In an emergency meeting, D.C. charter board votes to close Washington Math Science and Technology PCS

This has been perhaps the most bizarre series of events that I’ve witnessed by the DC Public Charter School Board since I first began observing its activities about 20 years ago. Sunday night, at about 10:30 p.m., I was tipped off that the board had scheduled an emergency meeting for Monday evening at 5:30 p.m to consider revoking the charter of Washington Math Science and Technology Public Charter High School.  The notice on the PCSB website provided no additional information.

Then yesterday afternoon documents were added to the on-line announcement supporting the contention that WMST did not have the financial capacity to continue operating.  Apparently, the PCSB has been receiving highly problematic income statements from the school, which led it to hire a forensic accounting firm to study the issue.  The review, as stated by the PCSB, found:

  • The school is unlikely to have sufficient cash to meet its March 23 payroll, unless it delays paying many bills due now, such as utilities.
  • Even with delaying payables, the school will not have sufficient cash to meet its April 6 payroll.
  • The school is forecast to require $833,991 of additional cash between now
    and the end of its fiscal year on June 30, 2018 to cover all expenses,
    including payroll, operating costs, mortgage payments, and required debt
    repayment. This number grows to over $1,164,853 when adding the payroll
    due the current teaching staff in July and August for their work over the
    2017-18 school year.
  • The school has a $300,000 line of credit which is presently fully drawn down.
  • It currently has no other source of new cash or financing.
  • The school’s largest asset is its building. The school has a Letter of Intent
    from a buyer, indicating a possible, but not certain sale. However, the net
    proceeds from the sale, at the current proposed purchase price and after
    closing costs and repayment of the mortgage, is insufficient to cover the
    $833,991 projected deficit.

The reasoning behind calling the emergency meeting is based upon the common school lottery deadlines.  Assuming the board votes for closure last night, the charter has 15 days to ask for a public hearing.  Therefore, the latest this request can be made is March 27th. The PCSB revealed that this hearing will be scheduled before the My School DC announcement of results on March 30th. However, parents have only until March 15th to re-prioritize their school preferences. In addition, although the rankings are made known on March 30th, according to information provided by the PCSB, the lottery is run a week earlier. Following the timeline above, a final decision by the board would come after the lottery has concluded.

So a meeting was arranged for 5:30 p.m. at the PCSB headquarters and a conference line was provided for individuals to call in. There was no live video broadcast available. I am guessing this was because of the short meeting notice. I participated by telephone but it was virtually impossible to hear. Many of the board members who had joined by phone had the same trouble.  It is sometimes astonishing that this school sector spends over $800 million a year and this is how it conducts business.

Scott Pearson, the PCSB executive director, outlined the results of the investigation by the forensic accountant. The rebuttal came from attorney Stephen Marcus representing WMST.  What I could barely make out was that the school was prepared to continue operating primarily with revenue associated with the sale of its permanent facility.  The charter has a signed letter of intent from a buyer.  Mr. Marcus mentioned that the school’s teachers were even prepared to skip being paid on March 23rd if that would help the situation.  But notwithstanding the extremely short notice of this gathering, the charter board members had made up their minds, and the PCSB voted six to zero to begin the revocation proceedings.

Mr. Pearson did remark that WMST now has two weeks to shore up its cash position, and if there was sufficient evidence that this had indeed occurred the charter board could reverse its decision.  Alternately, he offered that if the school thought there was no hope in turning the finances around that it could relinquish its charter now so that parents could make other arrangement for their children’s education next term.  He added that if the PCSB’s final decision was closure, the charter board was prepared to provide a loan to allow it to continue going through June.

The money problems at the charter appear to be tied to decreasing enrollment, which has gone from a high of 333 students during the 2013-to-2014 school year to 228 pupils currently.  WMST also has consistently failed to meet its enrollment targets. The charter board, in its preparation for its 20 year review of the school that was to be presented at its monthly meeting next week, states that the decreasing size of the student body “has to do with many factors including an increasingly competitive high school environment, a sub-standard facility that the school is seeking to change, and disruptive nearby construction projects.”

The PCSB executive director hinted that the charter was going to have difficulty even reaching its current enrollment in the fall, based I believe on My Schools DC data.  Moreover, with the vote yesterday it appears that the school’s fate is sealed.  I don’t see why parents would not start trying to move their kids now.  But if the charter will continue to teach until the end of the year,  it seems that this presents more time for WMST to find additional revenue.  I have been in similar situations with each of the three charters I have volunteered with as a board member.  It is a harrowing and difficult place to be, but there is almost always something that can be done.


