Excel as traditonal school highlights financial differences of charter sector

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein reports today that in a couple of weeks Excel Academy Public School will reopen as part of DCPS after the decision was made last January by the DC Public Charter School Board to close the school this past June.  Remember that both KIPP DC and Friendship PCS were interested in taking over this institution but the leadership of Excel decided that it would rather have it join the traditional school system.

During the 2017-to-2018 school year the all-girls Excel enrolled approximately 643 students in grades pre-Kindergarten three to eight.  So far about 300 students have signed up to attend the new school, which represents a decline of 53 percent.  It will apparently stay in the building that housed Excel as a charter.   Ms. Stein writes:

“The first day of school is in two weeks, and the staff at Excel Academy in Southeast Washington needs to make sure everything is just right. Teachers crammed preschool classrooms with colorful books, plush seating and games. Maintenance workers tidied the school garden, pruning the sunflowers and picking the ripe vegetables.”

According to PCSB records, last term Excel had total occupancy expenses of $2,125,421 that included $2,061,316 in rent.  It used a facility allotment of $2,234,910 to cover the lease, providing the school with about a $110,000 surplus in this cost category.

The bottom line is that with enrollment dropping by more than half, a charter school would never be able to afford to stay in the same facility.  The only choice a charter would have would be to subsidize the lease with the per pupil dollars provided to administer the school, which in this case would be so large a number that this would prove impossible.  Teacher and other staff salaries could never be met under this scenario.  As a matter of fact, with this much of a reduction in the size of the student body, I’m sure that the per pupil dollars for instruction under DCPS do not cover personnel costs.  Therefore, the only option that this school would have is to close.

The reason that all of this financial analysis is critically important is that market forces have been relied upon for more than 20 years in the nation’s capital to drive improvement in public education.  Since the first charter opened here money has followed the child.  It was the mass exodus of families from DCPS that finally put sufficient fiscal pressure on the system to improve.  Now, with the incorporation of Excel into DCPS with simultaneous subsidy of the rent expense, we are seeing a distortion of the market which will end up harming our kids.

Excel was an extremely low academically performing school when it was a charter.  That’s why it was shuttered by the PCSB.  Allowing this school to continue to operate while running a substantial financial deficit works directly against the concept of school choice created by economist Milton Friedman.  He stated that when revenue became linked to enrollment good schools would prosper and grow while poor ones would run out of dollars and close.  With the acceptance of Excel as a regular school, DCPS is harming the cause.

 

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.

 

 

 

Mayoral control of D.C. public schools is about to be diluted

As was predicted here, Mayor Bowser’s control over D.C. public schools is about to take a hit, as the Washington Post’s Perry Stein reports:

“Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) introduced legislation that would establish a research arm of the government focused on education data and rebuilding trust in the District’s public schools.

‘We have been getting bad information — some of it just false, some of it misleading, some of it incomplete, and we can’t get a handle on what to do if we don’t know what’s happening,’ Cheh said.”

Pupils receiving high school diplomas that should not have graduated, a Deputy Mayor for Education and head of DCPS that skirted the common lottery to have the Chancellor’s child placed at an academically strong high school with a 600 student wait-list, together with residency fraud has cast doubt that the city’s top executive should have the only say on running the traditional school system.

The Mayor’s response to all of these severe problems has been mostly silence.  She has said that she will wait until after the Democratic primary on June 26th to begin the hunt for a new Chancellor.  Ms Bowser is therefore not exactly moving to set children up for a strong start of the new school term.

Ms. Stein reveals that a majority of D.C. coucilmembers are ready to get behind the plan, and it appears that they are not happy about the current state of public education in the District.  As evidence, they want the research board to audit education data going back 20 years.  The body would apparently also review the track record of D.C. charters, but it is unclear if it would actually have the power to take this step.

The new organization would reside within the Office of the D.C. Auditor, a clear signal that it would be independent of the current DCPS education bureaucracy.

What has become certain is that having the Deputy Mayor for Education, the State Superintendent of Education, and the Chancellor all falling under one person does not offer the checks and balances necessary to produce a high performing traditional public school system.

Instead of creation of a research advisory arm, DCPS could simply be moved under the DC Public Charter School Board.

