Michelle Rhee credits charter schools with DCPS academic achievement

A tremendous thank you to Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, for alerting me on Twitter of the most recent podcast by Education Next. The recording features my new friend George Parker, past president of the Washington Teachers’ Union and now senior advisor, school support for the National Alliance, and Ms. Michelle Rhee, who needs no introduction. The two engaged in a highly fascinating conversation regarding the groundbreaking union contract the two negotiated when Ms. Rhee was Chancellor of Washington, D.C.’s traditional school system in 2010. The contract would eventually lead to Mr. Parker being voted out of his position.

At the start of the discussion, moderator Paul E. Peterson, Education Next senior editor, explains that following the implementation of the labor agreement, DCPS, as measured by Mathematica, experienced substantial gains in reading and math for fourth grade students, and rising standardized test scores in reading in eighth grade pupils, but not a corresponding increase in math. Mr. Peterson asked Mr. Parker to characterize the contract. “It was the first union contract that was focused on the child and the teacher,” Mr. Parker intoned.

As background, please recall that this contract was truly groundbreaking in that for the first time in the history of public education a teacher’s performance evaluation was tied to student academic results. Moreover, it did not play an insignificant part. Fully fifty percent of the final rating was dependent on standardized test scores. In addition, instructors could earn substantial pay bonuses, up to $20,000 a year, for rises in academic marks. The agreement also reduced the power of seniority regarding job transfers and made it simpler to terminate a poor performing teacher.

When is was Ms. Rhee’s turn to speak, Mr. Peterson was most interested in the factors that created an environment in which it was possible to obtain such significant changes in the working relationship between teachers and management. Ms. Rhee recalled the unique educational ecosystem of reform present at the time. She said that the District had one of the bravest politicians she has ever seen in Adrien Fenty being elected Mayor. Soon after coming into office Mr. Fenty was able to achieve mayoral control of the regular schools. Ms. Rhee discussed the additional resource allocation the system was able to realize due to closing of under enrolled sites. She revealed that the sector received new philanthropic dollars to support the new pay for performance. Then, eight minutes and twenty seven seconds into the discussion, she dropped the bombshell.

Ms. Rhee explained that there was a strong choice dynamic in place. There were charter schools and there was the federally administered private school voucher program. She asserted that even for those who did not want change, people realized they had to do something because with these options available for parents “in ten years there will be no D.C. public schools.”

So there you have it. You can listen to the statement yourself. While there has been a highly intense debate in education circles as to what led to the strong academic achievement prior to COVID in PARCC and NAEP scores for students in public schools in the nation’s capital, we now have irrefutable proof of the cause. No one had a closer front row seat as to what took place in classrooms than Mr. Parker and Ms. Rhee.

U.S. Department of Education partially eliminates annoying rules about charter school grant funding

In reaction to the outcry by many about new rules the Biden Administration was trying to impose regarding charters qualifying for money as part of the U.S. Education Department’s Charter School Program, the government has removed some of the most obnoxious provisions and kept one big one intact. According to a highly comprehensive story on this issue by Linda Jacobson of The74, gone are the requirements for charter schools to demonstrate collaboration with the local school district in order to receive funding to open or expand a charter. However, the Department would still like to see a “partnership” between the two entities. Also, the mandate to demonstrate a need for the school that will not take students away from the traditional public school system has been modified to allow for a charter to show a waitlist as well as other methods to illustrate a need for the school in order to qualify.

Ms. Jacobson explains the part of the rulemaking that is an obstacle for charters:

“Karega Rausch, president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, described the new rules as “workable,” but said he remains concerned about a requirement that new charters be racially and socioeconomically diverse — or explain why they’re not. The rule says operators must note how their charter school won’t ‘hamper, delay or negatively affect any desegregation efforts in the local community.’

The provision ‘places additional unnecessary and unwarranted burdens on schools proposing to serve large proportions of lower-income students and students of color,’ Rausch said. ‘And there is no clarity on what constitutes a valid desegregation effort and how applicants will know if any effort exists.’”

The other complication for access to the annual $440 million appropriation is that charters only have until August 5th to apply. Apparently, in the past those seeking these dollars have had at least four months to submit the necessary paperwork. This in itself could turn charter operators off about requesting this grant. Again from The74 piece:

“’The fact that they have taken some of our comments seriously indicates the power of advocacy,’ said Nina Rees, CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. But she added that if the added documentation required and the small window to apply ‘dampens interest’ in seeking the funds, that would be ‘victory for our opponents.’”

The education of George Parker, past president Washington Teachers’ Union

I had the distinct pleasure of attending the National Alliance for Public Charter School’s annual conference last week in Washington, D.C. It was an extremely well organized event, and I have to say that it brought tears of joy to my eyes to be among over 3,500 attendees meeting back in person. The last time that the Alliance did not hold their conference virtually was in 2019. It was amazing to hear so many participants talk passionately about the power of school choice.

My itinerary took me to three early morning lectures on the topic of charter school advocacy by former D.C. Teachers’ Union president George Parker. Mr. Parker explained to the audience that he had taught mathematics in traditional D.C. middle and high schools for thirty-three years before becoming head of the union in 2005. He held that position during the most transformative years of education reform in the nation’s capital. Adrian Fenty was elected Mayor in 2006 and he appointed Michelle Rhee the first Chancellor of DCPS upon taking office in 2007. By 2010, Mr. Parker, Mr. Fenty, and Ms. Rhee would all be out of their respective positions.

Mr. Parker would be voted out of his leadership post as a result of working with Ms. Rhee to reduce the power of teacher seniority and implement the IMPACT evaluation system that tied raises to student academic achievement. Both were groundbreaking highly controversial moves that would eventually be replicated throughout the nation. His cooperation with Ms. Rhee earned him the attention of American Federation of Teachers’ head Randi Weingarten, who, he informed those in the room, tried to sabotage his efforts.

The logical question is how did the president of a teachers’ union become a charter school supporter? Mr. Parker’s explanation sent a chill through those of us in the room. He related that as part of his role with the WTU he would sometimes get the opportunity to speak in front of students. After one such assembly a girl in the third grade came up to him and gave him a hug. He thought the action of the student was unusual, and so he asked her why she had approached him in this fashion. The pupil replied that it was because he stated that he would always work to support those in the classroom.

It was when he was driving in his car after the talk that Mr. Parker had a stunning realization. He faced the stark fact that he had just lied to these young people. He recalled that just that morning he had spent over $10,000 of union membership money to get an individual who should never have been teaching back in that role. He bravely decided on the spot to end his hypocrisy.

Mr. Parker’s story stands in sharp relief to the words of Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews. In an article yesterday entitled, “Don’t blame teachers unions for bad schools. Worry instead about inertia,” he writes,

“So, unions, like most of us, can be helpful or hurtful. But are they quashing attempts to make our schools better, as the [Wall Street] Journal suggests? My reporting on the most productive school reforms indicates they are not doing that.”

It is an abject affront to reality for Mr. Mathews to make this claim so I am not going to waste any words refuting his declaration. As Mr. Parker pointed out in one of his talks, “Unions do not have a fear of spreading false information.”

The world right now needs many more George Parkers.