How did D.C. do after first week of school? Cannot tell based on Washington Post report

Last Sunday, the Washington Post’s Perry Stein wrote an article purported to illustrate what parents, students, and teachers experienced during the first week of the new school year in the District of Columbia. She began:

“One week into the academic year, the District’s school system is still struggling to meet its projected enrollment numbers and to deliver technology to some of its hardest-to-reach students. But teachers and parents also say that each day, remote learning in the nation’s capital is improving. Technology troubles are becoming less frequent, more students are showing up to virtual classes, and everyone is becoming more adept at using unfamiliar computer platforms.”

The only problem with her claims is that the lengthy report did not mention one charter school by name. In fact, readers would have no idea that there was another public school sector that teaches 46 percent of all pupils in the city. On this particular day, she left out the accounts of 43,485 students. It is as if the newspaper went back in time to 1995, the year before the first charter opened here. In paragraph seven she even wrote, “D.C. Public Schools educate about 52,000 students.” The total of all those attending public schools is actually approaching one hundred thousand.

In a way, the story did remind me of twenty-five years ago when the traditional schools were crumbling physically and characterized by the frequent absence of professional instruction. Ms. Perry stated that the regular schools were not quite ready for school to start:

“The city’s biggest technological setback has come at the early-childhood level. The school system had wrongly predicted it would be able to get the youngest learners into school buildings a few days a week and did not plan to have virtual learning for them. When officials learned that school would be all virtual in late July, they ordered iPads for thousands of students, which have not yet arrived. They plan to distribute them in mid-September, with many prekindergarten students starting the school year with paper packets.

‘We placed the order later than we did the other technology,’ Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn told residents at the town hall. ‘That is a problem of procurement.'” 

Really? I’m sorry, this was not a “problem of procurement.” It was a failure of planning. Since last spring, chances were never good that kids would be able to return to classrooms like before the pandemic hit. Allow me to remind you that it was before the advent of charters that children in DCPS often started the school year off without textbooks. This was one of the first things that Michelle Rhee corrected when she rode into our city.

There was one area of her article in which charter schools were referenced, but it was in an oblique way. The only teacher interviewed was Liz Koenig, who is identified as a “prekindergarten teacher at LaSalle-Backus Education Campus in Northeast Washington.” Ms. Koenig is known for teaming up with anti-charter school freelance writer Rachel Cohen in attacking the movement, specifically detailing her dismissal from Bridges PCS. This was the best source that Ms. Perry could find?

I will guarantee you that the first week was much different regarding charters. Technology issues aside, I am sure that each was ready to go on day one. But how would we know for sure? The education reporter for the Washington Post is pretending that we are living in a community in which school reform never happened.

D.C. Mayor could have closed charter schools; that she didn’t should be applauded

In the wake of this terrible world-wide tragedy regarding the coronavirus, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser on March 7th declared a state of emergency and public health emergency in the nation’s capital. According to WAMU’s Jacob Fenston:

“Declaring a state of emergency activates a broad range of powers that enable the mayor to mobilize people and resources more quickly to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. That includes things like mandatory quarantines or curfews, freeing up funds more quickly and preventing price gouging on essentials needed to prevent the spread of coronavirus.”

Yesterday, she issued new restrictions on the number of people who can be present in bars and restaurants.

In addition, last week it was announced that D.C. public schools would be closed beginning today, Monday, March 16th, and would re-open on Wednesday, April 1st. March 16 is a professional development day for teachers so that remote learning lesson plans can be implemented. The spring break that was originally scheduled for the middle of April is cancelled and instead will take place this week. Beginning Monday, March 23rd students will take classes online.

So that pupils do not miss meals associated with attending school, DCPS has established food distribution sites at 16 campuses. Many students in our city would go hungry were it not for the nourishment they receive while at their classrooms.

The Mayor and the Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn should be congratulated and thanked for the perfectly appropriate response regarding our schools in the face of this crisis.

Most, but not all, public charter schools are following the schedule established for DCPS.