Rick Cruz elected chair DC Public Charter School Board

At last night’s monthly meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board, Rick Cruz was named the new chairman, replacing Dr. Darren Woodruff.  Traditionally, the vice-chairman has transitioned into the chair position when the current leader’s term is up, but in this case that role was being played by Don Soifer, who is now employed out of state as the president of Nevada Action for School Options.  Saba Bireda was elected as vice-chair.  It will be interesting to see how Mr. Cruz handles matters regarding Prep PCS in his new post, and whether he recuses himself when issues concerning the charter come before the board.  Remember that for a little over a year Mr. Cruz was the CEO of the school with the intent of replacing Emily Lawson, but that arrangement did not work out.  In the recent past as a member of the board, Mr. Cruz has weighed in on decisions regarding DC Prep.

The other extremely interesting aspect of yesterday’s session was not on the official agenda.  When the floor was opened for public statements at the beginning and end, a string of disgruntled parents and teachers came forward to relate negative situations occurring at City Arts and Prep PCS.  Remember that City Arts is the renamed William E. Doar, Jr. Public Charter School for the Performing Arts, of which I was a founding board member and chair.  The school has been going through a turnaround of late, for a time working with Ten Square Consulting and Charter Board Partners to attempt to raise its academic performance.  Look for more fallout from the clearly unstable environment over there.

One other aspect of the proceedings caught my attention.  Usually a section of these gatherings which I don’t follow closely is the PMF policy and technical guide updates.  But prior to opening up for comment the standards for the current school year, the board’s staff made a startling discovery.  From the meeting’s supporting documentation:

“In September 2017, the Board approved the 2017-18 PMF Guide per DC PCSB staff recommendation.  At the time, DC PCSB staff simulated the recommended changes using data from school year 2015-16 (the most recent data available at the time). We projected the PK-8 campuses would lose an average of 0.7 PMF points. Since then, we simulated the approved changes using the newly available school year 2016-17 data. We now project that PK-8 campuses would lose an average of 1.9 PMF points.  Additionally, we determined that some schools would lose as many as 7.7 PMF points, while others would gain as many as 2.2 points.  Appendix B shows the impact analysis for every school based on 2016-17 data with the previously approved floors and targets.  While DC PCSB staff recommend adjustments to the PMF Guide almost annually, we have not recommended changes that result in such dramatic performance shifts.  The Framework is most valuable when it has stability, allowing stakeholders to rely on its outputs over multiple school years.  On January 18, 2018, DC PCSB staff met with the PK-8 task force to share our findings and discuss proposals. An overwhelming majority (87.5%) of schools approved our proposal to revert to the 2016-17 PARCC weights, floors and targets, and to hold the School Environment floors and targets steady for one more year.”

Since the failure of the board to revert back to the 2016-17 PARCC weights, floors, and targets could have a tremendous impact on PMF scoring, schools may want to weigh-in on this proposal.  Comments will be accepted until March 19, 2018.

In other actions, a visibly irritated PSCB deputy director Naomi Rubin DeVeaux read into the record a letter received from Excel Academy PCS announcing its decision to become part of DCPS.  In addition, Latin American Montessori Bilingual PCS (LAMB) received a renewal for another 15 years, but not before Dr. Woodruff read a prepared statement detailing that despite the exemplary academic results at the school, parents of children enrolled at the facility have expressed severe frustration over leadership changes, a perceived lack of communication, and the situation involving the teacher sentenced a year ago to eight years in prison for sexually abusing six students at the charter.  There was much discussion between the board and school representatives over these issues.

Finally, Maya Angelou PCS was up for its 20-year review, and was granted permission to continue operating under a long list of conditions.  I have been following the history of this alternative education charter for years and the up-and-down trajectory of its standing with the PCSB continued last evening unabated.




Exclusive interview with Dr. Darren Woodruff, chairman DC Public Charter School Board

Note on the interview:  My meeting with Dr. Woodruff took place shortly before the resignations of the D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles and DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson, and a few days prior to Excel Academy PCS announcing that it would become part of DCPS next school year.

I had the privilege of sitting down recently for an conversation with Dr. Darren Woodruff, chairman of the DC Public Charter School Board.  I have interviewed Dr. Woodruff a couple of times in the past, and sadly, this will be the last one as PCSB chair since his term is ending in the spring.  He has been on the board for the last nine years.  I began by asking Dr. Woodruff for his viewpoint on the situation at Ballou High School.   He had clearly already formed an opinion.

“I think the problems at Ballou are not unique to that school,” the PCSB chairman informed me.  “It is important to me that we not throw the teachers, administrators, and most of all the students under the bus.  I view what took place at Ballou regarding high student absenteeism, and the pressure placed on teachers to graduate these kids, as an opportunity.  If the Mayor, D.C. Council, DCPS Chancellor, and other public education stakeholders take this seriously then we have a chance to improve the situation.  We know we are dealing with an extremely challenging environment with these kids.  We need to figure out a way to support them.  The question is what as a city are we going to do about it.  We should not be talking about these issues two years from now.”