Mayor Bowser proposes increase to public school funding in an apparent move to shift narrative away from current controversies

Yesterday, Ms. Bowser released her fiscal year 2019 budget, and public education stakeholders are ecstatic that it includes a 3.91 percent increase in the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula.  If passed, her proposal would raise the base of the UPSFF to $10,658 per pupil.  The reason for the enthusiasm is that last year a working group that convened over six months under the auspices of the Office of the State Superintendent of Education to review the city’s school budget recommended a 3.5 percent increase.  However the Mayor, in last year’s spending plan, suggested a rise of only 1.5 percent.  The D.C. Council then took this number and doubled it to 3 percent.  The 2018 budget also included a 2.2 percent jump in the charter school per pupil facility allotment.

So why the sudden change of heart by Ms. Bowser? Well, a few issues have popped up over the previous 12 months.  It was discovered that the Chancellor she hired, Antwan Wilson, had one of his children transfer schools outside of the lottery and in violation of a policy he had created and signed.  This led to his forced resignation together with that of Ms. Bowser’s coveted Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles.  There are now allegations that the Mayor was told by Mr. Wilson of his discretionary placement months before it was known to the public.  At the same time, a WAMU and NPR story led to the realization that hundreds of students received high school diplomas from DCPS facilities in 2017 who never should have graduated.  Next, it was uncovered that more than half of all students attending Duke Ellington School of the Arts falsify their home addresses to show they live in the District so they don’t have to pay tuition.   A lawyer for OSSE was apparently told by higher-ups not to rush an investigation into this matter because it is an election year.

Finally, last week, there was the Mayor’s State of the District Address, in which she provided no solutions for the recent ills of DCPS, or an explanation of who she would bring in to fill her top two administrative education positions.  Tonight is the 2018 FOCUS Gala and Ms. Bowser is expected to attend.  Which do you think she would rather talk about, the recent problems with the traditional schools or more money for charters?

The new incremental dollars will also deflect calls for a modification of the structure of Mayoral control over the public schools.

The Washington Post’s Fenit Nirappil, Perry Stein, and Faiz Siddiqui, in an article appearing yesterday, state that the added money for education is not that big of a deal.  They write:

“While some education watchdogs celebrated the per-pupil spending increase, Marlana Wallace, a policy analyst with the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, said it’s not as high as it appears. According to Wallace, part of that increase covers raises for teachers that came after the union reached a contract agreement with the city for the first time in five years.”

Moreover, before you get too excited about the extra revenue, I feel an obligation to point out Ms. Bowser’s 2019 budget also has a line item for $1.35 billion toward the modernization of another 26 DCPS buildings.  Charters do not get a dime of these funds.  They have to cover renovation costs out of the per pupil facility allotment.

 

 

 

 

D.C. charter board gets it right; Washington Post editors do not

Last evening the DC Public Charter School Board held a low-key monthly meeting during which Carlos Rosario International PCS and Friendship PCS sailed through their 20-year charter reviews and Community College Preparatory Academy PCS easily received permission to continue operating after its first five years.  It was a welcome respite from the unevenness of the board’s March 12th emergency session during which it voted to begin charter revocation proceedings against Washington Math Science and Technology PCS.  The gathering was held at Washington Latin PCS, the school upon which I served as board chair, and even though it was at a remote location in the school’s multipurpose space, the sound quality was excellent.  Dr. Darren Woodruff dialed in and you could make out all of his comments.

I want to single out the performance of Patricia Brantley, Friendship’s chief operating officer, who seems increasingly confident in her leadership after succeeding founder Donald Hense.

The only difficulty I had about last night was the use of proxy votes by board members.  I know that attorney Stephen Marcus has raised this issue in the past.  Other organizations I have participated with as a board member have included in their bylaws a requirement that votes by member must be made in person or by telephone.  The electronic ballot has not been permitted because it does not allow deliberation by participants as is found in a live meeting.  I’ve also received governance advice from experts that this is the proper manner in which to conduct business.  I don’t understand how a board member can make an informed decision if he or she has not had the opportunity to listen to the deliberation first-hand.  I wish the board would eliminate the use of proxy voting.

In other public education reform news, the Washington Post ran an editorial yesterday pointing out that in spite of a series of setbacks by DCPS, significant progress has been made since Michelle Rhee became Chancellor.  From the piece:

“Recent school controversies have given license to critics of school reform to weave a misleading narrative of what has occurred since the elected school board was dissolved and control of the schools given to the mayor in 2007. Under their scenario, reform has been an abject failure, with most schools worse off except for those that have seen improvement because of demographic changes.”

I really don’t think this is what individuals are saying.  What is clear is that the bold claims of significant improvements in high school graduations rates was a sham, that families continue to game the system through residency fraud, and that Mayoral control has not fixed the ills of a system that was characterized by patronage.  Moreover, the academic performance of minority children is embarrassingly low more than a decade after oversight was taken away from the Board of Education.

