D.C.’s charter school movement needs to look at itself in the mirror

On Monday Mayor Muriel Bowser, Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles, DC Public Charter School Board member Rick Cruz, DC Public Charter School Board executive director Scott Pearson, and school representatives celebrated charters in the nation’s capital that have been ranked at Tier 1 on the 2016 to 2017 Performance Management Framework.  The affair was held at the swanky W Hotel, you know the one with the rope line used to queue people up to the rooftop bar overlooking the White House.  Apparently there were smiles and congratulatory pats on the back all around.

But across town it was a very different story.  News has come out recently courtesy of WAMU and NPR that the one hundred percent 2017 graduation rate reported at DCPS’s Ballou High School was a sham. From the piece by Kate McGee:

“An investigation by WAMU and NPR has found that Ballou High School’s administration graduated dozens of students despite high rates of unexcused absences. WAMU and NPR reviewed hundreds of pages of Ballou’s attendance records, class rosters and emails after a DCPS employee shared the private documents. The documents showed that half of the graduates missed more than three months of school last year, unexcused. One in five students was absent more than present — missing more than 90 days of school. . . Another internal email obtained by WAMU and NPR from April shows that two months before graduation, only 57 students were on track to graduate, with dozens of students missing graduation requirements, community service requirements or failing classes needed to graduate.”

We do not know how many of the 164 seniors really should have been held back.  This is because the administration of the school apparently pressured teachers to pass students who should have failed courses.  The previously highly regarded Ballou principal Yetunde Reeves has now been reassigned.

Yes, while the 51 school leaders were gathered around sipping coffee and receiving trophies, I’m confident not one word was spoken about our collective avoidance of even talking about the situation at Ballou.  Not one of these public charter schools or the 23 that already operate in Ward 8 where Ballou is located, or the leadership of the DC PCSB, has even hinted that they would like to help these kids that have been abandoned.  Is it because of who they are or where they live?

The charter gathering comes on the heels of news that the United Medical Center board of directors has decided that it will not re-open its maternity ward that was shuttered not too long ago by  the D.C. Department of Health.  This leaves women living in Wards 7 and 8 without a hospital where they can give birth.  In the report by the Washington Post’s Peter Jamison, D.C. Councilman Vincent Gray reacted this way to the decision:

“D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), chairman of the council’s health committee, said the board’s action ‘sends a powerfully negative message’ to the poor and predominantly African American residents of Southeast Washington.

‘It says that in terms of the allocation and equity of services, the people on the East End of the city are seen as not sufficiently worthy to have available to them one of the most important services a population can have.'”

So what message does the charter sector’s ignoring of the situation at Ballou sent to these same members of our community?   It’s just tough luck, not our problem, not our kids.

This is not why charters were created in D.C.

Time to turn management of Ballou High School over to a high performing charter

Last Tuesday, WAMU and National Public Radio released an article by Kate McGee detailing extremely serious allegations regarding fraud in allowing many of the students who graduated from Ballou High School to receive diplomas.  From the story:

“An investigation by WAMU and NPR has found that Ballou High School’s administration graduated dozens of students despite high rates of unexcused absences. WAMU and NPR reviewed hundreds of pages of Ballou’s attendance records, class rosters and emails after a DCPS employee shared the private documents. The documents showed that half of the graduates missed more than three months of school last year, unexcused. One in five students was absent more than present — missing more than 90 days of school. . . Another internal email obtained by WAMU and NPR from April shows that two months before graduation, only 57 students were on track to graduate, with dozens of students missing graduation requirements, community service requirements or failing classes needed to graduate.”

The school had touted the fact that all of its 164 seniors had graduated and been accepted to college.

But after WAMU and NPR spoke to approximately 12 current and former teachers at the school and four recent graduates, it was revealed that instructors felt pressure from their superiors to ensure that students passed.  They were told not to fail students and some stated that if they resisted their contracts were not renewed.  Their review uncovered other irregularities around student eligibility for graduation.

