D.C. charter schools received $38 million in PPP money

Yesterday, the D.C. Council held an oversight hearing regarding DC Public Schools, the office of the Deputy Mayor for Education, and the charter sector. A few interesting items were brought up in the discussion involving DCPCSB chair Rick Cruz and the organization’s executive director Dr. Michelle Walker-Davis.

First, it was revealed that charters in the nation’s capital have received approximately $38 million in federal government PPP dollars. I have argued in the past that it was wrong for these schools to apply because their funding stream was never disrupted. Here’s some of what I wrote on the subject last July:

“As I drive to work everyday during the week and see all of the businesses that are closed, I think about all of the people now without jobs. My own family has been impacted by the pandemic. To me, taking these extremely limited PPE dollars away from those who are trying to figure out how to put food on the table is nothing less than disgusting.”

However, there is an even more fundamental reason that schools should not take these grants. Remember the FOCUS engineered funding inequity lawsuit? For years charters spoke in value-based terms as to the unfairness of DCPS receiving $100,000 a year in city support that charters could not access. Now the positions are reversed and the traditional schools were prevented from applying for the federal program because they are part of the government and not individual LEA’s. So what did many charters do when faced with this dilemma? They took the extra cash.

This is in addition to the millions of dollars in revenue charters will receive from the Covid-related recovery bills Congress has passed and the extra money Mayor Muriel Bowser has included in her proposed fiscal year 2022 budget. I cannot keep up with all the funding. It should be noted that D.C.’s largest charter networks like KIPP DC PCS and Friendship PCS could not participate in the PPP because they have more than 500 employees.

What happened to the days when charters did the difficult but right thing and set a shining example for others to follow?

One final observation. Council chairman Phil Mendelson asked the charter representatives if they have heard anything about replacement for vacant DC PCSB board seats. As I wrote about the other day, Steve Bumbaugh’s term expired. It turns out that Naomi Shelton’s tenure has also ended but the thought on Tuesday was that she would be re-nominated. I’m not so sure. During one of the recent DC PCSB meetings a member of the public testified that Ms. Shelton should be prevented from voting on the approval of Wildflower PCS’s school applications due to a conflict of interest. The board investigated the complaint with the appropriate agency and determined that the charge was baseless. The discussion resulted in Ms. Shelton providing a long impassioned polemic regarding her work on the board.

If the Mayor needs a nominee for the DC PCSB I just want to mention that I am available.

With no hope of D.C. charter funding equity with DCPS, the alternative sector should change course

Not widely known is that the FOCUS engineered lawsuit brought by Washington Latin PCS, Eagle Academy PCS, and the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools ended quietly in July of 2019 when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit dismissed the legal action on the grounds that the case did not belong in federal court. The original action was brought in part because of an analysis by Mary Levy that found that between the 2008 and 2012 school years the traditional schools received between $72 million and $127 million annually in funding outside of the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula to which charters did not have access. As stipulated in the School Reform Act, all revenue for public school funding must come through the UPSFF.

So now what? Should a new court case be started? This would be my preference but in reality I recognize that the chances of a sequel are nil. FOCUS, who organized the past effort, is no more, replaced by the DC Charter School Alliance. One of the plaintiffs, the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools, also ended operating, being melded into the Alliance. I sense that with charters struggling to open in the face of the pandemic, a fight with the city is about the last thing these institutions want to concentrate on.

I’m calling for a new strategy, one that is already in play. What I’m seeing is that the Alliance is actively seeking assistance from city agencies. Take for example, this recent testimony by founding executive director Shannon Hodge before the D.C. Council’s Committee on Health:

“First, in November, charter school leaders laid out what schools needed from city officials that would enable schools to safely bring more students back to building for in-person learning. We asked the city to provide equitable access to health-related services, including providing at least one nurse or medical professional in every school building who could serve all students, teachers, and staff on site. We also asked for asymptomatic COVID-19 testing. But more importantly, we asked for DC Health to provide clear, updated orders and public health guidance to enable schools to provide quality in-person learning environments for more students during the pandemic. The city responded. DC Health updated public health guidance, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) issued a Frequently Asked Questions document for school leaders, and public charter schools now have access to the city’s asymptomatic testing program. As a result, we have more students in charter school buildings.”