We can and must do better.  Another generation of kids has been shortchanged.  It is as if the school system continues to be about protecting the reputations of the adults in charge of this mess.  It is about time someone or some people out there started acting like there was an urgency to creating a world-class education system.  If it were your children nothing less would be acceptable.

 

Mayor Bowser wastes State of the District Address when it comes to public education

The Mayor was supposed to give last evening’s speech at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts.  It would have been the perfect symbol for how education reform on the traditional school side has fallen apart.  The building was recently renovated at a cost of $170 million which was $1 million more than its projected budget.  But a trio of calamities, including the finding that more than fifty percent of the students who attend Ellington do so without living in the District while falsifying their permanent addresses so they don’t have to pay tuition; drove the hasty decision to relocate the event to the University of the District of Columbia where it was staged last year.  The Administration put forth the excuse that there was better access to parking, the subway, and buses at this location.

If you are dying to know what Ms. Bowser said about the pressing topics of the forced resignation of her Deputy Mayor for Education and the Chancellor over the school placement of Mr. Wilson’s child outside of the lottery, the grossly inflated graduation rates of high school students, and residency fraud, I will provide a service by saving you the time of having to read her entire remarks before getting to the end where these subjects were discussed.  Here we go:

“In recent months, there have been bumps in the roads – frankly, there have been some mountains. But now the band aid has been ripped off, and we understand better than ever the challenges we face. . . I recognize that there is trust that needs to be rebuilt between our school system and parents, and systems of accountability and oversight that need to be reinforced and reviewed.  Under the leadership of interim Chancellor Amanda Alexander, we will finish this school year strong and be ready to start the next one.”

That is it.  Nothing about the search for a new Chancellor or who will be the next Deputy Mayor for Education, and not a word about steps that will be taken to correct the abject failures of “accountability and oversight.”  But more significantly, not one mention about charter schools that now educate over 43,000 children in the city, a number representing 47 percent of those in our public schools.

The 2018 FOCUS Gala is next week.  What a perfect opportunity this would have been to announce that she was turning over twelve former DCPS facilities for use by charters.  She could have added that she will make room for pupils from this sector in over a dozen other traditional schools that are severely under-enrolled.  The Mayor might have offered that she is the Chief Executive of Equality, and therefore will immediately seek to end the funding inequity lawsuit against the city by providing revenue in the same proportions to charters and the regular schools as the law demands through the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula.  Finally, she could have acknowledged the nationally recognized progress that charters in this town have made by stating that she will seek to emulate management of her schools by studying the work of these institutions and the DC PCSB.

I am so sorry.  It is extremely early in the morning, and I must still be dreaming.

Time to alter Mayoral control of public schools in D.C.

Yesterday’s Washington Post included a long article by Emma Brown, Valerie Strauss, and Perry Stein regarding the recent controversies swirling around District of Columbia Public Schools.  It included this discussion regarding Mayoral control of DCPS:

“Critics of the District’s reform experiment argue that the scandals are a signal that mayoral control contributed to the problem because there is no independent check on the impulse to make the schools — and thus the elected boss — look good. They argue that it’s time for public debate on whether mayoral control should be scrapped or modified.

But advocates for the current system argue that mayoral control has allowed for agile decision-making and an unusual level of continuity of leadership in the school system.

Bowser said that the scandals have revealed weaknesses best fixed with tinkering — not a return to an elected school board like the one that oversaw city schools in their bad old days.

‘We have had two systems. This one works better,’ Bowser said in an interview. ‘Trust me.'”

I guess it was the final statement by Ms. Bowser that crystallized my thinking on this subject.  Yes, Mayoral control is superior to the school system answering to the whims of an elected school board.  However, in simplifying the reporting structure and creating the position of Chancellor that reports to the Mayor, we have not completely removed politics from the equation.  Since the city’s chief executive is chosen by the voters, then politics will always be part of the picture.  To believe otherwise is naive and unrealistic.

D.C. adopted Mayoral control after New York City took the same path.  But I would argue that the results there are also mixed.  There were tremendous improvements and tough decisions made under Michael Bloomberg.  However that progress has been slowed, and in some cases reversed, now that Bill de Blasio is in charge.  With this arrangement there is much too much power in the hands of one individual.