I pointed out to Dr. Woodruff that the same consultants who investigated Ballou on behalf of the Office of the State Superintendent of Education also looked at D.C.’s charter schools and did not find the same pattern of irregularities around high school graduations.  I asked him for the reason behind this finding.  “I think we are not seeing these things,” the PCSB chairman opined, “because we have an established a consistent metric for school quality in the Performance Management Framework.  Our sector has persistently and unapologetically focused on quality.  In addition, the PCSB has had consistent leadership.  We look at school transcripts.  I sign all high school diplomas.  We have an infrastructure in place to monitor student academic progress.  The PCSB executive director Scott Pearson and his staff continue to search for ways to further evaluate the advancement of our charter school pupils.  At the same time, I have to give credit to our school leaders that adhere to high standards.”

A controversial topic that came up recently in our local charter movement was the placement of John Goldman, the PCSB’s senior manager, finance, analysis and strategy, on administrative leave after it was discovered that he had written material associated with discriminatory views of the Alt-Right.  I wanted to know from Dr. Woodruff if a final decision had been made about his continued employment.  “I’m not exactly sure where we are with this to be frank,” Dr. Woodruff revealed. “ I know that we are in the middle of an investigation.”

I then requested from Dr. Woodruff to understand his overall impression of how charters are doing at this point in their 22-year history.  “Overall, very well,” Dr. Woodruff commented without hesitation. “We now have 51 Tier 1 schools as ranked on the PMF.  With the exception of Ward 3, we have a variety of quality campuses in each of the city’s wards.  Fully 40 percent of our schools are Tier 1.  We have waiting lists at most of our schools.  There are exciting schools opening in the fall.  I contend that we should be celebrating how far we have come.  Families are now at least considering sending their children to charter schools when this was not the case not all that long ago, and we want to see them get even better.  I’ve been exceedingly privileged and blessed to see the improvements in our portfolio of schools.  We must remember that there is no finish line.  We can continually raise our performance.”

The charter board voted last month to close Excel Academy PCS at the conclusion of this school year.  I had heard from some Excel teachers at this year’s FOCUS Charter School Conference that KIPP DC PCS and Friendship PCS were vying to take over the charter.  I asked Dr. Woodruff if he had the same understanding.  The PCSB chair asserted, “I hope someone does continue its operation.  We don’t want to scatter more than 600 students to the wind.  We hope a strong school will take it over, especially since this is an all-girls school.  It is up to the Excel board, not us, as to the organization that would eventually lead the school.”

During the discussion about the future of Excel, that school and Somerset PCS made the case that the PMF is biased against charters that teach a large percentage of at-risk students.  I wanted to know from Dr. Woodruff if he agreed with this assessment.  He responded immediately.  “No, I don’t believe that there is a bias.  Every year our staff does a validity check to determine whether the tool is predisposed against any group, whether it is at-risk kids, African-Americans, boys, or girls.  We have not found a significant correlation that this is occurring.  But based upon the recent testimony by those schools we will take another look.”

Dr. Woodruff continued, “There are charters in Wards 7 and 8 that as part of their heroic missions are taking in the most difficult to educate children.  We should be rewarding these schools with special recognition.  It is an exceptionally difficult population to teach.  These pupils are different from those in Ward 1, for example.  We should highlight the work of places like KIPP DC PCS, Friendship PCS, DC Prep, and other schools whose strategies are working with these children.  We can dive deeper and see how they are doing it, and then hopefully share that information with other charters.”

Next, I brought up a couple of points that attorney Stephen Marcus had addressed in my interview with him.  First, he alerted me to the fact that schools are required by the PCSB to earn a PMF score of at least 45 percent at the 10 year mark of operation and 50 percent at 15 years of teaching.  He related that the PCSB puts pressure on schools to adopt the PMF as their goals, and then eventually raises its floors.  The attorney contends that this action is equivalent to the charter board setting charter school goals which is a violation of the School Reform Act.  I asked Dr. Woodruff to react to these assertions.  “There is nothing particularly magical about a score of 45 or 50,” Dr. Woodruff explained.  “What we want to see is that there is improvement.  We did not establish the expectation that a school would score a 65 percent at a particular period in time which is at the Tier 1 level.  We give schools flexibility to earn Tier 2 but we don’t believe schools should be Tier 3 after being open for 10 or 15 years.  As to Mr. Marcus’s point about the floors, yes, they have gone up, but so has the academic track record of our charters.  It is like grading on a curve.  If all schools had recorded lower performance levels, then the floors would be lowered.  I don’t want to apologize for our increased expectations for student learning.  We want to see all schools do their best for the children they serve.”