The 2013 Adequacy Study, that the Alliance likes to quote, called out all of the money that DCPS receives to which charters do not receive. This includes “Teacher Pensions,” “Educational Furnishings and Equipment,” “Information Technology Services and Equipment,” “Risk Management, Legal Services, and Settlement,” “General Maintenance—Buildings and Grounds,” “Custodial Services,” and “Utilities.”

Instead of trying to have the Mayor and city council increase funding to charters to cover these expenses, charters should demand that these services also be proved to charters. The argument is simple. It is a matter of equity.

Now I can hear the counterargument in my mind already. Many charter leaders will state that they don’t want things like housekeeping provided by the D.C. government; they believe that it will be done better by the vendor of their choosing. My response to this line of reasoning is that it is fine. Don’t take the help if you don’t want it. But in these times of fiscal restraints the option of charters to take advantage of these offerings could allow the reallocation of expenditures toward augmenting the instructional program.

Moreover, who in the nation’s capital in 2021 could possibly be against equity?

Two local charter school advocacy groups, DC Association of Chartered Public Schools and FOCUS, to merge

Word came yesterday afternoon that the boards of directors of the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools and Friends of Choice in Urban Schools have decided to merge their institutions beginning in 2020. This is big news and at the same time it is not. Every since Irene Holtzman stepped down as FOCUS’s executive director last July, and Education Forward DC sponsored Bellwether Education Partners in completing an analysis of charter school advocacy in our city, the prediction on the street was that these two groups would become a single entity.

The change makes perfect sense. FOCUS was never the same after the retirement of Robert Cane in 2015. It had lost its “take no prisoners” approach to charter school support. This was to be expected. There can be only one Robert Cane. The Association, on the other hand, appeared at times to be unclear about its mission, probably because FOCUS often played the dual roles of political instigator as well as a source of professional development for charter school teachers and leaders. In fact, it has only been recently with the End the List campaign around the release of closed DCPS building to charters that the Association has seemed to become magically reinvigorated.

The press release announcing the unification of the two parties explains the reason behind the move:

“What’s bringing the two organizations together at this moment for public education in the District of Columbia is the mission we share and the need for greater capacity. Both FOCUS and the Association are dedicated to protecting and advancing school quality and choice for DC families by ensuring the autonomy and strength of chartered public schools. By formally merging, we can dramatically increase the work we do on your behalf. The three pillars of this new organization’s work will be advocacy, influence, and school support.”

Both the Association and FOCUS have been in existence since the start of the District of Columbia’s charter school experiment 25 years ago. The announcement continued:

“We’ve decided to take this step after several months in conversation with school leaders and supporters of charter schools, almost all of whom expressed the view that the charter movement would be better served by having one strong organization. By teaming up to form a new organization, the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools and FOCUS will provide all DC charter schools with a strong and unified voice.

The Association and FOCUS’s boards have only just made the decision to merge. Over the next several months, our steps will be guided by a steering committee that includes Pat Brantley and Sekou Biddle, the chairs of the two organizations, along with Robert Cane, Alison Collier, Ramona Edelin, Donald Hense, Justin Rydstrom, and Jessica Wodatch. During the transition to the new entity, each organization will continue to operate under its current leadership, Ramona Edelin at the Association and Alison Collier and Anne Herr at FOCUS. One of the first actions of the steering committee will be to begin a search for an executive director to lead the new organization.”

This is an exciting endeavor. Several of the key players in this decision were thrilled to be able to comment on the milestone.

“We can be more useful to schools and more influential with policymakers as one organization using our combined skills and extensive institutional knowledge to even better serve DC’s charter schools and families,” observed Alison Collier.

Remarked Patricia Brantley, board chair of the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools and CEO of Friendship PCS, “Every year, nearly half of DC’s families choose chartered public schools for their children. It’s our responsibility to ensure that those schools are thriving, high quality and equitably treated. Merging these two organizations will move us closer to being the strong voice and advocate that our schools and families need.”

Added Sekou Biddle, FOCUS board chair, “Aligning the efforts of supporters of charters, choice and innovative education puts us in a stronger position to work toward every child and family in the District of Columbia having access to an excellent education.”

