning is that it is fine. Don’t take the help if you don’t want it. But in these times of fiscal restraints the option of charters to take advantage of these offerings could allow the reallocation of expenditures toward augmenting the instructional program.

Moreover, who in the nation’s capital in 2021 could possibly be against equity?

Councilmember White wants to rid D.C. of Mayoral control of schools

Last week I wrote about comments by D.C. At-Large Councilmember Robert White that were critical of student academic progress in D.,C.’s public schools over the last fourteen years. He pointed out:

“In Math
– Only 21% of Black students meet or exceed expectations, compared to 79% of White students.
– 16% of at-risk students, 23% of English learners, and 7% of students with disabilities met or exceeded expectations.

In English Language Arts
– Only 28% of Black students meet or exceed expectations, compared to 85% of White students.
– 21% of at-risk students, 20% of English learners, and 8% of students with disabilities meet or exceeded expectations.”

Mr. White also is concerned about teacher turnover. The Councilmember asserted that “The District has the highest teacher turnover rate in the country. A quarter of our teachers leave our school system every year. Over half of our DCPS teachers leave within three years, and 70% leave within five years.”

What concerns me is that his solution to these serious problems is not to improve the level of pedagogy taking place in the classroom or by supporting the unique needs of at-risk children. He is not seeking to interview teachers to determine why they are leaving town. No, Mr. White wants to create a committee to “review school governance of DC schools.” He is seeking to discover “what structural changes we need to make to give every student and family a chance for success.” In other words, Mr. White wants to take away Mayoral control of the traditional school system.

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein backs up my assertion. She wrote on Monday:

“Two separate bills would make the state superintendent of education, who administers standardized tests and ensures all day cares and private and public schools are in compliance with federal laws, more independent of the mayor.

Another resolution — which ran into potentially fatal opposition Monday — would create a special committee on the D.C. Council to explore the effectiveness of the city’s education governance structure.”

The suggestion by Councilmember White to create the special committee was blocked on Monday, according to Ms. Stein, by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who stated that Mr. White had no authority to make this move. The suggestion forced education constituencies to take up sides. According to the Washington Post reporter:

“The prospect of this special committee to discuss the effectiveness of mayoral control already drew a rebuke from many charter school leaders, who wrote letters to the council opposing it. But the Washington Teachers’ Union and other education advocacy groups have supported it, viewing mayoral control as an obstacle to having residents’ and teachers’ voices affect public officials’ actions on education.”

Although I have advocated for a State Superintendent of Education independent of the Mayor, all of this recent talk by the Council of changes to the management structure of public schools is a tremendous distraction. It threatens to take away Washington, D.C.’s Hurricane Katrina moment in education. During this period when the Covid-19 pandemic has completely interrupted the instruction of our children, we should be utilizing this time to completely revise how our kids learn. We should follow the example of New Orleans and charterize all of our schools.

Moreover, just where is the new DC Charter School Alliance on this issue? I thought it was a charter school advocacy organization.

Let’s tune out the noise, focus our attention, and do something positively proactive to permanently close the academic achievement gap.

One day after call for increased funding for D.C. public schools, Mayor agrees to 4% jump

Yesterday, I wrote about a column in the Washington Post by Anthony Williams calling for a four percent increase in the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula. The same day, Twitter ignited with the news that D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser had agreed to include the additional spending in her fiscal 2021 budget. If approved by the Council, this will be a tremendous help for schools desperate to stay competitive with teacher salaries.

Mr. Williams in his piece talked about the revenue available to the District for such an investment. He wrote;

“The Office of the Chief Financial Officer recently announced the collection of $280 million in unanticipated revenue in fiscal 2019 and is projecting nearly $518 million in additional revenue over the next four years.”

In an article by the Post’s Perry Stein about the new incremental school spending she adds,

“Bowser’s announcement comes just days after her administration announced the city has a $1.43 billion rainy day fund.”

The reporter also included some interesting statistics about public school spending in the District of Columbia:

“In all, the mayor plans to spend about $989 million in city money on the District’s traditional public school system. The total spending figure represents an average increase of 8 percent for each campus in the traditional school system, with some of that boost reflecting expected growth in enrollment.”

More money for our students is big news, however, a couple of paragraphs in Ms. Stein’s story really caught my attention:

“But many schools — especially in Wards 7 and 8, the swaths of the city with the highest concentrations of poverty — have struggled with enrollment in recent years. Teachers have said they feel hamstrung, with declining enrollment leaving them with less funding and inadequate resources to serve their students and attract new ones.

Smaller schools are more expensive to operate and, with the opening of new campuses in the traditional public and charter sectors, the city has an increasing number of campuses with many vacant seats. A total of 38 high schools educate nearly 20,000 students in the traditional and charter sectors.”

The reality of underutilized traditional school school buildings, while nothing new, should at this point in our city’s efforts at public school reform drive a complete rethinking of the actual number of DCPS schools that are truly needed, how consolidation could lead to improved academic achievement for students, and which buildings could be turned over to the charter sector that desperately needs them.

Spending more money is easy. Realigning resources to match student needs is much more challenging. We have heard time and time again that parents do not care if a school is a regular one or a charter. They just want a quality education for their children. We have also listened as people across this town have called for coordination of resources between DCPS and charters.

Now is the time for real leadership.

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.