Federal judge dismisses D.C. charter school funding inequity lawsuit

The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss reported last evening that U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan has rejected a three year old lawsuit coordinated by FOCUS and brought by Washington Latin PCS, Eagle Academy PCS, and the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools charging that DCPS has for years illegally received, and continues to receive, funding outside of the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula.

Charters contend that the traditional schools have been provided about $100 million per year more than the charters through services and other revenue sources to which charters do not have access.  The case was a major test of language contained in the School Reform Act dictating that money for public schools must be allocated according to the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula based solely on the number of pupils enrolled.  The argument, most forcefully made by the former FOCUS executive director Robert Cane, was that the Mayor and City Council have no legal authority to provide dollars to the regular school system to which charters are not also granted.  His point was solidly supported in the 2013 Adequacy Study, which was completed under the prior Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith.

Apparently, the decision came down last Saturday.  Little information is currently available about the ruling except for Ms. Strauss’ assertion that “the judge stated clearly that the District’s funding practices do not violate the School Reform Act and that the plaintiffs have ‘no standing to challenge the District’s enrollment calculation method for’ D.C. Public Schools.”

The legal action only came about after years of negotiations between charter and government leaders got nowhere.  The news of a lawsuit was announced here.

This is a major blow for funding equity in the nation’s capital between the two sectors, and it will have major implications.  For example, as part of the new DCPS contract with the D.C. Teachers’ Union, and the retroactive raise in salaries that it contains, it was estimated that charters would get an additional $51.2 million in extra funding due to the UPSFF.  Now, it is unclear whether the city is bound to that commitment.

More information will be shared as the ruling becomes publicly available.  Also, not known at this time is whether attorney Stephen Marcus is planning on appealing Judge Chutkan’s opinion.

But for now, it is an extremely dark day for fairness, equality, justice, and dignity when it comes to the way our city, the nation’s capital, supports our public schools.

 

 

The 2017 FOCUS Gala

Last Thursday evening my wife Michele and I had the absolute pleasure of attending the annual Friends of Choice in Urban Schools Gala.  The event, held at the LongView Gallery, commemorated 21 years of charter schools first operating in the District of Columbia.  Upgraded from prior anniversaries, the agenda began with a policy forum entitled “Proof Point City:  How Healthy Competition Has Benefited All Public School Students in D.C.”  The panel discussion was facilitated by David Osborne, of the Progressive Policy Institute, and included Josephine Baker, the former executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board; Ward 7 Councilmember and former D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray; George Parker, former president of the Washington Teachers’ Union; and Scott Pearson, the executive director of the PCSB.

Mr. Osborne did an admirable job leading the conversation.  The most interesting comments came from Mr. Parker.  He revealed that his support for school choice had become more positive over time.  He recalled an occasion when he spoke to a middle school class and at the end of his talk a student asked him what the head of a teachers’ union did.  Mr. Parker answered that he made sure that schools had the best teachers and that facilities had the resources they needed to provide a quality education.  He stated that after the lecture a pupil came up and gave him a hug.  He asked the young girl why she had approached him.  She commented it was because he had said that he was making sure she had great teachers.  Mr. Parker admitted that on the way home in his car he realized he was a hoax because he had just spent $10,000 arbitrating in support of keeping a teacher’s job who in no way should have been in the classroom.

There were so many of my heroes gathered in this space that I lost count.  I spoke to Susan Schaeffler, the founder and CEO of KIPP DC PCS; Jessica Wodatch, founder and executive director of Two Rivers PCS; Linda Moore, founder of the Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom PCS; Jennifer Niles, D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education and founder of E.L. Haynes PCS; Marquita Alexander, head of Washington Yu Ying PCS; Donald Hense, the founder and chairman of Friendship PCS; Joe Smith, co-founder and CEO of Eagle Academy PCS; and Dr. Marco Clark; founder and CEO of Richard Wright PCS whose school’s six members of the instrumental ensemble entertained the overflow crowd. Also in attendance was Malcolm Peabody, the founder of FOCUS who had just been inducted into the National Charter School Hall of Fame.  The common theme among all of these guests was the unbelievably energetic and supportive job Irene Holtzman is doing in her role as the executive director of FOCUS.