Summing up this effort is Ramona Edelin, executive director DC Association of Chartered Public Schools. “Talking with school leaders and other supporters of DC’s charter schools reinforced the logic of this merger. They want a voice advocating for our sector loudly and clearly, because there are loud and influential forces trying to undercut families’ choices and make charter educators’ work harder. Creating an organization to be that voice makes a lot of sense for this moment.”

With the stepping down of Scott Pearson as executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, the decision the chair of the D.C. Council education committee Councilmember David Grosso not to run for re-election, Councilmember Allen’s charter school transparency bill winding its way to consideration for passage, and a teachers’ union being established at Mundo Verde PCS, this development could not come at a more opportune time.

U.S. Education Secretary goes bold on D.C. voucher plan; others go weak

Another Democratic Congress, another chance to attack the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, the private school voucher plan for kids living in poverty in the nation’s capital. Last week, the Washington Post’s Jenna Portnoy revealed that D.C. Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, together with the the House Oversight and Reform and Education and Labor committees, wrote a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos seeking information expressing concerns about the OSP. According to the reporter:

“Lawmakers said they want to ensure that federal civil rights laws and safety regulations apply to students in the program, according to the three-page letter to DeVos from Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), Education Committee Chairman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.) and Norton.

They requested details about schools participating in the program, including whether they are accredited, whether they are religiously affiliated, how much of their funding comes from the voucher program, whether they have tested drinking water for lead, how many students are disabled and English-language learners, and how many students did not graduate or transferred to another school.”

The questioning comes as Ms. DeVos has moved to increase the number of vouchers awarded to low-income students by raising the budget of the program from its current $45 million dollars a year to $90 million.

The legislative SOAR Act that contains funding for the OSP has been supported locally by Mayor Muriel Bowser and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson because it provides equal dollars to private school vouchers, charter schools, and DCPS, following the three-sector approach championed by the late businessman and philanthropist Joseph E. Robert, Jr. Ms. Portnoy includes in her article the following reaction from the Bowser Administration regarding a challenge to the OSP:

“The program ‘has been instrumental in supporting the District’s three-sector approach on education by providing more opportunities and choices for our students and families,’ Bowser spokeswoman LaToya Foster said in a statement. ‘We have called on Congress to reauthorize and fully fund [it] so that we have the resources we need to continue ensuring every family in every neighborhood has a fair shot at high quality educational opportunities.’

Choices for families are needed now more than ever. The 2019 D.C. lottery just concluded, so we are expecting anytime this year’s charter school student wait list data. However, for the 2019-to-2020 school term there are 9,437 students on DCPS wait lists and last year there were over 11,000 pupils wanting to get into charters who could not. Having your child admitted to your desired public school continues to be a tremendously frustrating experience for District of Columbia families. Ms. DeVos is on exactly the right track.

Not so brave are those trying to defend charters from those that want to see them become a part of history. The latest assault comes in the form of a Trojan Horse complaint about the lack of transparency around charter school board meetings and finances. The D.C. Council has gotten into the act in the form of a bill introduced by Charles Allen that would force a long list of unfunded mandates on charters. In reaction, last week Council Education Chairman David Grosso brought forth an alternative that would force charters to comply with Open Meeting laws and detail expenses for all to see. The legislation is supported by all the remaining council members and, incomprehensibly, by FOCUS. My god, didn’t we just recently close a charter school in part to rid our movement of union activity? Couldn’t someone have similar guts to tell the Council to stay out of a school sector over which it has no authority?

FOCUS Gala 2019: Building Our Future

My wife Michele and I were extremely fortunate to be able to attend last Thursday evening the 2019 FOCUS Gala held at the elegant North Hall of the Eastern Market. The rain was coming down in cold cylindrical pellets outside but inside the space was warm from all the handshakes and hugs given and received from men and women who for years have worked day in and day out to transform public education in the nation’s capital.

