A private school scholarship for every child living in D.C.? That’s what Senator Cruz and Representative Meadows want

The Washington Post’s Moriah Balingit revealed on Thursday that Senator Ted Cruz and Representative Mark Meadow have introduced a bill in the United States Congress called the Educational Freedom Accounts Act that would offer a private school scholarship to any child residing in the District of Columbia.  Currently, D.C. has America’s only federally funded private school voucher plan, the Opportunity Scholarship Program, but it is limited to those families living in poverty.  About 1,100 pupils currently participate in the OSP.  This legislation would permit any student in grades Kindergarten through 12 to take advantage of a private school scholarship, and depending upon family income, it would provide 80 to 90 percent of the money allocated annually to teach kids through the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula.  The dollars would be deposited in individual educational savings accounts.

The timing of this news comes as an interesting coincidence.  Yesterday was the sixth anniversary of the passing away from brain cancer of Joseph E. Robert, Jr.  When he was alive Mr. Robert created the Washington Scholarship Fund that awarded private school tuition for low-income children.  When the federal voucher program was enacted the same organization became the administrator.  He was a steadfast fighter for the continuation of the OSP, even in the face of eight years of effort by the Obama administration to shut it down.  Fortunately, with Serving Our Children now running the OSP, it is expected to at least triple in size.

The only problem I can see with the bill is the proposed funding level.  Ms. Balingit points out in her article that today’s per student funding is equal to about $9,500 a year.  Therefore, a middle class family with a child in the sixth grade, for example, would receive 80 percent of this amount which equals $7,500; lower than the $8,653 currently paid under the OSP.  Moreover, the existing OSP scholarship levels are already too low considering the high cost of many private schools in D.C.

But the introduction of this act is still exceedingly good news.  After more than 20 years of aggressive public school reform in the nation’s capital, student proficiency rates for reading and math stand at a dismal thirty percent.  For people living in poverty those numbers are in the 20s.  I have been making the case for a supercharging of school choice in this town to get us out of this rut.  Thankfully, Senator Cruz and Congressman Meadows have answered my call.

 

Gonzaga College High School students research institution’s ties to slavery

In light of the recent discovery that Georgetown University sold 272 slaves in order to pay off debts, this past summer six Gonzaga College High School students wanted to know if their institution had any ties to the dark history of slavery.  The connection was plausible because, as the Washington Post’s Rachel Siegel explained in an article yesterday, before it became Gonzaga, the institution was called the Washington Seminary, which was a annex of Georgetown.

So sixteen and seventeen year olds Jack Boland, Daniel Podratsky, Jack Brown, Hameed Nelson, Joe Boland, and Matthew Johnson, under the supervision of history teacher Ed Donnellan, for a couple of weeks combed Georgetown University’s Booth Family Center for Special Collections.  Their work was spurred by a November 2016 lecture that took place at Gonzaga by Adam Rothman, a Georgetown history professor and the principal curator of the Georgetown Slavery Archive.  Following the talk, Mr. Donnellan asked if pupils wanted to volunteer to investigate the school’s past.  Ms. Siegel details what they discovered:

“That earlier research showed how Georgetown had profited from Jesuit-owned plantations that thrived across the region. What about our school, the Gonzaga students wondered. Did it, too, benefit from, and help sustain, the global slave trade of the 19th century?

They found their answers: Profit from those plantations was funneled to Washington Seminary, which at the time was part of Georgetown. And two slaves — Gabriel and another named Isaih — worked at the school for an unknown period of time.”

The students became fascinated by multiple references to Gabriel.  The Post continues the story:

“Multiple mentions of Gabriel being tipped small amounts appear in records kept by the seminary. And there’s a reference in a Georgetown accounts ledger that describes him as ‘a black boy from the Seminary of Washington.’

How Gabriel got to Georgetown isn’t entirely clear, though the students suspect he was brought by a family and used as counterbalance to get $1 off tuition per month. One document suggests he took the place of another slave in 1827.

Another document from a Georgetown accounts ledger notes ‘Gabe’ was sold for $450 to an unknown buyer, with a 5 percent commission going to an Edward Millard, who once attended the Washington Seminary.”