The formal part of the program included three new inductees into the D.C. Charter School Hall of Fame.  Irasema Salcido, the founder of the Cesar Chavez PCS’s for Public Policy, tried to bring the attendees back to what is was like when she first opened her school twenty years ago.  Please don’t ever underestimate what Ms. Salcido did for public education.  After her first year when she started with about 75 high school freshman, she held back 75 percent of her students because they were not ready to advance academically to the next grade.  Nothing had ever been done like this in the nation’s capital.  Previously, kids were socially promoted all of the way to graduation.  This petit woman who came to the United States as a teenager speaking no English sent shock waves across our town and our nation.

Cassandra Pinkney was also inducted on this night.  This is someone I never had the delight of meeting who passed away suddenly in 2016.  But I have visited Eagle Academy, the charter she co-founded along with Mr. Smith, and was blown away by the work in early childhood education being done there.  Mr. Smith recollected that when Ms. Pinkney a couple of decades ago first began discussing providing universal access to school for three and four-year olds no one had ever considered such a idea.  It was therefore highly appropriate that as part of the panel discussion Mr. Gray had stated that the introduction of universal preschool when he was the city’s chief executive was one of the achievements for which he was most proud.  Mr. Smith also informed us that Eagle Academy was the first charter in the city to accept students with the highest level four special education disabilities.

But the absolute highlight for me were the words of Robert Cane, the former FOCUS executive director who was the third D.C. Charter School Hall of Fame inductee.  He reminded all of us gathered together as to why there is a FOCUS in the first place, which is namely to protect the autonomy of charter schools.  He passionately observed:

“Our charter school law gives school leaders the ability, if they’re able, to provide a good education to their students.  It gives the school leadership, and no one else, the right to decide on the school’s staffing; to choose and manage its curriculum and instructional methods; to decide how to spend the school’s money; and to set all school and student policies.

These are your rights as school leaders.  And, like other rights, they have to be fought for, day in and day out, because no one but you and your advocates cares about them.  To everyone else they’re just an impediment to the achievement of their policy objectives, few of which mirror yours.

In spite of our best efforts, during the years I was executive director these rights were significantly eroded.  And as you know, the effort to erode them continues today.  Just recently, for example, the Public Charter School Board, in violation of the law and its own policies, prevented one of our top performing schools from serving more kids because of its suspension rate.  And a new version of the Language Access Act, which we thought we had defeated three years ago, is back in even more egregious form.  This kind of stuff goes on all the time.

The point I want to make here is that it doesn’t matter how you feel about student suspension or the importance of having a language access coordinator who speaks Spanish.  What is important is that each one of these governmental actions, if brought to fruition, further eats away at your fundamental right to run your school as you see fit.  And if you can’t run your school as you see fit, you’re not running a charter school.  So keep fighting.

Finally, let me urge you to be wary of those who promote the notion that “collaboration” with the other sector on such things as admissions and other important school policies represents the way forward to better schools.  No proof of this thesis is offered; what’s more, most of the people urging collaboration have a long history of seeking to achieve goals that have nothing to do with preserving your ability to run a good school. Quite the opposite.

The truth, perhaps a sad one, is that we didn’t get here by collaborating with anybody; we got here by working day in and day out to provide good schooling to DC kids, and, to the best of our ability, guarding the freedoms that make it possible, against all odds, to do so.  Continuing on this path is the only way forward.”

This celebration, in all of its glory, rededicated ourselves to following Mr. Cane’s advice.

The FOCUS DC Charter School Conference

As I wrote about a few days ago, last week was the first annual DC Charter School Conference sponsored by Friends of Choice in Urban Schools.  Every since I attended the event last Thursday I have not been able to stop thinking about it.