Inducted in the FOCUS Hall of Fame on this night were David Domenici and James Forman Jr., co-founders in 1997 of Maya Angelou Public Charter Schools and The See Forever Foundation. They were provided with plaques from Irene Holtzman, FOCUS’s executive director, but in a sense there is no amount of recognition that would be too high for these individuals. We know that many charters enrolls students that other schools have found it impossible to educate, however Maya Angelou takes this mission to an entirely singular level. This school teaches those that have been in jail. From the school’s website, as described by the Washington Post:

“In the District of Columbia, Maya Angelou Public Charter School reaches out to students who have experienced substantial trauma in their lives by maintaining contacts with probation officers, social workers, special education advocates and community groups. Classes are small, expectations are high and a range of supportive services is in place to help kids make it.”

One of the schools that it manages actually sits inside D.C.’s long-term juvenile prison. In 2007, Mr. Domenici, after serving for a decade as both principal and executive director of Maya Angelou schools, became this facility’s founding principal. The narrative about Mr. Forman contained in the event’s glossy brochure states that the school, “which had been an abysmal failure, has been transformed under the leadership of the Maya Angelou staff; the court monitor overseeing D.C.’s juvenile system called the turnaround ‘extraordinary.'”

Also joining the esteemed group of individuals that comprise the Hall of Fame was Dr. Ramona Edelin, the long-time executive director of the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools. Her words on receiving this award are still echoing in my mind:

“We are under attack. If you don’t know it, please tune in to the mobilization that is taking place right now to avoid the erosion of your visions. The erosion of your autonomy. The erosion of the methodology you have chosen to make real – the promise you have given to your school family, your students, their families and the communities of which you serve. That’s what we are here for – that’s what I am here for. I am here for you because you do that better in the District of Columbia than anyone else does. Thank you. This is a centuries old struggle. It is not new. None of the obstacles, none of the issues will be a new one if you know your history. But we’re on the precipice of real change. You are having stunning success with the same students everybody else in this nation is ringing their hands and saying, “oh my, what can we do with them.” Well they were us, they are we and you know that and you are training, educating, developing leadership and making an impact. Now we need you to also answer a call to advocacy and policy when needed. It’s our job. We will do it. Everyday, day in and day out. But there are those times – and this is one of them – when we need you to join with us in that struggle. Let me just end with the words of the movement right now, ‘STAY WOKE.'”

Yes, we are under attack; from the unions, the press, politicians, and traditional school supporters. It has not been this bad since our local movement started over two decades ago. And what exactly are we being disparaged for doing? Here is how Maya Angelou characterizes its graduates:

  • Positive contributors to their families, communities and society
  • Young adults who possess mental-toughness and the skill-sets to be successful
  • Progress in future academic endeavors and compete in the work force
  • Leaders and change agents who will have the ability to compete in an ever changing society and beyond
  • Young adults who desire to excel and who are self-reliant
  • Young adults who are college and career-ready
  • Matured to become a well-rounded, culturally-aware adult
  • Adults who appreciate diversity
  • Self-sufficient members of society
  • Able to compete academically in an ever-changing environment

Enough is really enough.

The FOCUS Gala 2018: We stand on the shoulders of giants

Last Thursday evening, my wife Michele and I had the honor of attending the 2018 FOCUS Gala, held for the first time at Eastern Market’s North Hall.  You could feel the positive energy the moment you walked into the room, perhaps generated by the student artwork from 14 of the city’s charter schools displayed along the perimeter of the space whose next stop is at the United States Department of Education.

One of the first attendees we ran into was Friendship PCS’s chief executive officer Patricia Brantley.  I asked her what was new with her charter school network that currently teaches over 4,200 students.  “The Friendship Education Foundation is opening two schools in Arkansas in addition to the one we operate in Baton Rouge,” she beamed.  “Locally, we are excited to be expanding our Online Academy through high school which currently goes from Kindergarten to eighth grade.  This will increase its size by 50 percent. It is the program we took over after Dorthy I. Height Community Academy PCS closed.  The plan is to involve students in the design.  You might think that the pupils who take advantage of this curriculum are not sociable.  But they get together as a group once a week.  These kids love interacting with each other.  It is as if they are part of a special club.”  I noticed that standing right next to the Friendship CEO was Donald Hense, who of course founded the charter.  He could not appear more proud of his successor.