The last topic I wanted to raise with the charter board chair was his vote last year against the expansion plans of D.C Prep because of its higher than average student suspension rates.  The board’s initial decision on this matter to not approve the charter amendments caused much controversy as people accused the PCSB of exceeding its authority under the SRA.   I asked Dr. Woodruff to react to the above statement, and that is exactly what he did in a highly emotional manner.  “Here’s the thing,” Dr. Woodruff said.  “I respect the SRA as much as anyone else.  As I mentioned earlier, the board’s primary focus is school quality.  My interest in raising school quality is the reason I joined this board.  What we have found is that school discipline is not being administered uniformly.  Consider these statistics.  During the 2016-to-2017 school year 17 pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade charter schools had zero suspensions.  40 pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade LEA’s suspended less than 10 percent of their pupils.  67 pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade charters, or 60 percent, saw less than 10 percent of their kids suspended.

The average suspension rate is about 9 percent.  Therefore, here’s what we did as a board.  We took the nine percent figure and tripled it, considering that any school that had a suspension rate three times the average was an outlier.  Schools such as D.C. Prep PCS, Democracy Prep PCS, KIPP DC PCS, Monument Academy PCS, National Collegiate Preparatory PCS, Paul PCS, and Seed PCS are in this category.  11 campuses were outliers that represents only 7 charter school LEA’s.  Moreover, it is not that these suspension rates are leading these schools to become Tier 1 institutions because several are Tier 2 or Tier 3 schools.  I’m personally concerned about these schools and the impact of suspensions on their students.”

Dr. Woodruff had much more to say on this topic.  “The vast majority of our schools, such as Kingsman Academy PCS, Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom PCS, and DC International PCS, are doing an amazing job in this area.  But the ones that are outside the norm are suspending African American students and students with disabilities.  What I’m concerned about is exclusionary discipline on kids that are already at-risk.  I believe strongly that we should fix this problem internally.  We have tools such as the Equity Reports, and conferences on topics such as restorative justice to help us in this area.  But we desperately need to do more.  I’m baffled by the push back on this subject.  In addition, while I admire Councilman David Grosso’s leadership on this topic, I do not believe legislation is the way to fix it.  I would love to see schools come up with their own solutions.  I feel like we have a board that understands the nuances of this area and can help move the issue forward.”


Now what? Structural changes needed atop D.C.’s traditional schools

The Chancellor and Deputy Mayor for Education are gone, and in the Chancellor’s case he lasted only a year in his position.  It appears that pressure to increase high school graduation rates exerted on school leaders by the person who preceded Mr. Wilson resulted in kids receiving diplomas who did not attend class and who were given passing grades in classes they should have failed.  Mayor Bowser could simply name new individuals to fill these spots but we really cannot go through anything like this again.  It is simply not fair to our kids.

Today, the editors of the Washington Post assert that pointing the blame on Mayoral control of the traditional public schools is the wrong place to look:

“Such thinking is shortsighted. The school system that exists today is a far cry from the sorry state of affairs a decade ago when schools didn’t open on time, teachers went unpaid, expectations for students were low and parents fled the system. The seriousness of the problems related to inflated graduation rates can’t be discounted, but that does not negate what has been accomplished under school reform. In addition to building a prekindergarten system, rigor has been added to the curriculum, new instructional strategies have been introduced and the teaching force has been transformed into a performance-based profession. Enrollment is up, and test scores, including on the highly regarded ‘nation’s report card,’ show improvements in student achievement.”

Yes, the neighborhood schools are in much better shape than when they reported to the D.C. Board of Education.  But in reality what choice was there?  Charter schools were enrolling students from the regular schools in waves.  In fact, it was not until DCPS lost over 25 percent of its population that Michele Rhee entered the picture to try and turn things around.  If something were not done the neighborhood schools would be a ghost town.

Much more drastic improvements are still needed.  The achievement gap, now at about 60 points, is growing, not shrinking, after 20 years of school reform.  At least a dozen, and in reality many more, school buildings sit vacant that could be going to charter schools.  Many DCPS facilities are significantly under-enrolled.  Charters are receiving about $100 million a year less than the regular schools illegally outside of the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula.  Low performing neighborhood schools are allowed to continue operating in perpetuity, while charters that demonstrate poor academic results are closed.

We need to replicate the success that the charter sector has had on the regular school side.  Perhaps there needs to be a DC Public School Board composed of volunteers named by the mayor.  The board would then open and close neighborhood schools based upon a charting system mirrored on the PCSB.  The timing could not be better, as the Office of the State Superintendent of Education is rolling out a five-star rating system for all public schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act.  Schools scoring lower than at least a three could be shuttered.

I’m not sure if this new organization is the answer.  Maybe all schools should simply report to the charter board.  But I do know that with so much power in the hands of the Mayor, priorities become one person’s prerogative.  When it comes to the future of our children, I’m afraid we need something more.


Excel PCS to remain open; abdicate status as a charter school

News came yesterday about the future of Excel Academy PCS, and it was not the announcement that was expected.  The charter, whose operation beyond the 10 year mark was rejected by the DC Public Charter School Board last month, will remain open beyond this summer but will do so under the authority of DCPS.  It will continue to be an all-girls school.