I’ve already let you in on some of the action.  There were over 400 enthusiastic participants at this meeting made up of teachers, school administrators, and other public education stakeholders.  But how could they be anything other than excited when you start with a passionate Keynote Address by Dr. Howard Fuller, followed by perfectly choreographed dance recitals performed by pairs of students of Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School.

Once the general session was over it was time to attend the breakout sessions.  There were actually 38 of these that attendees could choose among and they were grouped into 11 various categories such as development, governance, data, communications, and of course, facilities.  Here is my next takeaway from the experience: everything was exceptionally well organized.  You never would have known that this was the first time something like this had been attempted.  From the refreshments in the morning to the audiovisual effects in the conference rooms, and the happy hour at the end of the meetings, it appeared that this was simply another iteration of a long-established tradition in our nation’s capital.

I had the great pleasure of sitting in on the first advocacy session.  This was a panel discussion featuring my hero Jack McCarthy, president, CEO, and founder of AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School; Dr. Ramona Edelin, executive director of the DC Association of Public Chartered Schools; and Stephen Marcus, an attorney with the Marcus Firm, PLLC and the lead council for the FOCUS-led charter school funding inequity lawsuit against the city.  The facilitator for the conversation was Jeanne Allen, the Center for Education Reform’s CEO.  Each member spoke in turn giving a brief history of our local charter school movement.  A common theme quickly emerged from their comments.  With the exception of Mr. Marcus, they argued that Washington D.C.’s charter schools have lost the autonomy that was guaranteed to them through the School Reform Act of 2005 as it was passed by Congress.  Mr. McCarthy stated that he knew that the situation had really changed when he had to hire his first compliance officer, a position he stated that almost all charters now possess.  The participants bemoaned the fact that charter schools were established to be the fountainheads of innovation in public education but due to the ranking of schools through almost the sole reliance on high stakes tests and the amount of information required to be submitted to the DC Public Charter School Board, they have begun to resemble the schools to which they were meant as an alternative.  This point was best expressed in a recent Education Week article by Ms. Allen:

“The operational freedom initially afforded to charters through law, in exchange for performance-based accountability, caught a regulatory fervor that its own advocates invited. Charters are slowly morphing into bureaucratic, risk-averse organizations fixated on process over experimentation. Such organizational behavior is called isomorphism, allowing once-innovative organizations to resemble those they disrupted. The root cause has been a regulatory push of laws at both the state and federal levels. These have empowered state agencies to micromanage everything from the approval to the authorization of charters. Some call it accountability. Others know it better as bureaucracy.”

Mr. Marcus disagreed with this assessment, stating that charters are afforded a bargain which he expressed as freedom to govern themselves in exchange for accountability of results.  He explained that there is a natural tension between autonomy and oversight, and he revealed that he often has to challenge the PCSB on its overreach of its authority.

This debate will not end anytime soon.  Anytime public dollars are involved in funding our schools there will be demands for a return on the investment.  The critical problem is that the groundbreaking improvements that come through the workings of the free market are diminished when regulatory chains are applied.

A thrilling EdFest 2016

Last Saturday my wife Michele and I had the great pleasure of heading over to the DC Armory to attend EdFest 2016.  Picture this:  hundreds of parents with children in tow visiting row after row of information booths representing public schools in the nation’s capital.  The timing of the event is perfect in that the common lottery, My School DC, opens today.

This is the third time for this annual gathering, which in the past was known as the Charter School Expo.  In one of the most visually symbolic manifestations of cooperation between the two sectors, charters and traditional schools not only share the same space; they are located right next to each other due to being positioned in alphabetical order.  In fact, you really had to pay close attention to determine whether a particular school was under the umbrella of the DC Public Charter School Board or DCPS.

Because of the significance of the occasion the leaders of each branch were in attendance.  Scott Pearson, PCSB executive director, traversed the crowd, speaking to many of the charter leaders manning booths.  Jennie Niles, the Deputy Mayor for Education, also greeted the guests.  I was extremely interested in talking to Antwan Wilson, Mayor Bowser’s nominee to be the next DCPS Chancellor, but Ms. Niles stated that he had been sent home because lately he had been seeing more of her than his own wife.  The Deputy Mayor added that she was proud of the job Mr. Wilson had done before his confirmation hearing before the D.C. Council just last Thursday.