Many of the leaders of our local charter school movement could be found at the gathering.  It was great as always to speak to Tom Nida, former chairman of the DC Public Charter School Board, who is associated with the tremendous growth spurt of the sector during the first decade of this century.  He was there supporting the addition into the D.C. Charter Hall of Fame of Josephine Baker, the PCSB executive director with whom he worked closely.  Other inductees on this occasion included Jack McCarthy, co-founder of Appletree Institute for Education Innovation; Julie Meyer, previous executive director of The Next Step PCS who I recently interviewed; and Linda Moore, founder and past executive director of the Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School, who is also a member of the National Alliance of Public Charter School’s National Charter Hall of Fame.  It will be tough going forward to top this year’s cohort.

Irene Holtzman, FOCUS’s executive director, opened the formal portion of the program.  In her remarks, she observed that the robust state of D.C.’s charter schools rests on the shoulders of the exceedingly strong foundation provided by the four people being recognized.  I have heard Ms. Holtzman speak on multiple instances and I have to say that she has a way about her that lifts people’s spirits.  It reminds me of Katherine Bradley, co-founder of CityBridge Education, in the way she consistently expresses her admiration for those with whom she interacts.

Each of the honorees were introduced by other prominent members of the charter community.  Dr. Ramona Edelin, executive director of the D.C. Association of Public Chartered Schools, brought Ms. Baker and Ms. Moore to the stage; Russ Williams, CEO of Center City PCS, summarized for guests Mr. McCarthy’s charter school career; and Celine Fejeran, vice-chair of The Next Step PCS board of directors, did the same for Ms. Meyers.

New at this year’s gala, and an especially classy touch, was that the presentation of the Hall of Fame awards was preceded by a finely produced video of each of those being recognized describing their work in their own words.

All four inductees emphasized the same theme in their acceptance speeches: the unwavering goal of their life’s efforts has been to provide a quality education to every child that needs one.

But I’m jumping ahead.  Following Ms. Holtzman’s comments, she introduced the Mayor to say a few words.  Ms. Bowser received effusive thanks from the FOCUS executive director and all who stood before the podium because attendees learned from the District’s chief executive that her proposed fiscal year 2019 budget contains a 3.9 percent increase in the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula and another 2.2 percent jump in the per pupil facility allotment.  By my calculations, if the D.C. Council goes along with her move, that would bring the base of the UPSFF to $10,060, with the facility allotment rising to $3,263 a child.

It was an interesting moment in the celebration.  Earlier, my wife and I had the chance to spend a few minutes with Susan Schaeffler, KIPP DC PCS’s founder and CEO.  The previous week we had a tremendous time at the school’s KIPProm that supports its College to Career Program.  I asked her if she was planning on opening another high school.  She answered that this is her goal but she has not been able to identify a building.

Our conversation with Ms. Schaeffler preceded by a few minutes the one I had with PCSB executive director Scott Pearson.  We discussed the struggles D.C.’s charter schools have in obtaining permanent facilities.  It is clear that the per pupil facility allotment is not providing the intended results.  For if one of the nation’s most prominent charter management organizations cannot get a property, then something is terribly wrong.  It is as if we are stuck in a frozen terrain of fighting for facilities.

Yet, today it is estimated that there is over a million square feet of vacant space that stands empty in the form of closed DCPS schools that could be turned over to charters.  In the meantime, the same fiscal year 2019 budget put forth by the Mayor contains $1.35 billion in capital improvement dollars for the regular schools.  Even with the projected 2.2 percent improvement, that is a facility allotment almost ten times the size of the one charters are projected to get per student.  This is not fair or right.  Something has to change.

FOCUS’s senior director of government relations Michael Musante provided the closing remarks by reminding the Mayor that his organization will congratulate her when it thinks she is doing the right thing, and continue to point out those issues where it believes improvements can be made.  On the improvement end, I know right where he can start.








Dr. Howard Fuller at the 2018 FOCUS D.C. Charter School Conference

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddle masses yearning to breathe free.  The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me, I lift my lamp besides the golden door!
The Statue of Liberty

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent on things that matter.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you this morning. I want to focus my remarks on the theme of this conference, Excellence and Equity.  Not only were these two concepts put forward, there was an explanation included which stated:

Excellent schools are committed to equitable access, opportunity, and outcomes for all students. DC’s Public Charter School leaders continue to demonstrate the strength of this commitment by striving to dismantle the link between race and poverty to eliminate the opportunity gap for students.

