D.C. charter schools take cash in lieu of permanent facilities

Last February, which now seems like a decade ago, Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser recommended a four percent increase to the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula for DCPS and charter schools in her fiscal 2021 budget. Then the coronavirus hit. At the time the city had a $1.43 billion rainy day fund saved up. Now the Bowser Administration has revealed that the economic downturn the District is currently experiencing will result in $722 million less in revenue for the 2020 fiscal year and 774 million fewer dollars next year.

With numbers such as these there was tremendous fear on the minds of public education supporters that the proposed jump in the UPSFF would be eliminated. Yesterday, Ms. Bowser released her revised proposed budget for FY 2020 and the bump in the UPSFF went from four percent to three.

Charter representatives are beyond thrilled at the news. Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, exclaimed on Twitter, “To raise education funding during this time of fiscal hardship is truly heroic. Well done, @MayorBowser” Patricia Brantley, the CEO of Friendship PCS wrote on the same platform, “‘Our public schools & our children, our teachers, everybody… we know they are going to be coming back. When they come back, we want to send a clear message that their schools are going to be ready. We are not going to take a single step back.’ Thank you @MayorBowser

In a press release dated yesterday, Friends of Choice in Urban Schools interim executive director Anne Herr commented:

“COVID-19 has put incredible pressure on the district’s budget, and we recognize that Mayor Bowser had to make tough choices this year. We applaud her for increasing education funding and investing in DC students. These investments are critical to ensure students have access to the instructional and health supports that will be necessary to have them back on track by Summer 2021. We look forward to working with the Education Committee and other members of the D.C. Council to ensure that these increases are part of the final budget so that students have what they need to thrive.” 

However, an update on finances was not the only information the Mayor shared yesterday that is of interest to our local charter school movement. She also announced several decisions regarding excess DCPS facilities. As captured by the Washington Post’s Perry Stein:

“She plans to move the new Bard High School Early College to a permanent location in 2023 at the original Malcolm X Elementary — a shuttered campus in Southeast Washington — and allocate $80 million to the facility. The closed Spingarn High School in Northeast Washington would be home to the D.C. Infrastructure Academy. Excel Academy Public School will remain permanently at its current location at the old Birney building in Southeast Washington, which the city owns but has been leasing to charters. Bowser’s proposal would give charter school operators the option to lease the closed Wilkinson Elementary in Southeast Washington by 2024.”

Malcolm X and Springarn were two buildings charter supporters loudly and repeatedly called on Ms. Bowser to release for their use. Remember the collective disgust the sector expressed when a video of the empty and deteriorating Springarn made its appearance on social media?

If and when Wilkinson is actually turned over to charters that would make a total of two former DCPS building turned over to charters in Ms. Bowser’s two terms as chief executive. This is a horrible record.

But perhaps the bigger disappointment is what the decision regarding the Birney building means for DC Prep PCS. As you may recall, the charter has leased the ground floor of this location which it plans to use to house the fourth and fifth grade of its Anacostia Middle School. It still needs a permanent home. As detailed by DC Prep’s CEO Laura Maestas during my interview with her last December:

“Building Pathway’s lease with Excel is coming to an end, but for over a year we have not been able to get an answer as to whether Excel is staying or leaving the property.  The building lease is held by Building Pathways for 12 years with D.C.’s Department of General Services and it specifies that a charter school will be housed in the Birney Building.”

In 2018 Excel Academy relinquished its charter and became part of DCPS. Therefore, it really does not have the right to stay at its current location. Now it appears that DC Prep will have to go ahead and develop the property it purchased on Frankford Street, S.E., a scenario that in the past has received heavy criticism from the community. Alternately, it can once again begin the hunt for another space.

Highly discouraging is that in all the high fives delivered to the Mayor there was not a peep about the facility moves. It appears that Ms. Bowser found a perfectly effective way to silence our voices. The solution was money.

