Individual D.C. public schools are having to perform their own Covid-19 contact tracing

Yesterday, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson held a seven-hour public hearing to gather information on the process of re-opening schools this fall. The Washington Post’s Perry Stein covered the event, focusing only on the experiences of DCPS. For example, she writes:

“Publicly available data indicates that, as of Friday, D.C. Public Schools had reported 370 positive cases among its 52,000 students and 1,088 students were quarantined. There had also been 120 positive cases among the system’s 7,500 employees. The District has an asymptomatic testing program, but so far, it has failed to meet its goal to test at least 10 percent of students for the virus in every school each week.”

Ms. Stein leaves out the 43,857 scholars who learn in our nation’s capital charters, I guess because she insists that these schools are “publicly funded but privately run.” I mean really, if your job is to put into words what is happening in this town’s classrooms cover both sectors or simply refer to yourself as the government-run school reporter.

In her piece she documents parent complaints about how the year is going, including unstandardized procedures if a student tests positive, the lack of a virtual option for families that would rather keep their kids at home, and a dearth of study material when students have to quarantine. But here is the part that I found particularly disturbing:

“The union representing the principals has said the administration of contact tracing has wrongly fallen to individual schools.”

This statement appears to be accurate because the issue is also mentioned by DC Public Charter School Board executive director Dr. Michelle Walker-Davis in her testimony:

“And schools are adapting protocols to keep up with the evolving guidance. The flexibility afforded to LEAs in the interpretation of the guidance has put a lot of pressure and tough decisions on school leaders. Some of that flexibility, intended to account for the unique characteristics of each school community, has made it difficult to explain protocols and procedures to families to get them comfortable with safety plans.

We also hear contact tracing needs to improve. Currently, contact tracing is done at the individual school level by the school staff, based on guidance from DC Health and with support from OSSE. This process is burdensome, taxing already stressed educators, including those at our state education agency, whose primary focus should be on teaching and learning.”

Really, on top of trying to teach kids wearing masks all day and using energy that should be channeled to instruction on keeping scholars safe, the individual staffs of our charters need to contact trace? You have got to be joking. This is the best plan that Mayor Bowser, Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn, and acting D.C. State Superintendent of Education Christina Grant can come up with after all these months on planning? This is ridiculous.

I wish that the DC PCSB and the DC Charter School Alliance had listened to me. Charters have throughout their history taken matters into their own hands. When no one would provide them with a building, even though they are public schools, they figured out how to get them. When the payment from the city didn’t come on time they somehow managed to meet payroll. When a long line of education experts said they couldn’t close the academic achievement gap they produced standardized test scores as high as selective institutions.

The movement needs to stop feeling like they are somehow inferior to traditional facilities. Also, they have to end their fear of the Mayor. Charters must once again be bold in the face of all the odds stacked against them. That is the way we will reach the golden goal of equity.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education exerts pressure to cap number of charter schools

To say this has not been the best Charter School Week in the nation’s capital would be a substantial understatement. Teachers at Mundo Verde Bilingual PCS voted on Wednesday to be represented by a union that would like to see charter schools disappear, and on the same day D.C.’s Deputy Mayor for Education released a memorandum that essentially calls for a cap on the number of new charters approved by the DC Public Charter School Board.

The document by Paul Kihn comes on the eve of decisions by the PCSB regarding how many of the 11 applications for new charters will be approved this coming Monday evening. He is particularly concerned that four high schools could be added to those that already exist:

“From a facility and capacity standpoint, the DME raises concerns about adding up to four new 9th-12th grade high schools to an already significant number of high schools that are operating with relatively small enrollments, have available empty seats, and are competing for a relatively limited number of high-school aged students. In addition, some of the existing LEAs would like to replicate, expand within their current buildings, or expand after finding new facilities, which would already increase the supply of high school seats even more. Currently there are 37 public high schools serving almost 19,000 high school students. Of that amount, 19 high schools are public charters serving approximately 8,100 students. Thirteen of the 19 public charter high schools serve just high school grades (9-12 grades) while another six also include middle grades. For DCPS, 16 high schools serve grades 9th-12th while another two DCPS schools serve grades 6th to 12th.”

But it’s not just the prospect of additional high schools that has Mr. Kihn worried. He has the same feelings about increasing the mix of middle schools:

“The picture is similar for public middle schools, although the population growth has begun sooner than the high school aged population. There are 37 schools serving predominantly middle school grades enrolling approximately 12,000 students. Of those, 23 are public charter schools serving almost 6,300 students. The grade configurations of the middle school public charters vary with nine schools serving 5th-8th grade, another seven charter schools serving 4th-8th grades, and six serving 6th-8th grades. This also does not take into account the PK-8th schools that exist or the 6th-12th grade schools that offer middle grades as well. DCPS offers 13 6th-8th grade middle schools and one 4th-8th grade middle school. The majority of the middle schools also have relatively small enrollments. The DME’s Adequacy Study estimated that small middle schools – estimated at 300 students – would have challenges meeting fixed costs compared to middle schools enrolling at least 600 students. As of SY18-19, 11 public charter middle schools enroll 300 middle school students or fewer and another 10 public charter middle schools have up to only 375 students. For DCPS middle schools, six enroll 300 or fewer students and another four enroll 375 or fewer students. The new applicants are also requesting relatively low enrollment ceilings, between 180 and 320 students. “