There are a lot of powerful and meaningful words here. My question is, how many of us truly understand what they mean? And even further how many of us are actually committed to fighting for the realization of these noble ideas – excellent schools, equitable access, dismantling the link between race and poverty, eliminating the opportunity gap. WOW!!

In honor of this being the first day of Black History month, I want to cite a historical fact:

On Feb. 1, 1960, 58 years ago today, four Black students from North Carolina A&T sat down and a lunch counter and demanded to be served. And by doing so doing they changed the course of history. And here we are in 2018 four Black students sit down at a lunch counter where they are welcomed and can’t read the menu.

Here is my question – quoting Beyonce from “Drunken Love” – How did this shhhhh happen?  It has happened because there is no real political commitment in this country to create excellence and equity for Black and brown children, particularly poor Black and brown children. And further more it has happened because we have allowed it to happen and continue to do so today. We talked about leaving no child behind a few years ago and now we are talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion. In a few years there will be some new buzz words. We have conferences, give out awards, and praise ourselves for being awesome but where is the anger. Where is the outrage that year after year we continue to allow them and us to fail far too many of our neediest students.

Last year in my talk, I mentioned a book by Dr. Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited. I want to cite it again today but a different passage.

Dr. Thurman was discussing the plight of the masses of people who live with their backs constantly against the wall.  They are the poor, the disinherited, and the dispossessed.  The children of these families are in so many instances being victimized instead of being helped by educational systems in this country.  Dr. Thurman said this about those children,

The doom of the children of the disinherited is the greatest tragedy. They are robbed of much of the careless rapture and spontaneous joy of merely being alive. Through their environment they are plunged into the midst of overwhelming pressures for which there is no possible preparation. So many tender, joyous things in them are killed without their even knowing the true nature of their loss. The normal for them is the abnormal. They are likely to live a heavy life. 

These children do indeed live a “heavy life” and their lives are made even more difficult when the world around them reinforces such low expectations of them and indeed imposes on them words, images and actual conditions that diminish and destroy their dreams rather than expanding them. And indeed sometimes their very lives are snatched away by the violence that surrounds them every day in their communities or like in the case of Tamir Rice by the very people who are supposed to protect them.

In using the word equity there is an assumption that people understand the difference between equality and equity. But just in case that is not true let me state the difference as simply as I can: Equity is giving everyone what he or she needs to be successful. Equality is treating everyone the same.

In order to truly help the children from the families of the disinherited, we must go beyond equality and get to equity. To have a chance to be successful these students require not the same level of resources available to the children of families with resources; they require more resources. Because of factors outside of the control of schools as well as some things that happen to them within far too many of our schools equity creates the best possibility of closing the opportunity gaps in education. Frankly, I can’t envision them ever receiving equity or for that matter even equality. I say that because I do not believe the American “body politic” writ large cares about these children or their families.

If that is true then there are several fair questions to ask beginning with why am I here? Why should we have conferences like this one?  Why should heroic educators like some of you in this room continue the work that you do every day, if equity, frankly not even equality is likely?  I will come back to that valid question.

Let me talk for a minute about excellent education.

For me an excellent education means our students leave our classes, our schools, or whatever learning environment they are in with the ability to read, write, think, analyze and compute at high levels. Obviously what constitutes high levels is subjective. But we do have some ideas about the type of conditions we need to establish in school in order to create an environment that will encourage and support student learning. In Paul Tough’s book Helping Our Children Succeed he discussed the work of two professors of psychology, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. These professors stressed the importance of school environments that stressed three things:

  • Sense of belonging
  • Autonomy
  • Competence

Excellence is possible for our students if we believe it is possible and we create the conditions to help them achieve – Howard Gardner’s work.

So, excellence is possible, but for the young people from the families of the disinherited education alone is not the solution for them. We must also clearly focus on the reality of the impact on their lives of the existence of differential power and access to resources in our society based on race and class outside of schools and school systems.  I am not sure what the organizers of this conference meant when they talked about “dismantling the link between race and poverty to eliminate the opportunity gap for students,” or how they think we will do that, but here is what I do know.