The School Reform Act of 1995 created charter schools in the District, making them autonomous from DCPS. In 2007, Adrian Fenty won control of the regular schools through the Public Education Reform Act. Although the SRA provided charters with clear freedom from the rules governing the regular schools, there is broad agreement that the chief executive and D.C. Council still have authority over the alternative sector when it comes to the health and safety of students.

This is why Ms. Bowser’s announcement regarding DCPS is so important. It demonstrates a restraint that honors the independence of charters as individual local education agencies combined with a deep respect that they will take appropriate actions to protect the lives of those that they educate, as they have done for over 25 years.

We should be proud of our elected representative’s efforts to protect its citizens. Today, we must also celebrate our clearly established system of school choice in the greatest city in the world.

DCPS Chancellor should have threatened to resign over Council interference with Washington Met

DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee last month decided, after conducting a thorough analysis, to close Washington Metropolitan High School, a school serving low-income students who have been unsuccessful learning in traditional classroom settings. Here’s what the editors of the Washington Post wrote recently about Washington Met:

“At Washington Metropolitan High School, an alternative school in the D.C. public school system, just 10 percent of students meet expectations on state assessments in English. None of the school’s 157 students meet expectations in math. Attendance is dismal, with data showing only about 28 percent of students attending class on most days, and enrollment has declined. Internal surveys found that students disliked the campus and felt they weren’t being loved, challenged or prepared.”

This is the first school DCPS will shutter since 2013. However, the move was almost reversed due to a D.C. Council that increasingly believes that it knows more about how to educate students than school leadership. It has already set rules around school disciplinary practices and is about to weigh in on charter school transparency. In this case, D.C. Councilperson Robert C. White, apparently unable to find his spine in the face of pressure from the Washington Teachers’ Union, introduced a bill to circumvent the authority of the Chancellor. Eight other weak members of the Council went along with his idea. The only problem is that nine representatives were needed to approve the legislation. Education Committee Chairman David Grosso and D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson, who both sit on the Education Committee, along with Anita Bonds, Brandon Todd, and Kenyan McDuffie voted against it.

By the skin of our teeth, there was almost an extremely terrible precedent set. Washington D.C. has had Mayoral control over the traditional public schools since 2007. All attempts by the D.C. Council or D.C. Board of Education to insert themselves into actions by the Mayor, Deputy Mayor for Education, or Chancellor need to be vigorously rejected.

Yesterday, the Washington Post announced that former D.C. School Superintendent Clifford Janey passed away. I liked and respected Dr. Janey, and I thought his heart was in the right place in the improvements he tried to make. Here is how reporter Bart Barnes described DCPS when Mr. Janey was in charge beginning in 2004:

“Dr. Janey inherited what he later described as a dysfunctional system of poor classroom performance, unreliable computers, a malfunctioning payroll and schools that chronically lacked supplies. Textbooks were in poor condition and often delivered late. Building repairs were made late or not at all, and school officials were unsure how many students were enrolled.”

These problems generally persisted until Michelle Rhee took over under Mayoral control of the regular schools as established by Adrian Fenty.

We cannot move backwards. Ever again. To demonstrate how serious this situation was regarding D.C. Council interference in DCPS affairs, Mr. Ferebee should have announced his resignation if Mr. White’s bill had become law.

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.

Mundo Verde PCS about to ratify first D.C. charter school union contract

A few weeks ago, WAMU’s Martin Austermuhle reported that Mundo Verde PCS is about to have the city’s first charter school collective bargaining agreement with its employees.

“Teachers, staff and management at one campus of the Mundo Verde Bilingual Public Charter School in D.C. have agreed on a tentative union contract, putting the popular school a vote away from becoming the first charter school in the city’s history to unionize.”

I have written hundreds of words about the efforts of DC ACTs, the union associated with the American Federation of Teachers to infiltrate Paul PCS, Cesar Chavez PCS, and now Mundo Verde.  There is really not much more to say about the move.  However, one paragraph in Mr. Austermuhle’s story grabbed my attention.

