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.

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.