This is disgusting.  Obviously, numerous seniors were matriculated without being able to read, write, or perform basic arithmetic.  Standardized test score proficiency rates at Ballou are 22 percent in reading and 10 percent in math.  What is also highly upsetting is that it looks like the current DCPS administration is unequipped to fix the situation.  Chancellor Antwan Wilson has asserted that Ballou principal Yetunde Reeves should stay in her position.  Jane Spence, DCPS Chief of Secondary Schools had this to say, again from the WAMU piece, “It is expected that our students will be here every day, but we also know that students learn material in lots of different ways. So we’ve started to recognize that students can have mastered material even if they’re not sitting in a physical space.”

One current Ballou teacher had a different view on the subject.  “It’s oppressive to the kids because you’re giving them a false sense of success.”

Yesterday, D.C. Mayor Bowser announced that two investigations have begun into the allegations at Ballou, one by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education and another by two deputy chancellors.  David Grosso, chairman of the D.C. Council’s education committee, will hold a hearing on the matter.  But I’m afraid all of this is too little too late.  Ms. Bowser bristled when I suggested to her recently that D.C.’s high performing charter schools should take over traditional schools that are not making academic progress.  Perhaps now she will give my idea more serious consideration.


DC public high school graduation rates rise; charters and DCPS equal

The four-year high school graduation rate in the District of Columbia reached a new high, Mayor Bowser announced yesterday.  For the city’s traditional schools the percentage came in at 73.2 percent, only 1.8 percentage points away from the 75 percent goal established under the strategic plan of former Chancellor Kaya Henderson.  When she aimed for the 75 percent number, the four-year high school graduation rate was only at 61 percent.  The statistic is 3.2 percent greater than the previous school year.  The new Chancellor, Antwan Wilson has established a five year goal of 85 percent.

Public charter schools also saw its graduation rate go up, but by a smaller variance.  The measure is at 73.4 percent, compared to 72.9 percent for 2016.  Therefore, the charter sector has now reached parity with DCPS regarding both graduation and standardized test score proficiency rates.  About one-third of all public students taking the PARCC examination last term came in at the college and career readiness ranking of four or five.

Dr. Darren Woodruff, the chairman of the DC Public Charter School Board, reacted this way to the improved graduation rates:  “District public school students are doing better than ever before.  More students are graduating and the number attending top-performing Tier 1 public charter schools continues to rise for the third year in a row.”

Today, at 11 a.m., the DCPB will release the latest results of its Performance Management Framework results that tier charter schools from one to three.

The Mayor had this to say about the findings:  “Ten years ago, our city committed to giving all students a fair shot at success, and today, these historic graduation rates are more proof that our efforts and investments are paying off. These graduation rates are a reminder that when we have high expectations for our young people and we back up those expectations with robust programs and resources, our students can and will achieve at high levels.”

The results also say much about school choice in the nation’s capital.  Before charter schools were introduced 21 years ago, the four-year high school graduation rate was in the 40s. Doesn’t this fact make the argument that choice should be increased as quickly and efficiently as possible?

New union contract for D.C. traditional school teachers is a boon for charters

The contract is retroactive to last October and includes a four percent pay increase for that year, a three percent increase for the following year, and a two percent raise for year three.  The Post points out that it amounts to a 1.3 percent bump in salary for each year from 2012 to 2019.  Most significantly, it raises the starting salary of new teachers to $56,313 a year, which the writers say is the highest teacher starting compensation in the country.  The agreement also apparently has the fastest route to earning over $100,000 and a new cap at $126,000 a year.

The additional dollars, which needs to be approved by union members and the D.C. Council, would be paid for out of the city’s surplus reserve.

The reporters indicate that because of the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula charters would get an additional $51.2 million over three years, roughly equivalent to the 46 percent share of students with DCPS getting $61.6 million.  It is encouraging to see the city comply with the law when it comes to the union agreement.  However, we still have no resolution to the FOCUS-coordinated charter school funding inequity law suit that has been going on now for three years.  As a reminder, when the legal action was taken, it was estimated that charters received over the last seven years $1,600 to $2,600 per student in less revenue compared to the regular schools.  With Mayor Bowser beginning to think about re-election this would be a fantastic moment to settle this matter once and for all.

On another subject, one of the authors of the piece on the DCPS teachers’ contract is Emma Brown.  Ms. Brown announced last week on Twitter that she will be ending her coverage of education to join the Washington Post’s investigative team. While I often strongly disagreed with Ms. Brown, especially regarding her views on private school vouchers, I have found her to be a talented and thorough writer.  Let’s hope that the Post’s educational reporting does not suffer with her transition.