I will remind you of the charter board’s assessment of the school’s academic progress which was made in November of last year:

“Excel PCS is a single campus local education agency (LEA), serving grades prekindergarten-3 (PK3) through eight, that adopted the Performance Management Framework (PMF) as its goals and academic achievement expectations.  Pursuant to the school’s Charter and Charter Agreement, Excel PCS has not met its goals.  Per its charter and charter agreement, the school committed to achieving an average PMF score of 45% for the past five years of operation. Excel Academy PCS’ average score is 41.4%, and it only exceeded a score of 45% in school year (SY) 2012-13, the first year of this five-year review. The school’s 2016-17 result, 36.7%, is the school’s lowest score yet, and reflects a downward trend, making the improvement provision in its charter agreement inapplicable to assessment of its goals. While the PMF number is an average, the low score reflects overall low academic achievement and school climate. Math results have been consistently poor – both absolute results as well as year-to-year student growth. English language arts (ELA) results have been higher than math, but are on the decline, with student growth now below the state average in ELA as well. Reading and math growth for grades K through two, as measured by NWEA MAP, has been below 50 for the past four years. Both attendance and re-enrollment rates have also been below DC averages in every year of the review period.  Separate and apart from the determination of the school’s goal and academic achievement expectation attainment, DC PCSB staff has determined that the school has not committed a material violation of law or of its charter, has adhered to generally accepted accounting principles, has not engaged in a pattern of fiscal mismanagement, and is economically viable. Based on these findings, DC PCSB staff recommends that the DC PCSB Board vote to initiate revocation proceedings of the school’s charter, with a final date of operation on June 30, 2018.”

Once the board voted to close Excel, the word on the street was that two high performing charter school networks, KIPP DC PCS and Friendship PCS, were interested in taking over the school.  This information was confirmed to me by teachers from Excel at the 2018 FOCUS Charter School Conference, and again just this week by Dr. Darren Woodruff, chairman of the DC PCSB.  Whenever there is a decision to revoke a school’s charter, it is the hope that the facility would come under the auspices of schools that have a solid track record of producing strong academic results.  Unfortunately, in this case, this is not the path that the charter decided to pursue.

It frankly saddens me that the Excel students of Ward 8 will not longer be held to the high accountability standards of the DC PSCB.

The move by Excel is not unprecedented.  In 2014, Hospitality High School joined DCPS after it decided to relinquish its charter in the face of low academic performance.  At the end of 2015 it was closed and its students dispersed to one of three traditional schools.

Now we will watch as students, parents, and educators, who were used to functioning under the framework of a charter, make the transition to a traditional school system.






Trajectory of D.C.’s traditional schools is heading south; charters rising

Last week, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education released the audited student enrollment for the 2017 to 2018 school year and the news for DCPS complimented its recent accumulation of negative press.  The total number of pupils going to neighborhood schools dropped by about 0.9 percent from 48,555 to 48,144.  The last time that DCPS actually experienced a decrease in enrollment from the previous fall was the 2011 to 2012 term.

Charter schools, alternatively, continued to demonstrate a strong improvement in demand.  The number of students in this sector rose by 4.3 percent compared to a year ago, going from 41, 506 to 43,393.  The figure means that another percentage point has been added to the symbolically important market share statistic, with charters now teaching 47 percent of all students attending public schools in the nation’s capital.

Overall in the city the total number of those attending all public schools grew by 1.6 percent compared to the 2016 to 2017 school year.

But there was also groundbreaking news coming out of the DCPS Central Office.  In the wake of the controversy swirling about high school seniors being given diplomas who never should have graduated, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation joining the investigation, the Chancellor has taken the bold move to create, and I’m not making this up, an Office of Integrity to handle concerns or questions by teachers about the system.  The new Chief Integrity Officer (CIO) named to head the OOI is Dr. Arthur Fields.  Mr. Fields was DCPS’s Senior Deputy Chief of School Culture in which he was “responsible for ensuring that schools have the necessary supports to provide a safe and supportive learning environment for students.”  But I have to ask.  What supportive learning environment did Mr. Fields offer to the cheated kids of Ballou, Anacostia, and other high schools when they were deliberately socially promoted?

Sorry, one more question.  Isn’t integrity supposed to everyone’s job in DCPS, including the Chancellor’s?

Over at the charters the picture is much different.  We recently witnessed the DC Public Charter School Board voting to shutter Excel Academy PCS, as well as agreeing to close Cesar Chavez PCS’s Parkside middle school campus, and Seed PCS’s middle school.  In addition, the long-term future of Achievement Prep PCS is unpredictable.

Herein lies the most significant difference to our children, families, and community between charters and traditional schools.  Charters are held strictly accountable for their performance.  When they don’t meet established goals they are closed.

However, the regular schools, no matter the quality, just get to keep on going.