Gonzaga separated from Georgetown in 1858.  The school’s website states that as “the oldest all-boys school in Washington, DC, Gonzaga has a rich legacy that stretches back nearly 200 years. Over the course of that history, Gonzaga has demonstrated and reaffirmed a deep commitment to Jesuit education. And it has chosen to do so in the heart of the inner city—on a street shared with leaders of business and government, and on a block where it ministers to the least fortunate in society.”  The school accepts some students through Washington, D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, the school voucher plan in the District that offers tuition to private schools.

Hameed Nelson, one of the students doing the research, wonders what they can do now that they have the information about Gabriel.  Mr. Donnellan says he is thinking about building a memorial garden.

FutureEd leaders attempt to re-write history regarding D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program

In a Washington Post editorial that appeared over the weekend, Thomas Toch and Phyllis Jordan, the leaders of the think tank FutureED, attempt to re-write the history of D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, the plan that provides private school scholarships to children living in poverty.  We must not let them.  From the piece:

“The theory behind the initiative is to give D.C.’s low-income families more and better educational opportunities by supplying them with tax dollars to send their children to private schools. Fine. But voucher enrollment in the nation’s capital dropped for four straight years, from 1,638 in the 2013-2014 school year to 1,154 in the 2016-2017 year. More striking, greater than half the new students offered vouchers last year didn’t use them.”

The decline in enrollment was a direct result of years of determined effort by the United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on behalf of President Obama to close the program.  Former D.C. Councilmember Kevin Chavous set the record straight in the Post back in 2012:

“The drop in participants is a natural outgrowth of two unforgiving scheduling decisions. First, the Education Department prevented the program’s administrator from accepting applications after an arbitrary date of March 31 of this year, shutting out anyone who came forward after that cutoff. Then, scholarship lotteries for the 2012-13 school year weren’t allowed to take place until July, far later than many parents could wait to make decisions about where their kids would attend school in the fall. Nobody at the department can give straight answers as to why.

In practical terms, what this means is that only 319 new students were offered scholarships, despite demand for many more.

These roadblocks are part of a long history of the administration’s resolute opposition to the voucher program, from Education Secretary Arne Duncan rescinding 216 scholarships in 2009 to the department ignoring the positive results of a gold-standard study, conducted by its own Institute of Education Sciences, that found that D.C. voucher students graduate at a rate of 91 percent — more than 20 percentage points higher than those who sought a voucher but either didn’t get one or didn’t enroll in the program after being accepted. Because of the delaying tactics of the department, a credible — and federally mandated — new study of the program cannot be conducted unless the program enrolls hundreds of new students next year.”

The obstacles created by the Obama Administration were enough to have Joseph E. Robert, Jr. end his Washington Scholarship Fund’s administration of the OSP back in 2009.  It was then run by the D.C. Youth and Investment Trust Corporation, a group that had no enthusiasm for the job.  In 2015, OSP management was awarded by the Department of Education to Serving Our Children.  SOC has the goal of doubling or tripling the number of scholars participating in the OSP.

Mr. Toch and Ms. Jordan state that the program costs $200 million.  I don’t know where they get their information.  The OSP takes up a minuscule part of the federal budget coming in at $15 million a year.  As part of the three-sector approach equal amounts are awarded to the traditional and charter school sectors for a total of $45 million.  You would really expect more from a think tank associated with Georgetown University.

The FutureED representatives also make a big deal about the percentage of students who elect to utilize the scholarships versus the number awarded.  Let’s just keep in mind that parents fortunately have access to a plethora of school choice in Washington, D.C.  In fact, it is estimated that 75 percent of pupils go to a school other than the one assigned by neighborhood.  We truly have a high performing educational marketplace here in the nation’s capital.