Race and class matter in America.

Young people must see a society where their race will not be an impediment to advancement and respect.  They must interact with adults who have not already reached conclusions about their capabilities because of the color of their skin.  There have been significant changes in the intensity of racial discrimination in this country since the March on Washington 50-plus years ago but race and ethnicity are still factors in determining ones life possibilities in our American society.  I am asserting as strongly as I can the fact that race still matters in America.

But another key factor affecting our young people’s life chances is their socioeconomic class.  Poverty is debilitating to the human condition and the human spirit. (Money matters).

Children and young people who are hungry cannot learn.  Children and young people who are abused and neglected are not going to be able to concentrate in school.  Young people need to see people in their immediate families and their communities working in order to understand the value of work and the connection between education and work.

We must walk a delicate line here because although race and class clearly have an impact on our young people’s perceptions and their life chances, we cannot allow these conditions to be an excuse not to educate them; not to provide them with opportunities for their personal advancement. But, again we also must not pretend that schools or various educational opportunities can by themselves overcome the horrific conditions faced by our poorest children in this community and throughout this country.

Let me return to the questions I asked in the beginning of my remarks.  Since I do not believe we will ever see equity or even equality for the children of the families of the disinherited:

  • Why am I here?
  • Why should we have conferences like this one?
  • Why should heroic educators like some of you in this room continue the work that you do every day?

Two reasons:

  1. We may not truly get excellence and equity for all of our children or change the entire system but we can save the lives of a whole lot of children in spite of the obstacles, if we are not too scared to fight for them inside and outside of schools.
  2. Derrick Bell in his book, Faces at the Bottom of the Well, “Fight even when victory is not possible.”

So the fight for excellence and equity must go on. The children of the families of the disinherited are depending on us to fight on their behalf.

There will be no measure of equity or excellence without a struggle.

The 2018 FOCUS D.C. Charter School Conference

Wow.  Picture this:  500 attendees from over 60 non-profits representing the nation’s capital’s 120 charter school campuses gathered at the FHI 360 Conference Center to attend the sold-out 2018 D.C. Charter School Conference sponsored by Friends of Choice in Urban Schools.  I thought last year’s inaugural event was excellent, but this past Thursday’s meeting was simply spectacular.

FOCUS’s executive director Irene Holtzman began the morning’s agenda with a story about her father teaching her to drive when she was just 13 years old.  He implored her to stop looking only at what was right in front of her and to take in the full picture.  The purpose of this symposium, Ms. Hotzman delineated, is to provide charter school leaders the opportunity to spend a day envisioning the broader view of their profession.

Next, it was time to hear from this country’s leading ambassador of school choice, Dr. Howard Fuller.  Now I know what you are saying.  He played the same role in 2017.  But this was not 12 months ago.  Dr. Fuller’s remarks were so eloquent, and his delivery was so forceful, that his words actually reverberated off the top of the posts supporting the room’s adjustable partitions.  I will not attempt to summarize them here because it would be impossible to give them justice.  Please watch this space for a reprint of his address.

The title of the conference was “Excellence & Equity” and after a couple of rousing songs performed by the Center City PCS student choir, it was time to attend one of 37 breakout sessions offered in four blocks around this theme.  It was extremely difficult to decide which ones to pick; they all looked like great ways to accumulate knowledge about this fascinating movement.

I headed over to “Being an Equity Champion:  How Leaders Systematize Equitable Family Engagement” facilitated by Mike Andres, of the Flamboyan Foundation, and Daniela Anello, head of DC Bilingual PCS.  I always enjoy hearing about the value of teacher visits to student homes emphasized by Flamboyan.  Moreover, if you needed further evidence that the staff over at D.C. Bilingual have their pedagogical act together, there was plenty of it here.  On this occasion, Ms. Anello took the opportunity to inform us about the Expos that take place at her school during parent-teacher conferences.  The Expos consist of tables populated by staff members who provide information to parents about topics such as math, literacy, counseling, and Pre-Kindergarten programs at the charter.  But it goes way beyond school matters to teach parents about the D.C. public library, offer cooking and wellness materials, and answer questions about classes for adults at Carlos Rosario International PCS.  My eyes began to tear as she also informed the group that there is an arrangement between her school and the charitable organization Food and Friends to provide groceries, at no charge to parents, so that the charter can encourage the preparation of nutritious meals for students.  You can read my interview with Ms. Anello here.