Antwan Wilson confirmed by D.C. Council as next DCPS Chancellor

The Washington Post’s Alejandra Matos

Now that it has been finalized that Mr. Wilson will be coming to the nation’s capital, let’s talk about some of his priorities.  First and foremost, the Chancellor should redirect the work of the Deputy Mayor for Education’s Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force to develop a contract detailing the expected cooperation between the charter sector and the traditional schools mirroring the one that exists in Denver.  Mr. Wilson spent a decade with Denver Public Schools so I’m sure he is more than acquainted with this document.  Apparently, key education stakeholders here have tried on multiple occasions in the past to develop this agreement, only to be blocked by DCPS.  It looks like we now have a fresh new opportunity to get this done.

Of course, any compact would not be complete without a clause providing a permanent facility for all approved charter schools.  Charters are public schools just like the regular ones and there is no reason that they should be treated any differently when it comes to brick and mortar.  The exact same argument was offered by Irasema Salcido, the founder of the Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy when she testified before Congress on the current state of the charter school movement.  This was in the year 2000, almost 17 years ago.  As a society we must be able to do better than this.

Mr. Wilson should also utilize his influence to end the FOCUS coordinated revenue inequity lawsuit between charters and the city.  The solution to this issue is really simple.  All money should go through the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula as is required by law.  Done.

Then we can really start taking about charters and DCPS working together.  There are so many best practices that charters have developed over their 20 year history that can be shared with the regular schools.  Many have even been able to close the academic achievement gap, an aim I heard Mr. Wilson state multiple times during his confirmation hearing that he is extremely interested in attaining. I’m sure that DCPS also has much to teach charters.

The objective of school choice is to raise the bar for all public educational institutions.  Now with the hiring of Mr. Wilson, it is time to make this goal a reality.

Optimistic about Antwan Wilson becoming DCPS Chancellor

The Washington Post’s Alejandra Matos and Perry Stein have an article today that makes me highly optimistic regarding Mayor Bowser’s hiring of Antwan Wilson to be the next Chancellor of DCPS.  Let me point out the reasons for my opinion.

First, consider his words.  The story begins with this quotation from Mr. Wilson.  “I run to places where I believe I am going to be most needed. . . It’s 100 percent possible to educate every child.  Sometimes people say that’s unrealistic, but I just don’t believe that.”

This is exactly what we need to hear from the person that will replace Kaya Henderson.  Mr. Wilson states that his top priority in his new job will be closing the academic achievement gap, something that I’ve argued for years should be our city’s number one goal.

Then there is his positive attitude toward charter schools.  In the Post piece Mr. Wilson remarks that he was not looking to leave his current position in Oakland, California but the fact that D.C. “already has a working relationship with a robust charter sector” made the possibility of a new job “compelling.”

In Oakland the new Chancellor sought to turnaround his system’s five most under performing schools.  To accomplish this feat he sought advice from various stakeholders that included charters.

The move apparently upset the community and it was claimed that Mr. Wilson was attempting to substitute charters for traditional schools.  This accusation was repeated when he tried to implement a common lottery, something we already have in place here.

The Post reporters also reveal that during his decade in Denver Mr. Wilson became principle for three years of one of the toughest high schools in the regular school system.  Then he supported dismantling the facility and turning it into three different institutions.

Mr, Wilson then moved on to administering all high schools for Denver Public Schools.  The Post comments that he is “credited with boosting high school graduation rates, redesigning the system’s alternative schools and increasing enrollment in Advanced Placement courses.”

Denver school Superintendent Tom Boasberg asserted that he and Mr. Wilson often tried to mimic public school reform progress in the nation’s capital.

“We owe a tremendous amount to him.” Mr. Boasberg remarked.  Let’s sincerely hope that he has similar success in his new home town.

Antwan Wilson to be named new Chancellor of DCPS

The Washington Post’s Emma Brown reports today that Antwan Wilson, the current superintendent of schools in Oakland, California, is to be named the new Chancellor of DCPS, replacing Kaya Henderson, who resigned her position this year.