We also had the pleasure of seeing Keith Gordon, the always upbeat chief operating officer of Fight for Children.  He was there with his two kids and if you include Mr. Pearson and Ms. Niles along with the two of us then astonishingly you had together five attendees of last week’s exceptionally elegant retirement party for Michela English, Fight for Children’s president and chief executive officer, held at the RIS Restaurant in Northwest.  Mr. Gordon becomes head of the organization January 1, 2017.

But the absolute highlight for us was visiting the folks from IDEA Public Charter School.  Michele was greeted as a rock star because she had written not too long ago a Washington Post real estate section cover story about the school’s partnership with the Academy of Construction and Design, which trains students at the charter to be able to work as electricians, carpenters, and mechanics.  Justin Rydstrom, the head of the school, welcomed us warmly between talking to prospective school parents, and Shelly Karriem, the program director, joined Michele and about five other excited staff members and scholars in a group photograph.  Ms. Karriem pointed out that right behind us was a framed copy of Michele’s article that Mr. Rydstrom had prepared for all to see.

We also had the chance to converse with representatives from Friends of Choice in Urban Schools and Serving our Children, the group that now administers the Opportunity Scholarship Program.  In fact, there were so many people to talk to it was exceedingly difficult to leave.  We are already looking forward to next year.

District should settle charter school funding inequity lawsuit

Yesterday’s blog post generated some comments around my observation that the “FOCUS-coordinated funding inequity lawsuit never gets mentioned.”  It turns out that there currently is much discussion around this legal action. My understanding is that charter schools have been updated regarding progress. The lead attorney in the case tells me that it will take until at least March, 2017 and in all likelihood beyond this period.

This is of course, totally unacceptable.  The complaint was brought in 2014.  The law in this case is simple and straightforward.  The School Reform Act that authorized the creation of charter schools in the District as passed by the U.S. Congress established that a “uniform formula will be used to provide operating budgets on the basis of enrollment for the school system as a whole and for individual public charter schools.”

But from the beginning DCPS has received services and dollars to which charter schools have not had access, totaling over $770 million at the time that the legal challenge began.  It amounts to, according to the suit, “$14 million to nearly $80 million each year from 2008 through 2012 equating to $2,150 for each pupil per year that DCPS has received that charters have not.”  The lawsuit deals with operating funds and does not touch the additional great unfairness in the money the traditional schools are provided for facilities to which charters do not have access.

Enough is enough.  Instead of arguing this matter in the courts, Mayor Bowser’s administration should utilize the Cross Sector Collaboration Task Force or some other avenue to settle this matter once and for all.  The time is right.  We have in Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles someone who understands this issue first-hand as the founder of E.L. Haynes PCS.  Ms. Bowser has shown great leadership when it has come to attempting to reduce homelessness and increasing the quantity of affordable housing.  There is a great opportunity here to extend her influence to a matter that will directly impact the well-being of our city’s children.

D.C. charter school enrollment approaching equity with traditional public schools

Today, Alejandra Matos of the Washington Post reveals the highly encouraging news that enrollment in D.C.’s charter schools increased by seven percent from a year ago.  This movement, that began just 20 years ago, and which over the past several years has seen its share of public school students seemingly stuck at 44 percent, jumped from 38,905 students to 41,677 this term reaching an astonishing share of 46 percent of all public school students enrolled in the District of Columbia.  The change represents an additional 2,772 scholars attending charters.

Incredibly, the rise in the charter school student body could have been significantly greater.  There are currently an estimated 8,640 pupils on charter school wait lists.

DCPS, which had been growing in enrollment by about one and three quarters percent a year for the last four years following eight years of decline, saw only 338 additional students enter the system for the 2016 to 2017 term.  The Post indicates that 90,500 children are now taught in all D.C. public schools, a rise of three percent from last year.