The charter board was in no mood to let this information get out unchallenged. The very next day, on Twitter, it exclaimed, “@DMEforDC‘s report is flawed in many ways, which we’ll discuss at Monday’s board meeting. Most significantly the analysis ignores the question of school quality, here’s why we DC needs more quality schools.” Then in a blog post on the organization’s website it wrote:

“Despite concerns about ‘under-utilization’ by the DC Deputy Mayor of Education, families are choosing public charter schools for their students. This year, 59% of public charter schools had longer waitlists than they did last year, and roughly 67% of applicants on waitlists are waiting for a seat at a top-ranking public charter school. Quality matters to families. This is why we want to ensure that there are excellent options available throughout the city.    

Currently, public charter schools offer the only 4 STAR schools in Wards 7 and 8, across seven different schools that educate grades PK3-12. Outside of Ward 3, 23.6% of DCPS students in schools with STAR scores attend a 4 or 5 STAR school, compared to 32.5% of public charter school students. As the graph below shows, there is a need to provide more quality middle school seats for families residing in Wards 5, 7, and 8, in particular.”

The PCSB continued:

“For families seeking quality high schools, the situation is far worse. Wilson High School is the only non-selective DCPS high school in the city that earned a 4 STAR rating, compared to the 12 citywide, open admission public charter high schools. Families are choosing to send their students to a 3 STAR or higher school; see the graph below. Additionally, based on the My School DC lottery results, every public charter high school (except for the alternative programs) has a waitlist. While we debate under-utilization, families continue to wait for a seat at a top-ranking school to become available. Based on My School DC data, more than half of the public charter high school applicants applying to a high school live in Wards 7 and 8. The graph below shows there is a need for more quality high school programs.”

Mr. Kihn is obviously petrified that if these charters open families will flock away from DCPS to their new classrooms.

You probably already know my reaction to this quandary. In response to what is a clear effort by the Deputy Mayor for Education, and therefore the Mayor, to pressure the PCSB not to approve more schools, and therefore to limit parental choice, I think it should allow all 11 to begin operating.

In addition, once these new entities are given the go ahead, by law a requirement must be added that the Deputy Mayor of Education provide them with adequate facilities.

Paul Kihn’s vision for D.C.’s traditional public schools

Courtesy of WAMU’s Jenny Abamu, I read with interest an article appearing in Education Week by Paul Kihn, the gentleman D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced yesterday she has nominated to be her next Deputy Mayor for Education. In the piece, Mr. Kihn describes his vision for the new urban school district, which he refers to as 2.0 districts, coexisting with charter schools. He states:

“To accomplish the change to 2.0, district leaders will need to manage well and meet high standards, particularly as the Every Student Succeeds Act sustains a federal focus on equity and promotes more innovative, local control. District leaders will need to work hard to shift suspicious, beleaguered cultures and will need the courage to stop acting as if teachers were inconvenient guests (as opposed to MVPs on the team). They need to stop wondering how to “engage” the community and start ceding some decisionmaking rights to parents. Many have already started down this path, including leaders in Denver, Philadelphia, and Washington. Each of these cities is an imperfect example, but their leaders have acknowledged that the monopoly is over and the time for reinvention is now. The district is dead. Long live the district.”

Have leaders in Washington D.C. really “acknowledged that the monopoly is over?” Not by a long shot. If this were the reality, we would see much different policy decisions by the Mayor and City Council. First of all, and most importantly, our elected representatives would turn over to charters for their immediate use the over one million square feet of surplus building capacity they are illegally holding. Second, these individuals would treat charter school facilities on an equal basis to those of DCPS, providing the same capital improvement dollars to which traditional schools have access. Next, they would make services available to charters, such as building maintenance, legal representation, bookkeeping, and information technology that are provided for free to the regular institutions.

In fairness, charters may not want the D.C. government so intertwined in their business. There is a simple solution to this problem: end once and forever the funding inequity that Friends of Choice in Urban Schools has been desperately trying to fix that provides students of DCPS $1,600 to $2,600 a child per year more than charters receive.

If there was no monopoly, then there would be one other major change in the way public education is being conducted in the nation’s capital. The many DCPS schools that are failing our children, particularly the ones that house the most at-risk kids, those children living in poverty whose lives are on a trajectory of failure, would be immediately closed. Just like the Tier 3 charters that have been shuttered over the years, they would be turned over to operators that specialize in helping educate scholars that others find impossible to teach.

Welcome to Washington, D.C., Mr. Kihn. There is much work to be done and we will be watching.