I have to admit I’m already excited by this decision by Mayor Bowser.  As Ms. Brown reveals, Mr. Wilson generated controversy at his current job by being too cozy with charter schools.  From her article:

“Critics, including many in the teachers’ union, accused him of trying to aid charter schools at the expense of the city’s traditional public schools. Protests erupted at school board meetings, where teachers and activists — many of them white, according to the Bay Area News Group — accused Wilson of being ‘the face of new Jim Crow.’

‘I’m not going to stand by while someone who doesn’t look like me accuses me of carrying out some form of Jim Crow,’ Wilson told the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this year. ‘I teach my own kids that no one can take your dignity and only you can control your temper. I tell them that I know who I am. I know my history.'”

It makes perfect sense that Mr. Wilson would seek to work closely with charters.  He spent a decade in Denver as a school principal and assistant superintendent.  As I have written, this past summer I attended an Amplify School Choice Conference sponsored by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity in Denver where I learned that the city actually has a District-Charter Collaboration compact.  Apparently, what sparked anger by regular public school supporters in Oakland was Mr. Wilson’s proposal that there be a common lottery with charters for parents making enrollment decisions for their children.  For years now, Washington D.C. has had such a common lottery, as does Denver.

The new Chancellor, whose selection must be approved by the D.C. Council, understands the power of education in turning around the lives of those on the low end of the economic spectrum.  He was raised by a single mother, as Ms. Brown explains, and from Kindergarten through high school he attended ten different schools and resided in 15 different homes.

Mr. Wilson, 44 years old, travels in the same school reform circle as Ms. Henderson and former Chancellor Michelle Rhee.  He received training by the Broad Academy, which supports many of the initiatives started by these two women, including tying teacher evaluations to student academic achievement.

“Schools can save lives,” Mr. Wilson is quoted as observing.  That is exactly what D.C. charters have been doing now for 20 years.

Under Bowser, what does Mayoral control of the public schools mean?

Muriel Bowser has been in office for almost a couple of years now, so I think it’s fair to ask a logical question.  Just what does it mean under this Mayor for her to have control of our public schools?  As someone who follows public policy regarding education closely this was an easy answer when it came to her predecessor.

Mr. Gray was an unashamed proponent of charter schools.  He turned over at least a dozen shuttered DCPS facilities to these innovative institutions.  Mr. Gray’s first Deputy Mayor for Education, De’Shawn Wright, completed the Illinois Facility Fund report that calculated in 2002 the number of quality public school seats that needed to be created in the nation’s capital so that every child could receive an education that would prepare them for college.  The number was an astonishing 40,000.  The next Deputy Mayor, Abigail Smith, released the equally groundbreaking Adequacy study which for the first time in the history of local school reform documented the illegal additional revenue that DCPS is receiving compared to charters outside of the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula.  That number is a sickening 100 million dollars a year.  The document came complete with remedies to fix the situation.

But this is not all.  Mr. Gray solidified the per pupil facility fund for charter schools at $3,000, utilizing for the first time funding solely from the city.  This freed up Congressional Three Sector Approach SOAR grant dollars for charters to allocate for other purposes.  Also under his tenure, the common lottery was introduced and the annual school fair became an event equally promoting charters along with the traditional schools.

Today, the situation is much different.  The recommendations of the Adequacy study sit gathering dust on a book shelf in the Wilson building and the FOCUS-coordinated funding inequity lawsuit never gets mentioned.  Also covered in filth are the shuttered dilapidated DCPS facilities that are no longer being offered to charters.  The per pupil facility fund is frozen at a level that leads to the sector teaching students in structures that pale in comparison to their regular school counterparts.

This Mayor has created the Cross Sector Collaboration Task Force.  It has apparently been meeting for over a year and according to the chair of the Public Charter School Board the group has “really been focused on getting to know one another.”

Mayor Fenty fought hard to win control of the public schools from the D.C. Council. Perhaps it is time to simply give it back to the Board of Education.  Mayor Bowser obviously has other priorities.

New DCPS Chancellor must expand charter school sector

The Washington Post’s Jay Mathews today has a column in which he calls on the replacement for DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson to protect charter schools in the nation’s capital.  Never mind that this position has absolutely no power over these dynamic institutions that teach over 39,000 children, or 44 percent of all pupils that attend pubic schools in the nation’s capital.