“’Mundo Verde has a really big commitment to social justice and equity, and we teach that to our students. The conversation about how do we provide teachers with more resources, and how do we give teachers and educators a voice is not a new one. There were a lot of spaces for us to share these feelings with leadership of the school, but it felt like it was time to do something more formal,’ said Andrea Molina, a kindergarten teacher and member of the bargaining unit.”

My contention is that if the employees of the charter were really serious about social justice and equity they would not be placing a union between the working relationship of school leadership and the teachers. The worst thing that could happen is that each and every move that a charter needs to make must be negotiated every two to three years. This is what I explained in my conversation with Mr. Austermuhle regarding his article:

“’I think it’s a terrible development, and overall it will hurt our charter school movement,’ said Mark Lerner, an education writer who also served in leadership positions of various charter schools. ‘[Charter schools] need to be able to react quickly, and if you have to work through a collective bargaining agreement, you can’t make changes quickly. If unions were widespread throughout the charter movement, they would look more and more like DCPS schools where it’s difficult to fire teachers, change curriculum, or change times.’”

In the last sentence I was referring to the opening and dismissal times established by schools.

It now appears that the nature of charters and traditional schools are becoming mirrors of each other. Just last week DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee revealed his desire to close Washington Metropolitan High School, an alternative high school located near Howard University. The campus, according to the Washington Post’s Perry Stein, has been characterized by “declining enrollment, poor attendance and lackluster academic results.”

Ms. Stein went on to detail that Washington Met is one of four alternative high schools, known as Opportunity Academies, operating under DCPS, although this is the only one that has a middle school. It opened in 2008 and has about 150 students. The school relocated to its current site in 2016. If Mayor Bowser approves of Mr. Ferebee’s recommendation, it would close at the end of the 2019-to-2020 academic year. The timing of his request is centered around the start of the upcoming MySchool DC lottery.

By the way, DCPS has apparently already said that if this school is closed the system will hold on to the building. Another structure about to be denied for use by charters desperate for permanent facilities.

The Washington Post reporter stated that the last time a DCPS school was shuttered was in 2013. If more of the low academic performing neighborhood schools are closed, and additional charters become unionized, we will begin to see the merging of the two sectors that many in the collaboration movement have been calling on for years.

After all why does there need to be charters if DCPS is playing their role in closing lackluster schools and charters operate in the same manner as the regular ones? It could mean the end of competition for students. I’ve never been more concerned.

Why school choice is the black choice

Last Friday afternoon, my wife Michele and I attended a fascinating forum sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation entitled “Why School Choice is the Black Choice.” The session was moderated by Roland Martin, who my wife and I have enjoyed for years as the Master of Ceremonies for the annual Friendship PCS Teacher of the Year Gala. Joining Mr. Roland for a panel discussion was Margaret Fortune, CEO and president Fortune PCS; Shawn Hardnett, founder and executive director Statesmen College Preparatory Academy for Boys PCS; Elizabeth Davis, president, Washington Teachers’ Union; and Dr. Steve Perry, founder Capital Preparatory PCS’s.

The lively and argumentative discussion centered on the role of charter schools in public education in this country. Of course, anytime the subject is charters at this moment in time, the issue of transparency is brought up. Here is where Dr. Perry, who was by far the most passionate of the day’s speakers, turned the topic on its head. He pointed out that if you really want to talk about this topic then we have to be transparent about the numerous traditional public schools that are failing to teach our youth, specifically low-income black boys, and the fact that nothing is being done to correct the situation. Dr. Perry related that these schools just continue to exist day in and day out. In essence, the educational malpractice simply continues. Ms. Fortune, Mr. Hardnett, and Dr. Perry highlighted that when it comes to charter schools, if they don’t perform they are closed. In D.C., 35 schools have had their charter revoked for academic reasons.

