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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

D.C. Charter School Alliance asks the Mayor for millions; let’s go another route

A February 10th letter from Shannon Hodge, the founding executive director of the D.C. Charter School Alliance, addressed to Mayor Muriel Bowser and Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn, lays out a detailed wish list of additional funding for both charters and DCPS as part of the FY 2022 budget. Here are the recommendations:

● Increase the UPSFF foundation level by 4% to partially close the gap between current funding levels and the recommended levels from the 2013 DC Education Adequacy Study.
● Increase the facilities allotment by 3.1% to ensure that charter schools continue to receive funds needed to secure and maintain school buildings.
● Increase the at-risk funding weight to .37, the level recommended in the 2013 adequacy study, to direct needed funds to our students most in need of targeted interventions and support.
● Provide $6.4M to expand the Department of Behavioral Health’s school-based mental health program, which will enable 80 additional schools to address student and family mental health needs that instability and loss during the last year have likely exacerbated.
● Increase the English learner weight to .61, the level recommended in the 2013 adequacy study, to support undocumented students who are often excluded from receiving other financial supports due to lack of documentation.

In addition, Ms. Hodge seeks a couple of “legislative adjustments” which will also add to the educational funding stream:

● Create a statutory requirement for review of the definition of “at-risk” under the DC Code to ensure the definition appropriately captures the students in need of additional funding support.
● Continue the automatic escalation of facilities funding for public charter schools with a 3.1% annual increase for each of the next five years to ensure continuity of funding for charter school facilities.

The justification for all of this added public funding is, of course, a continuing effort to close the academic achievement gap between the affluent and poor. The letter states that “While our students have made significant improvements over the years, our investments have not yet produced the education outcomes necessary for every part of our city to thrive. And with COVID-19 disproportionately affecting low-income communities, even more is needed to close opportunity gaps.”

I asked the Alliance for an estimate of the impact on the city’s budget if all of the above requests were granted. There was no response. Therefore, I did a little back-of-the-envelope analysis of my own. The Uniform Per Student Funding Formula’s current base to pay for teaching one pupil a year is $11,310. The four percent increase would bring this number to $11,762. Applying this new payment to 94,412 students leads to $42.7 million in new spending per year. On the charter school facility side, a student generates $3,408 in revenue a year. Bringing this number up by 3.1 percent would generate another $4.6 million in costs. So between the two changes we are talking about around $50 million more annually for public education while recognizing that Washington, D.C., according to Ms. Hodge, “enjoys one of the highest per-pupil allocations for education funding in the country.”

I know it has been an exceptionally challenging twelve months when it comes to instructing our children. The pandemic has brought massive new costs in personal protective equipment, laptops, and other equipment and supplies. But then again, Ms. Bowser last December awarded $10 million dollars to charters to cover these costs. This comes on top of a $16 million grant from the federal government tied to increasing literacy for disadvantaged students. Let’s also not forget contributions schools have received from the DC Education Equity Fund. It’s really hard to keep up with all of this spending.

It is also not as if the Mayor has not been providing educational resources to the charter and traditional school sectors. Since Ms. Bowser came into office in 2015, I cannot recall a time when the UPSFF was not increased as part of the annual budget cycle.

Therefore, I think its more than fair to ask what we have received for this level of financial commitments? I’ll save you the drumroll. The District of Columbia has one of the nation’s largest academic achievement gaps at about 60 points. In addition, despite the heroic efforts of teachers and education leaders, it has not budged for decades.

Therefore, I really think it’s time to try something different. Let’s convert all the traditional schools to charters. In addition, the DC Public Charter School Board must approve more charter operators in the city. Simultaneously, now that Scott Pearson is no longer the board’s executive director, his successor Dr. Michelle Walker-Davis needs to figure out how to provide the schools under her jurisdiction the freedom that they enjoyed when these alternative schools were first created in the nation’s capital.

This terrible pandemic has taught us that we cannot continue to conduct our business as we have in the past. Let’s apply this lesson to the city’s education budget.

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.

Failure is not an option when it comes to educating D.C. students

I learned a few things from reviewing the testimony of Shannon Hodge and Dr. Ramona Edelin offered at yesterday’s D.C. Council Hearing on the Budget before the Committee on Education and the Committee of the Whole. First, I observed that the city is willing to consider a charter school co-location at the closed Spingarn High School. It’s not much of a concession as the entire building should have been turned over to charters. I guess its 225,000 square feet is even too much for DCPS to handle.