Therefore, we must divorce the long-term best interests of the traditional public schools from someone whose job is dependent on votes.  The one way to accomplish this goal is to look at the DC Public Charter School Board as an example.  Here is a body whose members are nominated by the Mayor, and confirmed by the D.C. Council, that has managed through the years to adhere to one goal in mind: to improve the quality of the schools it oversees.  Because its members are elected to a four-year term that can be renewed, its composition extends beyond the control of any one Mayor.  Since these volunteers are not elected, it frees them to do the right thing without having to worry about losing their jobs.  The Chancellor, who the Mayor would continue to select, would report to this new entity.  

We don’t have to throw out Mayoral control of the public schools to fix the current problem-filled situation.  We only need to remove politics from the task of teaching our children.

 

 

 

D.C. four year high school graduation rates clearly show the power of charter sector

With the trifecta of controversies recently experienced by D.C.’s traditional school system, it is easy to miss an obvious point about the condition of public education in the nation’s capital:  we desperately need more seats for children in our city’s strong performing charter schools.  My reasoning behind this conclusion is straightforward and compelling.

Last week it was announced that the new estimate for the DCPS 2018 four-year graduation rate will be around 42 percent.  Kate McGee of WAMU presents the background:

“DCPS says it’s releasing this data for the first time to increase transparency after an investigation found that one-third of last year’s graduates received diplomas even though they didn’t meet all the graduation requirements.

‘We are focused on making sure the students who graduate have earned their diploma and the students and communities feels that way as well,’ said Michelle Lerner [no relation], Deputy Chief of Communications for DCPS.”

The low statistic comes after the Office of the State Superintendent of Education just last November claimed that the four-year adjusted cohort high school graduation rate for DCPS was 73.2 percent.  This figure was only slightly lower than the charter school rate of 73.4 percent.  However, we know now that 34 percent of seniors attending the regular schools should not have been given diplomas.  If we subtract the 34 percent from the originally published OSSE rate we get a true percentage of 39.2, exceedingly close to the recent estimate of the size of the graduating class in 2018.

Moreover, as was documented by the OSSE study looking into this mess, the matriculation scandal did not occur at charters.  If this sector’s four-year graduation rate remains the same this year as in 2017, although we certainly hope it will improve, the astonishing reality is that there will be a 31.4 percent delta between the number of pupils that graduate in four years from a charter high school compared to the number that graduate in four years from a facility that is a part of DCPS.

Charters will therefore graduate one-third more of their students.  In addition, these schools will most certainly greatly exceed the DCPS graduation rates for important at-risk subgroups of students.  When the DC Public Charter School Board released its graduation statistics last year it made the following observation:

“For five consecutive years, public charter high schools have consistently exceeded the four-year citywide averages for: African American (72.6% graduated), economically disadvantaged (74% graduated), and Hispanic (79.2% graduated).”

We now know that the charter board was greatly underestimating the groundbreaking and astonishing achievements of the schools it oversees.  It is therefore not in anyway an exaggeration to state that if you are a parent sending your child to a high school in the nation’s capital the choice of whether to choose a charter or traditional school has become a potentially life-changing event.

The problem is that there are not a sufficient number of quality charter high school seats.  For the 2017-to-2018 school year, the PCSB has estimated that there is a 1,600-student wait-list.

As Miss Bowser selects a new Deputy Mayor for Education and a new DCPS Chancellor, and as the City Council grapples with how to restructure its relationship with the Mayor in order to prevent the recent problems from re-occurring any time soon, it is imperative that charters must expand to serve as many of our kids as possible.  In this case the numbers really do tell the story.

 

Mayoral control of D.C.’s traditional public schools is in deep trouble

D.C. education observers thought the news could not possibly get any worse.  A National Public Radio and WAMU investigation found that at-risk students attending the city’s traditional schools received high school diplomas despite being absent from class for significant periods of time while recording passing grades for courses they should have failed.  The graduations came as a result of pressure from administrators on teachers to socially promote these kids.  It was discovered that these problems had previously been revealed to Chancellor Antwan Wilson who took no action until the report became public.

Then the once highly respected Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles, founder of the high performing E.L. Haynes PCS, was forced to resign after it was found that she colluded with the Chancellor to have one of his children transferred from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts to Woodrow Wilson High School without having to participate in the school lottery.  The discretionary enrollment violated a new rule preventing this type of action by the head of DCPS, a policy that Mr. Wilson created and signed.  The school to which his daughter was moved has a waiting list of over 600 students.  The Chancellor was asked to leave his post last week.

Yesterday, a new bombshell broke.  City officials looking into the student body at Duke Ellington have found that more than half of the pupils live outside the District of Columbia, with their parents or guardians falsifying their permanent addresses to show they reside in the city so they don’t have to pay the $12,000 a year tuition to attend the school.  Now here’s the part that makes me sick.  The Washington Post article by Peter Jamison, Valerie Strauss, and Perry Stein includes the following accusation:

“That finding was shared in December at a meeting attended by representatives from the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education — which was managing the investigation — and the office of the D.C. attorney general, the officials said.