When D.C. public schools reopen they should all be charters

City leaders and educators are already beginning to imagine what public education will look like when schools are once again allowed to teach students in the classroom. Today, the Washington Post has a long article by Laura Meckler, Valerie Strauss, and Joe Heim talking about the challenges school systems are anticipated to have bringing its pupils up to their academic grade level. Once solution that was provided by Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and referenced by the Post reporters, is to keep low performing Title 1 children, those from low-income households, at their current grade until individualized lesson plans can be developed for each child. Mr. Petrilli wrote:

“So when schools reopen in the fall, these students should remain in their current grade and, ideally, return to the familiarity of their current teacher. (Other types of schools — including affluent schools, middle schools and high schools — may also want to consider a similar approach.) The first order of business will be to attend to the social, emotional and mental health needs of their children and to reestablish supportive and comforting routines.

Then teachers should develop individualized plans to fill in the gaps in kids’ knowledge and skills and accelerate their progress to grade level. The use of high-quality diagnostic tests will be critical in assessing how much ground has been lost in reading and math. Students who are assessed as ready for the next grade level can move onward.

The next step would be for teachers to develop plans for each pupil to make progress, aimed at getting them to grade level by June. The plans should involve as much small-group instruction as possible, with kids clustered according to their current reading or math levels, plus some online learning opportunities in case schools are closed again. Those who are furthest behind could get regular one-on-one tutoring from specialists. This would be different from just ‘repeating the grade,’ which, research shows, rarely helps students catch up.”

I agree with the Fordham Institute president that restarting schools will bring a need to tailor learning, as the excellent teachers I have met like to say, “to meet the students where they are.” But how can we get this done for the 47 percent of the 93,708 students that are identified as at-risk in the nation’s capital?

The answer is surprising simple. We need to open all schools, including those of DCPS, as charters. Charter schools in the District of Columbia have spent more than 25 years learning how to adapt their curriculum to the needs of the specific students enrolled in their buildings. We need to free the leaders of each campus to adapt as quickly as possible to the plethora of needs of those they are about to serve once again.

Now don’t get me wrong. This conversion to one hundred percent charters is a tremendous undertaking. But it is monumentally exciting at the same time. I imagine the DC Public Charter School Board, with the assistance of OSSE, the Deputy Mayor for Education, DCPS, and the State Board of Education, all rolling up their collective sleeves to create the new paradigm. In order for these facilities to be as flexible as possible, union membership by all teachers would be suspended indefinitely.

Think of the freedom that this change would bring to the principals of our traditional schools. They would form a natural partnership with the 62 sites that are already part of the charter sector. Consider the support that groups like Education Forward DC, CityBridge Education, the Center for Education Reform, FOCUS, the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools, Education Board Partners, the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, and the Flamboyan Foundation could provide to this effort. This is a ton of expertise.

After the Katrina hurricane disaster in New Orleans, that city’s schools reopened as charters. The result, as documented by a Tulane University research group, has been increased high school graduation rates, higher college participation, and standardized test scores that have gone up by “eight to fifteen percentage points.” These improvements include students from low-income families. In the aftermath of another catastrophic tragedy, a similar bold move is needed regarding education reform.

This coming Friday Mayor Bowser is expected to make another announcement regarding the city’s public schools. I anticipate that she will keep them closed for the remainder of the academic year. Wouldn’t it be great if she also announced that in the fall all schools would reopen as charters?

Mayor Bowser closes D.C. public schools indefinitely

This evening on a conference call with city educators, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced that public schools will not reopen as planned on April 27th. The Mayor justified her announcement by explaining that in an effort to protect the safety of its citizens a decision to allow students to go back to class cannot come until the number of coronavirus cases in the District of Columbia begin to go down. Ms. Bowser has predicted that the peak in infections here will not be reached until the middle of the summer.

As of Today there were 1,097 confirmed people infected with the COVID-19 with 24 deaths.

The conversation included Deputy Mayor of Education Paul Kihn, State Superintendent of Education Hanseul Kang, DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee, DC Public Charter School Board Executive Director Scott Pearson, and Director of the District of Columbia Department of Health Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt.

Ms. Bowser began by thanking all of the educators who have rapidly implemented plans to teach their students through distance learning. She also complimented schools for providing free meals to their children. Finally, the Mayor took note of the private DC Education Equity Fund that is raising money to provide students with computers and internet access.