It appears that even to this day with all of the improvements made to the traditional school facilities and programs, parents continue to vote with their feet in choosing a charter school education as the preferred path to guarantee a strong future for their children.

Of course, the logical question in the face of this data is why is it that charter schools continue to be denied the same level of funding as the regular schools?  A FOCUS engineered funding equity lawsuit brought by the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools, Washington Latin PCS, and Eagle Academy PCS estimates that DCPS receives for each child an additional $1,600 to $2,600 a year in operating revenue from the city outside of the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula that charters do not get.  This amounts to about $100 million a term.

It is only fair and right that with enrollment equity comes funding equity.  Charters have had to make due with this shortfall from the beginning and therefore for far too many years.

FOCUS analysis of PARCC scores show charter school progress

For years I’ve enjoyed the data analysis performed by FOCUS after the annual release of D.C. public schools’ standardized test scores.  2016 is no different in that the organization’s review of PARCC results demonstrates that charters are outperforming DCPS in almost every grade level in English and math.  The overall variation for students attending charters versus DCPS for ratings of 4 and 5, in other words kids that were found to be at grade level and on the way to college readiness, was 4 points in reading and 2.5 points in math.

While these statistics are not impressive the difference becomes much greater when you examine subgroups of pupils in the third grade, a key time in a kid’s education.  The indicator that I immediately go to is the one for low-income children.  Here, charters outperform the traditional schools 25 percent to 14 percent in reading and 38 percent to 24 percent in math.

Still, these numbers are so low.  In addition, if you examine the overall results for students living in poverty you will see that the combined average receiving a 4 or 5 for charters is 23 percent compared to the DCPS percentage of 14.6.  This is a difference of 8.4 points.

The one number that does get me excited from the FOCUS review is the number of kids scoring in the college readiness range for those living in Wards 7 and 8.  Here charters have 1,114 pupils in this category in English versus 414 for DCPS.  In math the pattern is the same with 1,189 students in charter schools scoring a 4 or 5 while in DCPS the number is 486.

Perhaps there is some room for optimism.

The 2016 FOCUS Gala

Last Thursday my wife Michele and I had the tremendous pleasure of attending the 2016 Friends of Choice in Urban Schools gala which celebrated the 20th anniversary of the start of Washington, D.C.’s charter school movement.  In keeping with the evening’s theme, planners of the event included multiple clever reminders of 1996.  For example, participants arriving at a function customarily receive an identification badge.  Not tonight.  Guests were greeted with various brightly colored slap bracelets imprinted with their names.  The cocktail tables held containers filled with candy from the era such as Pop Rocks.  Surrounding the treats were origami fortune telling squares of paper like those I can remember making with my kids.  I imagine that the one I tried stated “you will meet the love of your life” which has been true for over three decades.

The tables also included highly professional glossy brochures detailing the program, complete with a history of charters in the nation’s capital.

The setting for the celebration was spectacularly beautiful.  Hundreds gathered at the Mexican Cultural Institute on 16th Street, N.W.  The elegant mansion was designed by Nathan Wyeth and George Fuller, the same architects as the White House’s West Wing.  My wife and I felt like we were back in Mexico City as murals painted by Roberto Cueva del Río in the tradition of artist Diego Rivera graced many of the walls.  We were in for an excellent experience.

Prominent leaders in education reform in this town joined us for the festivities.  These included D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, State Superintendent of Education Hanseul Kang, Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles, D.C. Council Ward 4 representative Brandon Todd, Former Louisiana U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu, former PCSB  chairman Tom Nida, current PCSB chairman Dr. Darren Woodruff, former PCSB executive directors Nelson Smith and Josephine Baker, current PCSB executive director Scott Pearson, executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools Dr. Ramona Edelin, and Building Hope’s president Joe Bruno.