I think Dr. Perry is on to something here. When charter opponents in our nation’s capital harp on transparency, supporters need to illuminate all of the matters that we need to be open about regarding these schools of choice:

  • The $1,600 to $2,600 per student per year that the neighborhood schools receive each year that charters do not even though by law the two sectors are to receive identical revenue through the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula;
  • The over 1 million square feet of unused or underutilized space that DCPS is holding without providing them to charters as is required by law that is a major contributor to a 12,000 charter school student wait list:
  • The reality that the DC Public Charter School Board requires its schools to provide detailed information about every aspect of the operation of the schools it oversees, including financial data, and that almost all of these submissions are publicly available; and
  • The fact that no DCPS schools have ever been shuttered due to poor academic performance. Not a one.

If people want transparency, then transparency is exactly what they will get.

Why I miss Kaya Henderson as DCPS Chancellor

Last week, former DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson had an opinion piece published in the Washington Post. In the article she celebrates the recently released PARCC scores for traditional school students. Ms. Henderson wrote:

“Across the board, student achievement is up. Students in nearly every grade, every subgroup and every subject area are showing improvement. I was excited to see that the percentage of students who are college- and career-ready is going up, and I was thrilled to see that the percentage of students scoring at the lowest levels on the test is going down. All of our students are showing incredible growth.”

As Chancellor from 2010 to 2016, Ms. Henderson should be proud as she and her predecessor Michelle Rhee laid the groundwork for much of the gains students have been able to realize. But this is not the reason that I liked the column.

I learned years ago from the former Chancellor that there are two distinct ways that public school reform can be practiced. The first, and the one that I have supported for more than 20 years, is to provide competition to the traditional schools in the form of charters and private school vouchers. The theory here is that as money follows the children to alternative schools, the loss of funds will drive improvement to the regular classrooms. This is exactly what has taken place in the nation’s capital. Before there were charter schools in the District, parents who made the decision to keep their children at home rather then send them to the neighborhood schools were being logical in regard to the safety and well-being of their offspring.

But there is another way to go about reaching the same endpoint. DCPS could be fixed from within. This is the least likely to succeed approach to improving student academic results because in large urban school systems, the customer is most often the bureaucracy and not the parents and children that are being served. However, this is the philosophy that has driven Ms. Henderson’s career. Back to her editorial:

“There has been a trend over the past decade to decentralize education decisions, to create portfolio districts and to emphasize autonomy. I understand the impulse, and I agree that some decisions are best made at the school level. But I also believe that when we devolve responsibilities down to individual schools, we are abdicating the responsibility of the district to ensure rigor and equity. No individual school could have created the curriculum, the model lessons or the teacher evaluation system that DCPS built. No one school can ensure that students in every ward have the chance to enjoy art and music classes. No amount of autonomy can ensure that every high school has AP classes.”

In other words Ms. Henderson has taken the equity argument, so persuasive in public education circles these days, and applied it forcibly to her worldview. We need a top down approach, she argues, so that each and every student can take advantage of the same pedagogical tools.

The argument is not much different from one that DC Prep PCS, Friendship PCS, or KIPP DC PCS would offer. Once you believe that your organization is providing the absolute best path forward for your students then you believe passionately in your heart that every young person should be able to take advantage of what you have to offer.

Perhaps we have all now come full circle.

With pick of Lewis Ferebee to become next Chancellor of D.C. schools, public education reform comes roaring back to the nation’s capital

Here is the key paragraph to Perry Stein’s Washington Post article about the selection by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser of Lewis Ferebee to become the next DCPS Chancellor:

“Ferebee received leadership training at the Broad Academy, an initiative to support urban school superintendents funded by philanthropist and charter school backer Eli Broad. [Kaya] Henderson, [Antwan] Wilson, D.C. State Superintendent of Education Hanseul Kang and Paul Kihn, the deputy mayor for education whom Bowser tapped this year, also received training at the Broad Academy.”

The choice of Mr. Ferebee sends a tremendously significant signal that public school reform in D.C. should not only continue but accelerate in its pace.  It is a fascinating move coming from a Mayor whose top priorities in office have focused on affordable housing and reducing homelessness.