After concluding her remarks, the Mayor accepted questions from participants. The first inquiry came from Susan Schaeffler, the founder and chief executive officer of KIPP DC PCS. She wondered whether the Mayor couldn’t offer an anchor date of two weeks or more from now for setting some expectations around when school might once again be accepting pupils onsite. Ms. Bowser said that this was not possible at this time. But she did point out that if an anchor date is needed she stated that she has gone to the D.C. Council to ask for an extension of the District’s public health emergency for another 45 days. She added that if conditions improved during this period it is possible a different option could be taken regarding the schools.

In response to another person on the line asking about the impact of the coronavirus on the school budget for the rest of this year and next, Mayor Bowser responded that she did not know. She did mention that the downturn in the economy has decreased revenue to the city by over $600 million.

On Friday, March 13th, Ms. Bowser shuttered DCPS beginning the following Monday, stating that they would reopen on April 1st. She said that she expected charters to follow suit, which they have done. Then on March 20th she delayed the start to April 27th. Today’s remarks now decrease the probability that the schools will reopen this term.

D.C. Mayor could have closed charter schools; that she didn’t should be applauded

In the wake of this terrible world-wide tragedy regarding the coronavirus, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser on March 7th declared a state of emergency and public health emergency in the nation’s capital. According to WAMU’s Jacob Fenston:

“Declaring a state of emergency activates a broad range of powers that enable the mayor to mobilize people and resources more quickly to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. That includes things like mandatory quarantines or curfews, freeing up funds more quickly and preventing price gouging on essentials needed to prevent the spread of coronavirus.”

Yesterday, she issued new restrictions on the number of people who can be present in bars and restaurants.

In addition, last week it was announced that D.C. public schools would be closed beginning today, Monday, March 16th, and would re-open on Wednesday, April 1st. March 16 is a professional development day for teachers so that remote learning lesson plans can be implemented. The spring break that was originally scheduled for the middle of April is cancelled and instead will take place this week. Beginning Monday, March 23rd students will take classes online.

So that pupils do not miss meals associated with attending school, DCPS has established food distribution sites at 16 campuses. Many students in our city would go hungry were it not for the nourishment they receive while at their classrooms.

The Mayor and the Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn should be congratulated and thanked for the perfectly appropriate response regarding our schools in the face of this crisis.

Most, but not all, public charter schools are following the schedule established for DCPS.

The School Reform Act of 1995 created charter schools in the District, making them autonomous from DCPS. In 2007, Adrian Fenty won control of the regular schools through the Public Education Reform Act. Although the SRA provided charters with clear freedom from the rules governing the regular schools, there is broad agreement that the chief executive and D.C. Council still have authority over the alternative sector when it comes to the health and safety of students.

This is why Ms. Bowser’s announcement regarding DCPS is so important. It demonstrates a restraint that honors the independence of charters as individual local education agencies combined with a deep respect that they will take appropriate actions to protect the lives of those that they educate, as they have done for over 25 years.

We should be proud of our elected representative’s efforts to protect its citizens. Today, we must also celebrate our clearly established system of school choice in the greatest city in the world.

One day after call for increased funding for D.C. public schools, Mayor agrees to 4% jump

Yesterday, I wrote about a column in the Washington Post by Anthony Williams calling for a four percent increase in the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula. The same day, Twitter ignited with the news that D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser had agreed to include the additional spending in her fiscal 2021 budget. If approved by the Council, this will be a tremendous help for schools desperate to stay competitive with teacher salaries.

Mr. Williams in his piece talked about the revenue available to the District for such an investment. He wrote;

“The Office of the Chief Financial Officer recently announced the collection of $280 million in unanticipated revenue in fiscal 2019 and is projecting nearly $518 million in additional revenue over the next four years.”

In an article by the Post’s Perry Stein about the new incremental school spending she adds,

“Bowser’s announcement comes just days after her administration announced the city has a $1.43 billion rainy day fund.”

The reporter also included some interesting statistics about public school spending in the District of Columbia:

“In all, the mayor plans to spend about $989 million in city money on the District’s traditional public school system. The total spending figure represents an average increase of 8 percent for each campus in the traditional school system, with some of that boost reflecting expected growth in enrollment.”