There was a cocktail hour with an open bar and appetizers in which heads of some of the most recognized local charters congregated over lively conversation.  It was here that I ran into Irene Holtzman, FOCUS’s executive director.  I asked her what it was like for her to be hosting this gala for the first time.  “I’m excited to have this opportunity, particularly because this is the 20th anniversary of our local movement,” Ms. Holtzman stated.  “This is a special year for FOCUS as we inaugurate the new Charter School Hall of Fame.  I’ve closely followed the amazing progress of charters in this city, and so it is especially poignant for me that at this point in our history I find myself in this role.”

It was soon time to move into an adjoining room for the presentations and recognition of the Hall of Fame inductees.  As the FOCUS executive director had mentioned these awards had not been given out in the past, but the event ran like clockwork as if the ceremony was old hat.  Perhaps this was because it would have been hard to find three more deserving people to join the initial cohort.  The winners were Sonia Gutierrez, founder of Carlos Rosario International PCS; my hero Donald Hense, founder of Friendship PCS; and Malcolm (Mike) Peabody, founder of FOCUS.  Maquita Alexander, FOCUS board member and head of Washington Yu Ying PCS, introduced Ms. Gutierriez.  Mary Procter, FOCUS board member and former chief operating officer of Friendship, gave opening remarks about Mr. Hense, and Karl Jentoft, FOCUS board chair, provided the background information regarding Mr. Peabody.  If I had to find one common element to the words of those joining the Hall of Fame, it would be the grateful recognition that they each paid to Josephine Baker for her invaluable assistance during her time at the PCSB.

At this point in the program we heard from Mayor Muriel Bowser.  She congratulated FOCUS and the movement on its first 20 years, and she took the opportunity to announce that she has put forward the largest public education budget in D.C.’s history. The Mayor committed to her unwavering support of public school reform, and she expressed her  strong desire to work with all stakeholders in a collaborative fashion to strengthen each sector.  Final remarks were offered by FOCUS’s senior director of government relations Michael Musante, who sincerely thanked Mayor Bowser and Council Chairman Mendelson for their enthusiastic backing of the Congressional SOAR Act, the legislation that contains within it the Opportunity Scholarship Program.

As was mentioned in my interview with Ms. Holtzman last November, much of her school experience took place at KIPP D.C.  So it was only fitting that the last item on the program was a 90’s dance compilation from Mr. Sorto’s Kindergarten class at KIPP D.C.’s Promise Academy PCS.  About a dozen of cute and well-behaved children put on a flawless performance to songs such as “The Macarena,” and “U Can’t Touch This.”  The audience was encouraged to join in.  All in all it is was a party perfectly suited for schools proudly teaching 44 percent of all kids in our neighborhoods.

 

 

Exclusive interview with Irene Holtzman, executive director of FOCUS

I had the distinct privilege of sitting down recently with Irene Holtzman, the newly selected executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools. The first question I wanted to ask her is why she was the one selected for the position. “Well, you would really have to ask our board of directors that question,” Ms. Holtzman explained. “I had substantial advocacy experience in my decade of work at KIPP DC interacting with OSSE, the D.C. Council, and the DC Public Charter School Board. Most of my efforts were around the fair and equal treatment of schools. As a result of this activity, I developed close relationships with charter school leaders based primarily on trust. It took me 10 years to cultivate these bonds and I am still continually trying to strengthen them.”

Ms. Holtzman thought that another reason she may have been picked is that she understands the environment that is necessary for a charter school to succeed. “KIPP DC thrives under the conditions of autonomy, equity, and accountability,” the FOCUS executive director asserted, “and I believe all schools deserve the opportunity to operate under these settings.”

I next wanted to know what it felt like to follow Robert Cane in her new role. Ms. Holtzman answered without hesitation. “These are extremely big shoes to fill. He was here almost from the beginning. Robert is a highly effective attorney and a great orator. He has a tremendous belief in the good work that these schools and school leaders do on a daily basis. In my opinion, what really led him to doing a fantastic job here at FOCUS was his constant vigilance around protecting charter school autonomy and fighting for financial equity. As most of us know, Robert was also not afraid to take controversial positions. While my leadership style is different, if I can accomplish half of what he did I will be happy.”