The nominee has been Superintendent of Indianapolis schools since 2013 where, among other things, he turned management of low-performing traditional schools over to charters.  Sound familiar?  It’s something I have been calling for since beginning to write an education blog in 2009.  There are more interesting details about his past work from Ms. Stein’s piece:

“In Indianapolis, Ferebee oversaw a cash-strapped system and closed some schools. He said that there is little social mobility in Indianapolis and that the departure of manufacturing jobs forced him to rethink how high schools train students for the workforce.

He dismantled the neighborhood high school system, replacing it with vocational and college preparatory academies that students could choose to attend no matter where their families lived.”

In other words, this is a much different decision than putting forth Amanda Alexander for Chancellor, someone who has been with DCPS for over 20 years, and who was believed to be the other finalist for the position.  Ms. Alexander hinted that she would tinker around the edges of the current regular school sector, commenting that if she got the job she would would send more central office personnel into schools to support academic achievement.

However, we have to sincerely thank Ms. Alexander for the work she has done since last February to provide stability in a system rocked by controversy around discretionary school placement by the former Chancellor and Deputy Mayor for Education, graduating high school students that failed to meet requirements for a diploma, and residency fraud.

Interestingly, Mr. Ferebee turned down the opportunity to become superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District last April.  I’m wondering what the difference was between Los Angeles and Washington that led him to pick coming here?  I’m hoping it is the general positive climate toward school choice and charter schools in particular in this town.  But perhaps I’m being too optimistic.

Here’s one other public education update.  On November 9th the office of the Deputy Mayor for Education released the final report of the D.C. Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force.  You don’t need to read it.  I’ve taken a brief look at the document and it fails to cover the most pressing issues facing the local charter movement such as the acquisition of facilities and solving the funding inequity problem.  Now we can place this document on the shelf and move on.  It is time for a new day.

 

 

 

Sad news revealed about Washington D.C.’s traditional schools

Saturday was not a good day regarding the management of the traditional school system in the nation’s capital that educates 48,144 children.  First, a report by D.C.’s Inspector General looking into the preferential placement of former Chancellor Antwan Wilson’s daughter found that no one involved in this mess has taken responsibility for moving his child away from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and enrolling her in Wilson High School; skirting the My School DC Lottery and obtaining admission notwithstanding a wait list of over 600 students.  Asked about the findings of the review,  Mayor Muriel Bowser again rejected that she knew anything about the actions of the officials she oversaw despite the fact that she was apparently told about the relocation by the Chancellor and Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles.  Mr. Wilson has stated on multiple occasions that he referred the issue of his child’s unhappiness at attending Duke Ellington to his wife.  Ms. Niles claims that she had delegated the matter to Jane Spence, the Deputy Chief of Secondary Schools.

According to the Washington Post story appearing over the weekend by Fenit Nirappil and Perry Stein, “the report portrays a scenario in which the two top school officials appeared to understand the political hazards of the transfer.  It concluded the two [Mr. Wilson and Ms. Niles] made some efforts to avoid giving the chancellor’s daughter preferential treatment, but ultimately their actions led to rules being bypassed.”

Mr. Wilson, Ms. Niles, and Ms. Spence all have lost their positions.  The Mayor, of course, continues in hers.

Next, the Post’s Perry Stein reports that of the 164 pupils that were last May accused of residency fraud in attending Duke Ellington, 95 of these cases have been dismissed.  The original claim involved approximately 30 percent of the student body.  Parents at the school immediately challenged this finding by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education and took the charge to court.  The legal proceedings forced OSSE to admit that it mishandled documentation of student D.C. residency at Ellington on two separate occasions over two weeks.  It appears that 69 of the 531 pupils that attend the school still have questions around whether they live in D.C.

The whole matter is embarrassing.  I understand that in numerous instances it is difficult to ascertain the location of student homes.  Many may not have permanent addresses.  But if you have been involved in D.C. schools for more than five minutes you understand that there are strict requirements around admission.

Both of these controversies severely dilute confidence that there is competency in the administration of this city’s schools.  Many are now calling for a weakening of Mayoral control.  Please add me to the list.