Thank goodness that this is the case.  Remember years ago that once Harmony PCS opened across the street from an existing DPCS facility, when it was desperate to find space and after it had begged the city for help finding a building and representatives had met with Ms. Henderson seeking collaboration; the Chancellor referred to the move as cannibalizing her pupils.  Unfortunately, her attitude never really changed, as evidenced by this interview with Alexander Russo about a month ago:

Mr. Russo:  “What’s wrong with having two systems for parents to choose from?”

Ms. Henderson: “We’re paying twice as much for not very different outcomes. I think that it’s not a good use of resources. We have experienced positive financial revenue in the city for the past 10 years, but if we were like a lot of other places, there’s no way that we would pay as much as we’re paying to support two different systems that are providing the same results. . . We are stepping on each others toes.”

What really has to happen is that the newly named Chancellor needs to help expand the charter sector.  Let’s take these logical steps.  First, as the chairman of the DC PCSB Dr. Darren Woodruff stated in my recent interview with him, we need to have one accountability system that measures the quality of all schools.  This means applying the Performance Management Framework to DCPS.  Then, those sites that are found to be Tier 3 are turned over to our highly performing charters.  In addition, perhaps we can finally convince strong charter management organizations from across the nation, who have been reluctant to come here because of the problem finding space, to operate these schools since they will already have permanent facilities.

Last week the PCSB released the lasted Quality School Reports for elementary and middle schools.  I’m really glad that so many charters are rated as Tier 1 or Tier 2.  However, in spite of these results, these are actually desperate times.  The 2016 PARCC standardized tests demonstrate that only about a quarter of charter and traditional school students are college ready.  The achievement gap between rich and poor is about 50 points.  Two decades of public school reform has produced students that are academically mediocre.  There are bright spots but the overall picture is bleak.

As Ms. Henderson concluded in her conversation with Mr. Russo:

“There’s so much more to accomplish. There are a bunch of things. We’re still not where I want to be on our scores, graduation rate, or equity across the district, or special education outcomes. All of those things are way better than when I got here. But there’s a lot more that I want for D.C. public schools.”

There is a lot more that we all want.

DCPS Chancellor receives present on last day. Graduation rate up to 71%

The Washington Post’s Alejandra Mastos reveals today that the four year graduation rate for high school students enrolled in DCPS jumped to 71 percent in 2016, coming in just shy of Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s strategic plan goal for next year of 75 percent.  In 2015, DCPS saw the graduation rate rise an equally impressive 6 percentage points.  The exciting news comes on Ms. Henderson’s last day on the job.

Commenting on the results, according to Ms. Mastos, the Chancellor stated, “When we set these goals, people said we were crazy. . . As I walk out of here at the end this week, I want people to feel a sense of possibility.”

Ms. Henderson probably did appear crazy when she established the 75 percent goal.  In November 2010 when she started in her position the four year graduation statistic was 59 percent.

Charter schools have yet to release their most recent graduation rate number.  Last year it stood at 72 percent.  There was a significant difference between charters and DCPS when it came to four year high school graduation rates for economically disadvantaged students.  For charters this number was 73 percent for the 2014-2015 academic year versus 64 percent for the traditional system.  This year’s number for those living in poverty is not included in the Washington Post story or on the DCPS website.

In fact, Ms. Henderson is close to meeting many of the components of her five year strategic plan.  Student satisfaction with their school rose to 83 percent in the 2014-2015 term, with 90 percent being the goal.  Enrollment for the same period at slightly over 49,000 pupils almost met the 2016 to 2017 50,000 student count target.

The one area where the Chancellor falls short is in regard to student academic achievement.  There are two metrics here.  One was to have 70 percent of students proficient in reading and math by the 2016 to 2017 school year, and that the 40 academically lowest performing schools will increase proficiency by 40 percentage points.  These metrics were based upon the DC CAS standardized test.  Now both DCPS and charters have switched to the PARCC.  On the PARCC exam 25.5 percent of DCPS students were rated proficient.

Still, the four year graduation number is great news and stunning progress for a Chancellor who I will sincerely miss.