I was extremely satisfied to see, as indicated by Ms. Hodge, that the 2.2 percent increase in the charter school facility allotment has made it into Mayor Muriel Bowser’s revised fiscal year 2021 budget. I previously reported that she had pushed for a three percent increase to the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula, which was a decrease of one percent from her original plan, but there was no mention of the revenue for buildings. I also discovered that the Council may push to restore the entire four percent jump in the UPSFF.

Moreover, Ms. Hodge pointed out that a regulatory change by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education had the effect of lowering alternative education dollars for many schools “serving adults and disconnected youth” by twenty percent. She called on the money to be restored at a time when this type of education has become even more crucial in a tenuous economy.

Lastly, the structure of the new DC Charter School Alliance is beginning to become fleshed out. Dr. Edelin revealed that she will become a senior advisor to the group. In her remarks, Ms. Hodge filled in her new role as the Alliance’s executive director:

“As I look ahead to my new position, I want to pledge today my commitment to use my leadership in this newly created organization as a willing partner. A partner with whom you can always reach out to for advice and with whom you can work. A partner who will praise and criticize when necessary but who will also work alongside you to find solutions to overcome, not just close, the opportunity gaps for students who need it most. It is a partnership that must succeed, as failure is a cost that is too high a price for our students, our families, our communities, and our city to pay.”

These comments are important because so far we have not lived up to the underling commitment of public school reform made over twenty years ago in the nation’s capital that any student that needed a quality seat would get one. Instead what we have are wait lists as long as the eye can see for families trying to get their children into high-performing charters and an academic achievement gap that is one of the largest in the country that will not budge.

I’m hoping with every cell in my body that when we finally emerge from the deep fog of the pandemic and racial strife that these are not just words.

Kingsman Academy PCS’s Shannon Hodge to lead new D.C. charter advocacy group

Yesterday afternoon it was announced that Shannon Hodge, the co-founcer and executive director of Kingsman Acadamy PCS, will be the first executive director of the new DC Charter School Alliance, the new advocacy group formed by the merger of FOCUS and the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools.

The group could not have made a better choice.

Board chair of the Alliance, Friendship PCS CEO Patricia Brantley wrote regarding the decision, “As many of you know, Shannon was selected after an exhaustive national search. We are thankful to each of you who supported the search, provided feedback on what our organization needed in a leader, and/or participated in screening interviews. In the coming weeks, we will share more news about the new organization, including introducing our board of directors, policy priorities, and more.”

About Ms. Hodge, Ms. Brantley commented:

“Prior to founding Kingsman, Shannon was the executive director of a DC charter school, serving students at risk of dropping out of high school. Before becoming a charter school leader, she was an attorney at the law firm of Hogan Lovells. As a lawyer, former high school counselor, and guidance director, Shannon has dedicated her career to fighting for the needs of our most underserved community members.”

She sure has. The story behind Ms. Hodge’s rise in the D.C. charter school movement should be turned into a book. It was TenSquare’s Josh Kern who hired Hogan Lovells to assist him in his work turning the old Options PCS around when he was brought in as the school’s court receiver. Ms. Hodge had prior experience assisting special education children. When Mr. Kern needed someone to take over the school, he asked Ms. Hodge if she was interested. She accepted the position.

Therefore, even though Mr. Kern was not selected as the new executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board as I had recommended, it is fantastic to see his legacy in the District expand for all to see.

Over the years I have frequently posted Ms. Hodge’s testimony in front of the D.C. Council because her arguments are consistently perfectly articulated, logical, direct, and forceful. She is always respectful and polite in her presentations. I would have published more of them but I thought it would look like I was giving her favorable treatment over other school leaders. I interviewed Ms. Hodge in 2107. Here is a portion from that session:

“In the future, the DC Public Charter School Board’s Alternative Accountability Framework tool will be relied upon to provide a public quality report.  However, Ms. Hodge is not waiting for this measure to develop a high performing organization.  ‘Success at Kingsman Academy means more than making sure students earn a high school diploma. It means preparing students to lead successful lives after graduation. We want our graduates to thrive in college, in the workforce, or in the military,’ the Kingsman Academy executive director related passionately.  ‘We want them to be active leaders and responsible citizens, to provide for their families, to be lifelong learners. They deserve nothing less.’”

This is a great day for our local charter school movement.