More money for our students is big news, however, a couple of paragraphs in Ms. Stein’s story really caught my attention:

“But many schools — especially in Wards 7 and 8, the swaths of the city with the highest concentrations of poverty — have struggled with enrollment in recent years. Teachers have said they feel hamstrung, with declining enrollment leaving them with less funding and inadequate resources to serve their students and attract new ones.

Smaller schools are more expensive to operate and, with the opening of new campuses in the traditional public and charter sectors, the city has an increasing number of campuses with many vacant seats. A total of 38 high schools educate nearly 20,000 students in the traditional and charter sectors.”

The reality of underutilized traditional school school buildings, while nothing new, should at this point in our city’s efforts at public school reform drive a complete rethinking of the actual number of DCPS schools that are truly needed, how consolidation could lead to improved academic achievement for students, and which buildings could be turned over to the charter sector that desperately needs them.

Spending more money is easy. Realigning resources to match student needs is much more challenging. We have heard time and time again that parents do not care if a school is a regular one or a charter. They just want a quality education for their children. We have also listened as people across this town have called for coordination of resources between DCPS and charters.

Now is the time for real leadership.

At monthly D.C. charter board meeting Mayor Bower demonstrates who’s boss

Mayor Muriel Bowser shocked the DC Public Charter School Board and those in the audience by showing up in person Monday evening to address its monthly meeting. She dominated the opening public comment portion of the session, first introducing the Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn, who was sitting in the first row, and then going on to thank Scott Pearson for the excellent job he has done in his role as PCSB executive director. Ms. Bowser commented that “I don’t know what Scott will do next but I know he will be excellent at it.”

The Mayor went on to say that she wished the current board well because they have to select Mr. Pearson’s replacement. Ms. Bowser predicted that they will have a good pool of candidates from which to choose because D.C. public schools are the envy of the nation thanks to the progress this urban school district has made in reading and in math across all subgroups of children. She said that we cannot “let up one bit” on demanding what all of our kids need.

Ms. Bowser then revealed the reason she was present. “I’m here to check on you,” she asserted. She pointed out that the city is now working on its 2020 to 2021 budget. The Mayor boasted that her school budget has gone up in each of the five years that she has been in office.

She spoke on a wide variety of topics such as school safety, student transportation, and making additional resources available for charters for concerns such as teacher salaries.

Ms. Bowser then turned to the board for questions. Chairman Rick Cruz started the conversation by stating that many of the areas that the Mayor raised have been discussed by his board. He then gently brought up the facility issue by thanking the Mayor for awarding Ferebee-Hope Elementary School to KIPP DC PCS and said he hoped that other buildings would be turned over to charters. The announcement that KIPP had won the request for proposal for this school was made earlier in the day. The move marks the first time the Bowser Administration has provided a closed former traditional school to a charter.

Mr. Cruz then quickly pivoted to a discussion regarding filling the executive director vacancy. When other board members were asked for questions, member Ricarda Ganjam inquired bravely as to the school the Mayor would like her daughter to attend. The answer was Shepherd Elementary, the one in Ms. Bowser’s neighborhood. Steve Bumbaugh shyly wanted to know the one or two things the PCSB could do to improve its performance.

The audience was then asked to participate. The sole taker was Appletree Institute for Education Innovation’s president and CEO Jack McCarthy. This is the same Jack McCarthy who had to shutter a campus for at-risk three and four year old’s when the Deputy Mayor for Education failed to find a replacement site for one of Appletree’s campuses when the building was closed as part of a DCPS school renovation. His cause was taken up by the editors of both the Washington Post (twice) and the Wall Street Journal. His question: Could the city work with developers to have them include space for schools in their projects?

This was the extent of the facility discussion. The Mayor failed to bring up the subject despite the fact that she has faced tremendous pressure over the past several months in the form of the DC Association of Public Charter School’s End the List campaign to release an estimated over one million square feet of excess space controlled by DCPS that by law should have been turned over to charters. No one from the board or others in the room challenged her. Not a single person brought up the FOCUS-engineered charter school funding inequity lawsuit.

After a thirty minute performance Ms. Bowser and her entourage proudly strutted out of the room. And strut she should have done. The charter school community was put in their place. The Mayor entered the epicenter of our local movement and emerged without even one verbal scratch.

Now the quandary becomes, if even the DC Public Charter School Board will not defend charters, who will?