We then talked about her initial plans for her organization. “My immediate goal was to visit all schools in my first 90 days, although I didn’t quite make it,” Ms. Holtzman detailed. “In general, I would like to further strengthen our partnerships with the charter schools and the charter support sector so we can present a unified agenda. Toward this aim we have begun developing our new strategic plan for FOCUS. But the first subject on my mind is the acquisition of facilities for charter schools.”

I asked her if she had a plan to accomplish this task. “I think we should start by holding the city accountable for conducting a meaningful, transparent Request for Offer process for surplus traditional school buildings. Though DCPS enrollment has increased in recent years, if you look at the numbers, I do not think they will not need all of the vacant school buildings they have over the next 25 years. There are numerous charter schools that could use these facilities now to give students a great education. Instead, we often have to put our charter school students in expensive commercial building that lack green space and other amenities. We are not where we need to be regarding equity for our public school students.”

Perhaps, I wondered, would FOCUS be willing to use legal action to obtain access to surplus building for charters. Ms. Holtzman was not enthusiastic about this suggestion. She observed, “In terms of legal action, FOCUS would not have standing in court because it is not a school. I am hopeful that the city will do the right thing and we will not have to resort to lawyers to enforce existing legislation. But there is a finite limit to the number of tools we have in our toolbox.”

Ms. Holtzman was eager to continue to speak to her plans as executive director. “We want to work directly with the Office of the State Superintendent of Education in a highly cooperative manner. There are many things that Superintendent Hanseul Kang wants to accomplish, and we want to support OSSE’s involvement with the charter school sector in a way that makes sense for the schools.”

A subject on the mind of many involved in public education reform is Mayor Muriel Bowser’s upcoming Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force. I wanted to know from the new FOCUS executive director what she hoped to see come out of its efforts. “First of all, I strongly believe that the group should be composed mostly of leaders from public schools, both charters and DCPS. I feel that there are many areas where partnerships could be formed between the two sectors, but they cannot be mandated. For example, a conversation about establishing feeder pattern across Local Education Agencies is definitely worth having. I could imagine such a relationship being established, as a hypothetical, between existing Montessori elementary schools and a newly established Montessori middle or high school.”

Ms. Holtzman added that the idea of neighborhood admission preference should be discussed further, but again only if it is voluntary. “But in this area,” she added, “we have to be careful. I would first like to see data about the impact of this policy. Schools certainly could not have a one hundred percent neighborhood preference because this would block admittance for low income children to particular institutions. The end goal has to be to provide meaningful school choice to all families.”

One subject the FOCUS executive director was not open to being part of the discussion is where charter schools can be located. “Providing charter schools with access to vacant facilities or under-utilized schools has to be a priority,” Ms. Hotlzman asserted. “In general charter schools have had to work around the limitations and use innovative methods to acquire space. However, the failure of the city to turn over surplus buildings is limiting the number of quality charter school seats available in the nation’s capital.”

Before we ended our meeting Ms. Holtzman wanted me to be aware of a couple of other initiatives that FOCUS offers and is in the process of strengthening. First, the organization is proud of its charter school startup program through which is helps potential charter schools create strong school models that lead to additional high quality seats for District students. The executive director pointed out that during the last application cycle before the PCSB only those schools that went through this program were approved.

In addition, Ms. Holtzman detailed that FOCUS provides performance management consulting services in which data is utilized to help schools improve. But I have to admit that by this point in the interview I had gathered all the information I needed because I had come to an important realization.

I understood that I had answered for myself my initial question of why Ms. Holtzman is now FOCUS’s executive director. Throughout our time together Ms. Holtzman consistently answered my questions in a direct, down-to-earth manner. She is obviously passionate about the success of D.C.’s charter schools, but that passion is expressed in a matter-of-fact casual style. It is as if there is no need to argue a polemic; she is just stating what is true. Her approach gave me a great sense of confidence that FOCUS is in extremely good hands, and therefore so too is our local charter school movement.