I stayed in the same room to hear “Let’s Talk:  Is Education Really Still the Civil Rights Issue of Our Time?” led by Naomi Rubin DeVeaux, deputy director of the DC Public Charter School Board; and Nakeasha Sanders-Small, a parent of a student at Latin American Montessori Bilingual PCS, and a member of the PCSB’s Parent and Alumni Leadership Council.  The answer to the question was an unqualified “yes,” but it was most interesting how the participants got there.  Ms. DeVeaux, who lived up to the high quality presentation skills I see monthly on my computer as I watch the PCSB’s monthly meeting Livestreams, and Ms. Sanders-Small had prepared a series of statements on cards that the audience discussed in clusters of two to three individuals and then again as an entire group.  My favorite, because I’ve written so much about it lately, and the one that Ms. DeVeaux had me read, was “Performance measures are inherently biased against low-income children.”  Ironically, sitting next to me were teachers from Excel Academy PCS, the charter school recently voted to be closed by the PCSB, that offered up as a reason for its relatively low academic performance on the Performance Management Framework the fact that much of its student body lives in poverty.  At the session, the Excel staff informed me that both KIPP DC PCS and Friendship PCS are vying to takeover the charter.  While they expressed happiness about this turn of events they also told me the parents are worried about whether Excel will remain an all-girls school.

After lunch I sat in on a panel discussion on the topic of “Governance and Advocacy: Your Voice Matters.”  Anytime the word governance is in the title of a charter school discussion you know that our local expert, Carrie Irvin, co-founder and C.E.O. of Charter Board Partners, is bound to play a leadership role and so it was the case here.  Ms. Irvin facilitated a conversation between Catharine Bellinger, D.C. director of Democrats for Education Reform; Abigail Smith, board chair E.L. Haynes PCS and former Deputy Mayor for Education; Mary Shaffner, executive director of the D.C. International School PCS; Naomi Shelton, director of K-12 advocacy at the United Negro College Fund, and the newest board member of the PCSB; and Sheila Bunn, deputy chief of staff for Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray.  Ms. Irvin started the session by pointing out that there are over 600 individuals volunteering as charter school board members in the city.  The workshop quickly turned to the major issues facing public education in the District and the actions that individuals sitting on boards can take to influence policy.  I brought up the subjects of charter school facilities and the FOCUS-engineered charter school inequitable funding lawsuit against the city.  As part of her comments Ms. Bellinger opined that, as has been her pattern, Ms. Bowser would not turn over any shuttered DCPS buildings to charters before the next Mayoral election, choosing to maintain her “play-it-safe” approach in education.  Ms. Smith offered that she is not in favor of the lawsuit, stating that a dollar for DCPS is not the same as a dollar for charters.  She commented that there are differences in the budgets for the two sectors and she thought that these variances were fair.  I thought this was an  unexpected viewpoint coming from the Mayor Gray’s Deputy Mayor for Education under which the Adequacy Study was written that detailed the unlawful revenue the traditional schools receive outside of the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula.

I concluded the action-packed day with Michael Musante, FOCUS’s senior director government relations.  His tutorial entitled “Understanding the D.C. Charter School Landscape as an ANC Commissioner” provided an information-rich history of Washington’s charter school movement, while contributing intriguing details that I learned for the first time.  The modest education lobbyist somehow failed to mention his success in getting the U.S. Congress to re-authorize for three years the Opportunity Scholarship Program that provides private school scholarships for children living in poverty in Washington, D.C.

It was then off to the conference’s happy hour to mingle with the crowd.  An exceptionally positive day ended on a bright note when Chris Pencikowski, head of Lee Montessori PCS, informed me that a proposal is coming to create a Montessori middle and high school for the four Montessori charter schools to mirror what DCI is doing for language immersion charter elementary schools.  He revealed that it is envisioned that the consortium would even include a DCPS Montessori school with a guaranteed feeder pattern to the new facility.

Now that is exciting.



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.