Exclusive interview with Stephen Marcus, Attorney at Law

Recently, I had the honor of catching up with Stephen Marcus to discuss his legal representation of many of D.C.’s charter schools and other issues.  We began with a discussion regarding the charter school funding inequity lawsuit against the city.

Mr. Marcus reminded me that last October a District Court judge granted summary judgment against the plaintiffs, Washington Latin PCS, Eagle Academy PCS, and the DC Association of Public Chartered Schools, thereby dismissing the case.  The decison has been appealed and Mr. Marcus stated that the parties are waiting for the D.C. Circuit Court to approve a proposed briefing schedule.  I asked the attorney about the arguments the charters are making in the lawsuit.

“There are three main issues,” Mr. Marcus explained: “First, we believe U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan ruled incorrectly that under the D.C. School Reform Act that the District of Columbia can ignore uniform funding requirements in funding DCPS.  The School Reform Act makes clear that all operating expenses for D.C. public schools, DCPS and public charter schools, must be funded exclusively through the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula.”

Secondly, Mr. Marcus said “we regard the District’s use of projected enrollment to calculate the annual payment to DCPS, rather than the actual enrollment numbers used for charter schools, to be a violation of the School Reform Act.”

The third issue relates to the Supremacy Clause and the Home Rule Act.  “We contend that both the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution and the Home Rule Act prohibit D.C. from legislating or acting in conflict with the School Reform Act.”  Mr. Marcus made an interesting point about D.C.’s Home Rule Law.  “In passing this law, Congress did not want to have to decide which of the laws it enacted exclusively for the District should be revised or repealed.  So it decided that the D.C. Council could amend or repeal only those laws passed by Congress prior to the Home Rule Act.  Statues such as the School Reform Act, which were enacted after the Home Rule Act, cannot be repealed by the Council.  We believe that the District is therefore not authorized to amend or legislate in conflict with congressional post-Home Rule statutes such as the School Reform Act, which it has tried to do.”

I related to Mr. Marcus that I understood the finance stipulations under the School Reform Act, but couldn’t the Mayor or City Council still provide supplemental revenue to its own school system?  Mr. Marcus responded quickly.  “Yes, they can, but then the District must provide an equal amount on a per-student basis to charter schools.  Congress intended equal funding between DCPS and charter schools.  To achieve that goal, the SRA requires that the District establish a funding formula based on an objective determination of what it costs to educate a student and multiply that amount by the number of students attending DCPS or a charter school. Supplemental funding to DCPS without providing equal funding to charter schools defeats Congressional intent.”

FOCUS, the charter advocacy group that is coordinating the funding lawsuit, has estimated that between the years 2008 to 2015, DCPS has received $1,600 to $2,600 per student every year more than charter schools.  I inquired of Mr. Marcus if there have been attempts to resolve the funding equity issue outside of the courts.  “There were discussions,” Mr. Marcus stated.  “In fact, as part of the lawsuit, mediation was ordered.  However, the District continues to affirm that it has the right to provide additional funding to DCPS without having to provide the same funding to the charter sector.  In this case, they successfully persuaded the judge of their position.”

I have known Mr. Marcus for over a decade.  He was the lawyer that in 2004 negotiated the lease of the permanent facility for the William E. Doar, Jr. Public Charter School for the Performing Arts (now named City Arts and Prep PCS) when I was its board chair.  Moreover, when charters go before the DC Public Charter School Board on important matters, it is not uncommon to see Mr. Marcus in attendance as their legal counsel.  I wanted to understand from Mr. Marcus how he came to have charter schools as clients.

“WEDJ was the first charter school I represented,” Mr. Marcus informed me.  “I had been on the board of the Jewish Primary Day School.  In that role, I became involved in helping the school find a new facility after it was forced to vacate its existing facility. We were eventually successful in finding a school building.  I negotiated the purchase of the building and then a lease of the building back to the school that sold it to us so that it could remain in the building for the rest of the school year. This experience gave me invaluable technical expertise as well as a deep commitment to helping schools at risk of closure survive.”

Mr. Marcus continued, “I knew someone professionally who was on the WEDJ board, who recommended me to represent WEDJ in lease negotiations.  After the lease was signed, I continued to represent WEDJ.  Because of these efforts, Jerry Levine, a D.C. lawyer, recommended me to Josh Kern, who was then the executive director of Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS and was starting to develop real estate for charter schools.  Josh retained me to negotiate several leases, including a ground lease with the District.  Josh introduced me to Robert Cane at FOCUS.  My colleague Sherry Ingram and I began advising FOCUS on charter school autonomy issues.   We have now been working with FOCUS for ten years.”

Mr. Marcus’s practice now includes helping charter schools on a wide range of issues such as charter application, compliance, charter review and renewal, and other matters up to revocation, closure and takeover.  He sees many of these efforts revolving around the interpretation of the School Reform Act.  A significant number of his interactions, naturally, are with the DC Public Charter School Board.  I asked him how he views the board.