 

 

 

Another silly anti-voucher article by Washington Post’s Emma Brown

At least she is consistent.  Yesterday, the Washington Post’s Emma Brown, along with newcomer , declared that a study has found a negative impact on academic achievement for those students participating in D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program.  The report found that in reading and math for students in Kindergarten through fifth grade, the pupils on average scored significantly lower than those who had applied for a scholarship but did not receive one.  For older kids, there was no difference in reading but the math deficit remains.  The findings were produced by the U.S. Department of Education’s research unit looking at standardized test scores.  Sounds like this story should be on the newspaper’s front page.  But are you ready for this?

The study looked at results one year after these low-income scholars joined the program.

From the article, let’s see what the experts say about the results.

“Martin West, a professor of education at Harvard, said the D.C. study adds to an emerging pattern of research showing declines in student achievement among voucher recipients, a departure from an earlier wave of research — often on smaller, privately funded scholarship programs — that skewed more positive.

 ‘I think we need to be asking the question: Why is this happening and what should we make of it and should we care?’ West said. He said weaker scores among voucher recipients may be a result of the fact that public school performance is improving, particularly in the District, where math and reading scores at traditional public and public charter schools have increased quickly over the past decade.”

I know Mr. West is from Harvard, but let’s listen to local hero Kevin Chavous who actually knows what is happening on the ground.  Again, from the piece by Ms. Brown:

“”These are kids that come from some of the most challenged backgrounds, and they’re just getting adjusted. It’s no question that the longer they’re in our schools, the better they do,’ Chavous said. ‘We have to look at the ultimate judge of the quality of the program, and that’s the graduation rate and the college-going rate.’ Chavous said the voucher program gave disempowered parents something they lack in many other parts of their lives: control.”

Students from the OSP have a high school graduation rate of 92 percent, compared to a 70 percent rate citywide.  86 percent have been accepted to a two or four year college or university.

The academic achievement of those participating in the voucher program is important, but this statistic needs to be measured over time for those enrolled in private schools.  If for some reason it is found that students are not learning at an acceptable rate, then the program will be improved to make this goal a reality.

D.C. private school voucher program to help more low-income children

The Washington Post’s Emma Brown revealed that the new group administering the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, Serving Our Children, announced last Friday that it expects the private school voucher plan available to low-income students to grow next school year by “hundreds of new students.”  The timing of the news was perfect as it came on February 24th, which is the birthday of Joseph E. Robert, Jr., the man who when he was alive championed the OSP as a civil right and whose group, The Washington Scholarship Fund, successfully managed it for years.

Ms. Brown states that “Kevin Mills, manager of family and community affairs for Serving Our Children, said in a telephone interview that the organization is expecting to expand because of new federal resources. He declined to say how much additional money the organization is expecting to receive, saying that they won’t have a firm number for another week or two.”

An inside source tells me that the resources to which Mr. Mills is referring come from the rollover funds that are sitting unspent from eight years of the Obama Administration’s efforts to restrict the number of kids that could participate.  Congress allocates $15 million a year for the vouchers in addition to equal amounts going to D.C.’s traditional schools and charters as part of the Three Sector Approach that Mr. Roberts utilized to get the original legislation passed and signed by President George W. Bush.  Approximately 1,100 scholars are currently enrolled in the OSP,  however with an estimated $20 million in surplus money  obviously many more pupils could certainly be helped.

The time is finally right for such a move with Donald Trump in the White House and Betsy DeVos as the U.S. Secretary of Education.  Also on the agenda is the five year re-authorization of the OSP, something Speaker Paul Ryan failed to do at the end of 2015.

School choice advocates such as myself are hoping that at long last the tide has finally turned regarding the continuation and expansion of this life preserver for families living in poverty.

The Democrats opposition to Betsy DeVos says more about them than it does about her

The headline of this article comes from the words of Senator Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, spoken yesterday from the Senate floor as quoted by the Washington Post’s Emma Brown.  He is absolutely correct.  The fierce opposition toward Ms. DeVos is from those that want to preserve a status in public education that, as she stated during her confirmation hearing, is one in which one size fits all when it comes to teaching our kids.  Unfortunate for those on the fringe of the political left, including the teachers’ unions, school choice has already broken through the clouds and is shining its bright light on communities throughout this nation.

