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.

 

 

 

 

 

Washington Post editors miss the main point about public school reform

The editors of the Washington Post came out yesterday strongly against proposals by D.C. Councilmembers David Grosso and Mary Cheh which would divorce the Office of the State Superintendent of Education from strict Mayoral control.  I agree with the representatives, and have argued that having the Chancellor, Deputy Mayor for Education, and State Superintendent all under the authority of the Mayor inherently injects politics into the traditional schools.  Since the city’s chief executive needs votes to stay in office, the individual in this position will use the office to craft a view of the educational landscape that may not match reality.   Under the system currently in place in the nation’s capital regarding the public schools, it is predictable that a scandal would develop regarding a greatly inflated high school graduation rate.  Unfortunately, in this case, young children suffered because of a structure created by adults.

However, all of the recent controversies around diplomas, admission preference provided to the Chancellor, and residency fraud are not my main interest.  I’m trying to figure out how to quickly increase academic achievement for all of our kids, and especially those that are living in poverty, up to the rates seen by those who reside in our affluent neighborhoods.  Instead of PARCC scores in the teens or twenties I want them in the seventies.  Today.  So how do we get there?

I’m an extremely optimistic person but have to admit here that I don’t see a path forward that will lead our scholars to this endpoint, perhaps ever.  Don’t get me wrong.  There are plenty of great local charter schools that are closing the achievement gap.  They are doing this for hundreds of kids a year.  This is not what I’m talking about.  I want to change the world for the 91,537 students enrolled in all of our public schools.

To reach this state would take a complete rethinking about how we deliver education in this city.  It says much about what institutions are permitted to continue teaching our young people and expand, and which need to immediately close their doors.  Let’s be honest with each other this morning.  Without naming specific individuals because that may upset them, do you see any of our leaders across the traditional or charter school sectors making the argument for this type of transformation?  The answer is sadly no.

We need a Michael Bloomberg, Joel Klein, or Michelle Rhee to come to the rescue.  Someone who is willing to fight the fight despite the political bruises that will be received by those fiercely protecting the status quo.  A new hero that will sacrifice his or her time and energy for the betterment of our society.  An individual who will decide to show that it can be done.

Until this knight in shining armor comes along I’m willing to wait.  But I’m inpatient and now I’m pacing around the room.  I know we can do this, I really do.  The only question is when?

 

 

D.C. Council moves to restrict Mayoral control of traditional public schools

In the aftermath of the multiple scandals that have plagued DCPS, I predicted that Mayoral control of public schools in the nation’s capital would be weakened. I strongly believe that at this point in our local history of public school reform this is the right path to take. Whenever there is one person that selects the Deputy Mayor for Education, the State Superintendent of Education, and Chancellor, politics is going to categorize the behavior of these offices. The explanation for this phenomenon is straightforward. The Mayor is dependent upon votes to maintain her position so there will necessarily be politics involved in carrying out tasks that should be politics-free. People always act according to their nature.

Yesterday, Education Committee Chairman David Grosso introduced legislation at the D.C. Council that would increase the term of the State Superintendent of Education from four years to six years. The bill also would permit the State Superintendent to be removed only for cause and would allow this individual to fill positions under his or her authority instead of having the Mayor make these decisions. According to the Washington Post’s Perry Stein, Mr. Grosso commented about his proposed legislation, “I have looked for every angle I can to try and remove politics from education policies in the city, and this is one more step toward making that happen.”

Also on Tuesday, Councilmember Mary Cheh brought forth an act that would have the State Superintendent named by the Board of Education. She remarked, according again to Ms. Stein, “In the scheme of things, I am very concerned about concentrating all power in single hands.”

Exactly right. I would go even further. My recommendation is to allow the Mayor to appoint members to a board similar to the DC Charter School Board. Then I would have the State Superintendent of Education and the Chancellor report to this body. The Deputy Mayor for Education would have a seat at the table and represent the city’s leader in policy matters before the panel.

Mayor Bowser is naturally against the moves by Mr. Grosso and Ms. Cheh. In yesterday’s article by Ms. Stein about the actions by the councilmembers, the Interim Deputy Mayor for Education Ahnna Smith asserted, “The students of the District of Columbia can ill afford misguided education legislation that moves our city backwards more than a decade and undermines the hard work of our teachers, administrators and staff.” True, but what we really cannot afford as a community is cheating when it comes to students meeting high school graduation requirements, an acceptance of residency fraud, and preferred placement for the children of the Chancellor.

It is time to take a drastically different approach.

U.S. Education Secretary DeVos pays visit to Friendship Public Charter School

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein details today that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visited three traditional public schools yesterday to congratulate them on their recent PARCC results.  The DCPS elementary schools, Amidon-Bowen, Hendley, and Simon, each scored greater than the 2.8 city-wide average increase in English and the 2.5 improvement in math over the previous year and each serves primarily low income children.  She delivered cookies and a congratulatory note at each stop.  The appearances were a surprise to the schools.

What Ms. Stein failed to mention is that Ms. Devos also went to Friendship PCS.  Chief Executive Officer Patricia Brantley in her Facebook post does not mention the name of the campus where Ms. DeVos posed for a picture with some of the students but I bet it was Technology Preparatory High School, the same location that was featured by Ms. Stein in a story the other day.  As the DC Public Charter School Board highlighted last week, Tech Prep had the greatest increase in standardized test scores of all charters compared to 2017 rising 22.3 percent in English and 13.6 percent in math.

Ms. DeVos’s show of support is exactly the right move by someone in her position.  As people in leadership know, everything  you do and say is going to be watched and scrutinized by those around you so it is critically important to be intentional in all of your actions.

The Education Secretary’s choice stands in sharp contrast to the decision of D.C. Mayor Bowser as to where to start her Monday morning on the beginning of the new school year.  She went to Excel Academy, the closed all-girl charter school that has converted to be part of DCPS.  One reason that has been offered for the institution’s decision to become a regular school instead of being taken over by KIPP DC PCS or Friendship was that it wanted to avoid the strict accountability that it experienced under the PCSB.  Bringing attention to a school that was shuttered for low academic performance is not exactly the message of high expectations that you want to send to each of our public school families and students.

Ms. Bowser sent a similar communication when she stated that she could wait until after her Democratic primary contest was concluded to begin the search for a new Chancellor.  Antwan Wilson, the previous person in this position, resigned on February 20, 2018.  The primary was on June 29th, four months later.  Ms. Bowser had no real opponent.  The decision just shouts loud and clear that education is not a priority.

I am convinced that it is intentionality that separates the charters that succeed from those that do not. I have heard the term consistently emphasized by the school leaders that are in charge of some of the most respected schools in our city.   It is one of most prominent characteristics I see in the heads of organizations that I respect and admire.  Perhaps if we really want to see PARCC scores go up dramatically in this town we all need to adopt a strictly intentional attitude around learning.

 

 

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.