“I have a lot of respect for them,” Mr. Marcus answered.  “I’ve come before them with schools such as IDEA PCS, the Latin American Youth Center Career Academy, Achievement Prep PCS, and Excel Academy PCS.  I see an extremely dedicated board of volunteers who spend many hours trying to get it right.  While I may not always agree with the board’s decisions, their level of attention and willingness to spend time to understand the facts is astonishing.  For example, with LAYC, the PCSB board and staff worked very hard to come up with an alternative to closure.  I believe they have tremendous integrity and are always trying to do what they think is best for the kids.”

I wanted to know from the attorney if he saw any weaknesses in their efforts.  This took him a little longer to answer but eventually he did have some exceptionally interesting comment to make.  “I thoroughly agree with the board’s emphasis on quality, but the drive to create metrics has pushed them to pressure schools to adopt the Performance Management Framework as their charter goal.  This is especially true when schools come up for their 5, 10, or 15 year reviews.  Schools used to have mission-specific goals, but these are difficult to benchmark.  But after a school adopts the PMF, the floors and ceilings of the PMF’s performance indicators increase over time.  The notion that a charter school’s goals can be changed unilaterally by the PCSB is contrary to the School Reform Act.”

“I have a couple of other concerns,” Mr. Marcus added.  “An internal PCSB study demonstrated there is a strong statistical bias that reduces PMF scores for charters that have a high percentage of at-risk students.  In addition, under the PCSB’s own rules, in order to continue operating, schools must earn an average score of at least 45 percent on the PMF at their 10-year review and 50 percent when they reach the 15-year mark.  But I am not aware of any studies that demonstrate a correlation between a 50 percent on the PMF and being a good school.”  I asked Mr. Marcus how he thinks these concerns should be addressed.  “What I would really like to see is an open and honest discussion about PMF bias with respect to at-risk students, the use of the PMF as a charter goal, and the lack of research that directly links a PMF score with quality.  This is my hope.”

Mr. Marcus concluded, “I think it is important that a school have legal representation when it goes before the PCSB, especially when high stakes decisions are going to be made.  The law imposes limits on PCSB’s authority through the SRA, administrative law, and PCSB’s own policies that constrain PCSB’s actions and discretion.”





D.C. charter board unanimously votes to close Excel Academy PCS

Last Thursday, the DC Public Charter School Board voted six to zero to proceed with the revocation of Excel Academy PCS’s charter at then end of the 2017 to 2018 term.  As background, the board decided at its November 21, 2017 meeting to begin the revocation process and, on December 21st of last year, it held a public hearing on the matter.  At that time I predicted that the proposed turnaround plan offered by the school was most likely too little too late.  It turns out that the members of the PCSB sided with this assessment.

Chair Dr. Darren Woodruff summarized the position of many board members in the statement that he read that afternoon:

“As a board member, I continue to be supportive of the Excel mission – providing a high-quality education in one of the most challenged areas of our city through a school that serves more than 600 almost exclusively African American, economically disadvantaged elementary and middle school girls and their families. With one of the most important student populations we have and as the father of a daughter who attended DC public charter schools I am very aware of how important it is for us – this board, our public charter schools, and the larger community – to get the education of our girls right. We will not get a second chance to do well by these students. Toward that goal I want to acknowledge the obvious passion, engagement and commitment I witnessed during our December hearing with Excel faculty and staff, board members, parents, and students. I have no doubt that everyone involved wants nothing but positive outcomes for these girls.

“Every five years the Public Charter School Board is tasked with reviewing the performance of our schools to determine if they have met the goal of providing a high-quality education. And in the case of Excel, despite the clear commitment and engagement we have witnessed, the student outcomes have unfortunately not matched the passion. The agreed upon expectation of earning an average of at least 45 percentage points on the performance management framework over the past five years was not achieved. A PMF score above 45 was only achieved once in the last 5 years, and that was during the 2012-2013 school year. In fact, the most recent score from last year was 37 points out of 100, the school’s lowest score over the 5-year period we are addressing. In addition, student proficiency at Excel in both reading and math on the PARCC was lower than the citywide average for the past 2 years when compared to girls attending other schools. So, the trend for student performance over the past several years has been negative, despite any benefits that may have occurred from learning in an all-girl setting.

“Recent changes to the school’s academic leadership team, a reconstituted Board of Trustees, the planned addition of a Chief Academic Officer, implementation of restorative justice practices, and a proposed school turnaround plan all represent welcome steps that ideally would have been implemented when the first indications of decreased student performance became evident. However, without these steps more fully in place and clear data on their impact, this Board lacks convincing evidence that Excel represents the best opportunity for these young girls that we all care so much about. For this reason, I am in support of the staff recommendation for charter revocation.”