Ms. Brown describes a Capitol Hill event in which families were represented who send their children to charter schools and who take advantage of the Opportunity Scholarship Program, the federally funded private school voucher plan here in the District for those living in poverty.  She mentions that it was one of 21,000 events across the United States currently taking place as part of School Choice Week.  The reporter writes that “Malik Washington, a senior at Archbishop Carroll High School in the District, said that the voucher program had been a gift for him and his sister, who were raised by a single mother working a minimum-wage job.”  From Ms. Brown’s piece:

“For our families to have the same opportunities that wealthier families have when it comes to school is beautiful,’ Washington said.”

In fact, it is the same experience that President Obama’s children have had since Sidwell Friends, where his kids go to school, also participates in the OSP.  So does Georgetown Day School, Gonzaga College High School, The Jewish Primary Day School, The National Cathedral School, The National Presbyterian SchoolSt. Albans School, St. Johns College High School, St. Peters School, and The Field School, among many others.

Unfortunately, Mr. Obama went along with the unions and throughout his eight years tried to end the scholarships.  We now have a chance to greatly expand the number of scholars who can take advantage of these great educational institutions.

Do I wish that Ms. DeVos had done a better job at her confirmation hearing?  Of course I do.  But here is the bottom line.  During her career she has done more through our schools to help those that are less fortunate than 99 percent of our population.  In the face of education reform at the federal level that has been going on since the 1950s without much to show for it except billions of dollars being wasted, it is time for something new.

Former Mayor Anthony Williams supports her and that is good enough for me.  The Senate should confirm Betsy DeVos.

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.

Which state has the strongest private school choice program?

Last Thursday I attended a fascinating program hosted by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute around the release of a report by the American Federation of Children entitled, “Private School Choice: How Do Programs Nationwide Stack Up?”  The forum’s facilitator was Michael Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute. Whitney Marcavage, AFC policy director, took the audience through the study.  She explained that as of July of this year there are an astonishing 400,000 pupils across 25 states and the District of Columbia enrolled in 50 private school school programs.  Her organization only included those that “give parents enough assistance to actually make a different educational choice” and “provide parents with a variety of private school options, including religious schools.”

The breakdown of private school choice programs is as follows:  23 are vouchers like the one that operates here in the nation’s capital, 20 are classified as scholarship tax credits, five count as Educational Savings Accounts, and two were defined as individual tuition tax credit plans.

The programs were then ranked on a point system against the criteria of “broad eligibility for participation,” “high scholarship amounts and enrollment growth,” and “transparency and accountability.”

To end the suspense the private school choice program in the United States that scored highest against these three measures was Florida’s tax credit scholarship.  The Opportunity Scholarship Program in D.C. was tied for 13, marked down for the restrictive income limits for participation, the total dollar amount of the vouchers compared to the allocation for each pupil contained in the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula, and for the number of children enrolled.

The most interesting part of the presentation for me was the panel discussion.  Joining Mr. Petrilli and Ms. Marcavage on stage were Robert Behning, an Indiana State Representative; Max Eden, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute; and Derrell Bradford, vice president of 50CAN.  Mr. Behning’s remarks caught my attention.

The Choice Scholarship Program in his state qualified as the number 1 voucher program in this country according to the AFC study.  Mr. Behning explained that there are a couple of reasons for the success of the plan.  First, the Representative detailed that a sizable number of families in his state qualify for the voucher, on a sliding scale, because of the relatively high income limit.  The large participation rate generates broad support for the scholarships.  Mr. Behning argued that voucher programs such as the OSP actually work against political backing because they are are targeted toward helping kids living in poverty, a population that often has the least influence at a public policy level.  This line of reasoning makes a lot of sense.

In D.C. in order to increase support for the OSP we created the Three-Sector approach.  This means that the funds appropriated by Congress for the vouchers also include equal amounts for traditional and charter schools.  But another way to reach the same point or even to drive up  community enthusiasm for the program could be to up the total number of children that qualify due to earnings.