Shortly after that, a lawyer in the state superintendent’s office told those handling the case in that office to slow-track it because of the risk of negative publicity during a mayoral election year, said the officials with knowledge of the probe. It is unclear how far the investigation has progressed since then.”

So now we have the third and final position comprising Mayoral control of the regular public schools, the State Superintendent of Education, shoulder deep in scandal.   At a news conference yesterday Ms. Hanseul Kang, the State Superintendent, and Mayor Bowser denied that anyone had been asked to delay the review.  But even if this is true, why didn’t anyone know about these findings for almost three months?

Following the resignation of the Chancellor I questioned whether Mayoral control of the traditional public school should continue, a viewpoint that upset the editors of the Washington Post.  I wrote:

“We need to replicate the success that the charter sector has had on the regular school side.  Perhaps there needs to be a DC Public School Board composed of volunteers named by the mayor.  The board would then open and close neighborhood schools based upon a charting system mirrored on the PCSB.  The timing could not be better, as the Office of the State Superintendent of Education is rolling out a five-star rating system for all public schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act.  Schools scoring lower than at least a three could be shuttered.  I’m not sure if this new organization is the answer. Maybe all schools should simply report to the charter board. But I do know that with so much power in the hands of the Mayor, priorities become one person’s prerogative. When it comes to the future of our children, I’m afraid we need something more.”

Now I’m especially convinced that those responsible for our public schools, the DCPS Chancellor and the State Superintendent of Education, need to be independent positions that act as a check and balance to the power of the Mayor, similar to our three branches of government established under the U.S. Constitution.  Perhaps these individuals should report to a non-partisan organization in the model of the DC Public Charter School Board.  Whatever the final structure looks like, inaction is no longer an option.

Now what? Structural changes needed atop D.C.’s traditional schools

The Chancellor and Deputy Mayor for Education are gone, and in the Chancellor’s case he lasted only a year in his position.  It appears that pressure to increase high school graduation rates exerted on school leaders by the person who preceded Mr. Wilson resulted in kids receiving diplomas who did not attend class and who were given passing grades in classes they should have failed.  Mayor Bowser could simply name new individuals to fill these spots but we really cannot go through anything like this again.  It is simply not fair to our kids.

Today, the editors of the Washington Post assert that pointing the blame on Mayoral control of the traditional public schools is the wrong place to look:

“Such thinking is shortsighted. The school system that exists today is a far cry from the sorry state of affairs a decade ago when schools didn’t open on time, teachers went unpaid, expectations for students were low and parents fled the system. The seriousness of the problems related to inflated graduation rates can’t be discounted, but that does not negate what has been accomplished under school reform. In addition to building a prekindergarten system, rigor has been added to the curriculum, new instructional strategies have been introduced and the teaching force has been transformed into a performance-based profession. Enrollment is up, and test scores, including on the highly regarded ‘nation’s report card,’ show improvements in student achievement.”

Yes, the neighborhood schools are in much better shape than when they reported to the D.C. Board of Education.  But in reality what choice was there?  Charter schools were enrolling students from the regular schools in waves.  In fact, it was not until DCPS lost over 25 percent of its population that Michele Rhee entered the picture to try and turn things around.  If something were not done the neighborhood schools would be a ghost town.

Much more drastic improvements are still needed.  The achievement gap, now at about 60 points, is growing, not shrinking, after 20 years of school reform.  At least a dozen, and in reality many more, school buildings sit vacant that could be going to charter schools.  Many DCPS facilities are significantly under-enrolled.  Charters are receiving about $100 million a year less than the regular schools illegally outside of the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula.  Low performing neighborhood schools are allowed to continue operating in perpetuity, while charters that demonstrate poor academic results are closed.

We need to replicate the success that the charter sector has had on the regular school side.  Perhaps there needs to be a DC Public School Board composed of volunteers named by the mayor.  The board would then open and close neighborhood schools based upon a charting system mirrored on the PCSB.  The timing could not be better, as the Office of the State Superintendent of Education is rolling out a five-star rating system for all public schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act.  Schools scoring lower than at least a three could be shuttered.

I’m not sure if this new organization is the answer.  Maybe all schools should simply report to the charter board.  But I do know that with so much power in the hands of the Mayor, priorities become one person’s prerogative.  When it comes to the future of our children, I’m afraid we need something more.