Mr. Behning related that another component of vouchers in Indiana that has the effect of diminishing political opposition is that the scholarship level is set at 90 percent of the school system’s per pupil revenue. This means in practice that any child that receives a voucher lowers the amount of money being spent on education, providing the state’s representatives another 10 percent to allocate to other priorities.

The event provided much to consider regarding school choice in this country.

 

 

 

 

 

 

OSP passes House, don’t get excited

Thursday of last week a reconstituted SOAR Act, the legislation that contains within it the Opportunity Scholarship Program, was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives.  This is the second time in about six months that the bill that provides private school vouchers for children living in poverty has received an affirmative vote.

This is a prelude to getting the plan through the Senate and signed by the President.  This didn’t work out well towards the end of 2015 when it appeared that the retirement of Speaker Boenhner left school choice advocates flatfooted and unprepared with how to deal with strong Democratic Party opposition led by Congresswoman Pelosi.

Fortunately, there has been much work done since that go-around.  Solid support for a five year re-authorization has been expressed by the D.C. Mayor, the Chairman of the D.C. Council, eight of his fellow Council members, and in a really bizarre change-of-heart, D.C.’s non-voting Congressional Representative.  But none of this should be anywhere near this hard.

The OSP simply grants scholarships to poor families to enroll their kids in the same type of school that President Obama’s daughters attend.  There are many fine institutions that accept the vouchers such as Sidwell Friends, where Malia and Sasha go, the St. Peters School, Archbishop Carroll High School, and Gonzaga College High School.  A couple of years ago I interviewed the principal of St. Peters whose scholars at the time were completing a Student Families project through Catholic Charities.  The activity, which assembles breakfast meals for temporarily homeless individuals, is named after Joseph E. Robert, Jr., the man who when he was alive championed the OSP through the Three-Sector Approach that provides an equal amount of federal funding for DCPS, charters, and the private school vouchers.  At the time about 10 OSP students were at St. Peters.

The total cost of the plan is $45 million a year.

If providing a life-line to the most vulnerable among us is this hard, we really have to wonder what is being taught in our public schools.

 

 

DC Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp to close

There is shocking news this morning that the DC Children and Youth Investment Trust Corporation is closing its doors.  This is the same organization that former D.C. Councilman Harry Thomas, Jr. had utilized beginning in 2007 to steal over $350,000 in money targeted to helping low income youth.  He instead funneled the cash to himself for the purchase of items like a car and boat and to payback personal loans.

The Washington Post’s Aaron Davis reveals today that after receiving a clean financial audit only a year ago, “in a series of revelations that began in January, the [DC Trust] board learned that former executive director Ed Davies and senior financial officer Earl Hamilton had used taxpayer funds to pay tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of credit-card charges, including some for personal use. Some of the expenses charged by Davies included meals and travel costs for his family members.”  The board’s current members have determined that the group is insolvent and will shut it down.  Eighteen employees will lose their jobs as a result of the fiscal mismanagement.

In 2015, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, who the Post states controls the selection of four board members, injected $700,000 into the Trust for youth violence prevention programs as a result of a jump in murders of over 50 percent.

The reason this development is so significant is that up until last September the DC Trust administered the Opportunity Scholarship Program, the private school voucher plan for low income children.  The Trust had taken over the OSP from Joe Robert’s Washington Scholarship Fund in 2010.  Mr. Robert closed the WSF, which had run the Opportunity Scholarship Program since its legislative inception by Congress in 2004, rather than battle with the U.S. Department of Education’s efforts to kill it.

In a fierce behind-the-scenes struggle last summer the contract for managing the OSP was won by Serving Our Children, a non-profit headed by board member Kevin Chavous and whose staff is led by Rachel Sotsky, the deputy legislative director for former Senator Joseph Lieberman when the SOAR Act was created.  The SOAR Act contains within it the three sector federal dollars that provides money for DCPS, D.C. charter schools, and the private school vouchers.

All I can say is that due to the efforts of many local heroes the OSP now has a home where the effort to improve the academic achievement of low income kids can be expanded and strengthened.  Despite all of the numerous political twists and turns the future looks exceedingly bright for this educational life-preserver.