Attorney Stephen Marcus, representing Excel, made the same argument last week as he did at the public hearing in November: that the school’s relatively low score on the Performance Management Framework was due to the relatively greater percentage of children living in poverty that are enrolled.  However, PCSB deputy director Naomi Rubin DeVeaux forcefully refuted this testimony, asserting that there are 22 D.C. charters that currently teach a greater proportion of these children, and that 17 of these schools score higher on the PMF.  She stated that the correlation between economic status and academic preparedness is well known and is a challenge that charter schools accept as their “central task” of closing the achievement gap.

In the end, the message from the board was clear and unequivocal to the charters that it oversees;  don’t wait until you get in trouble to seek help, and if you are going to operate in the nation’s capital, you will meet your academic goals.






D.C. charter schools, please follow these ingredients for continuance

I’m sitting here Wednesday evening listening to the public hearing considering the charter revocation of Excel Academy Public Charter School.  The session is perfectly identical to so many I have seen in the past.  There is an overflow crowd of the school’s parents.  The DC Public Charter School Board is presenting its data demonstrating the reasons the charter should be closed.  The school will then provide testimony promising to revamp its board, change its leadership, and improve its prodigy.  Later, mothers and fathers of enrolled scholars will offer emotionally moving stories about the positive experience attending this school has made toward their children’s growth and development.

It is probably all too late at this point.  The charter has been warned about its academic performance for years.  The bottom line is that we never should have reached this predicament.

Excel PCS, like several of the schools before the board this week, has contracted with the Ten Square Consulting Group, is about to engage with Charter Board Partners, and has hired Stephen Marcus as its attorney.  So please allow me to make a simple suggestion for all of D.C.’s charters.

When considering opening a charter school go through FOCUS’s program that is designed to make this goal a reality.  Please hire Ten Square right from the start to evaluate your program.  Utilize Charter Board Partners to populate the board with members.  Finally engage with Building Hope to secure a permanent facility.  In fact, the DC PCSB should be relied upon as a resource.  We are so extremely fortunate in this town to have so many truly outstanding charter school support organizations.

If you follow my advice good things will happen.  Financial support and other valuable resources may come from groups such as Fight for Children, CityBridge Education, and Education Forward.  Don’t wait unit you get in trouble.  Being proactive may preserve all of the heroic hard work that the school exerted to have their charter accepted by the charter board in the first place.

On this particular night I’m impressed with the testimony of Stephen Marcus.  He successfully introduced an interruption in the steady momentum toward charter revocation when he asked the question of where these students would go if the school was closed.  There is no other all girls school like Excel in the nation’s capital.  Many of the Ward 8 educational institutions located near this facility, both charter and DCPS, score lower on the PARCC standardized test than this one.

The board will vote in January regarding the fate of Excel.  Whatever happens, whether the school’s doors are shuttered at the end of June or if it is allowed to continue operating under a long list of conditions, is almost beside the point.  Sadly, all of this considerable time and energy could and should have been avoided.




D.C. charter board not in Christmas spirit; decides to close campuses

There was a clear unambiguous message that was delivered to D.C.’s charter sector at last night’s monthly meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board:  if you want to keep operating your school, then you will meet your charter’s goals.

The actions throughout the long night were perfectly consistent, exceedingly painful, and correct.  It was as if the board has reached the same collective conclusion about the history of public education in the nation’s capital that I have been repeating on this page.  Namely, it is the belief that we have failed our kids for way too long and if a school is providing a program that is not resulting in academic excellence the doors will be shuttered.

So let’s go down the list.  Somerset PCS was up for its five year review.  The board has determined that it is not meeting “its goals and academic expectations.”  As part of its charter agreement the school will now have to meet specific Performance Management Framework metrics for the next three years or it will be closed.

Cesar Chavez PCS faced its 20 year review.  Again, it has not meet “its goals and student achievement expectations.”  Therefore, the Parkside Middle School, the lowest performing campus in the LEA’s portfolio, will begin to be shutdown immediately, one grade at a time beginning with the sixth prior to the start of the next school year.  The Capitol Hill and Chavez Prep campuses’ operations will also be halted if they do not reach specific PMF levels over the next three years.

Also up for its 20 year review was Seed PCS.  Continuing the pattern, the board found that it has not met “its goals and academic expectations.”  The result is that its middle school will also wind down by the end of the 2019-to-2020 school year.  It will, however, have the option of applying to re-open its middle school in the 2021-to-2022 term.

Protests by some school representatives against these moves due to the presence of a high proportion of at-risk children, the fact that they were in turnaround situations, or that the PMF floor was increasing next year, were met with a distinct lack of interest by the PCSB members.  Executive director Scott Pearson pointed out that if a school had not met its targets, then the entire charter could be revoked, not just the campuses that were closed in the instances above.

Tomorrow night the board is considering the revocation of Excel PCS’s charter, which does not bode well for this institution.

It was actually easy to tell right from the start of this session that it was not going to be a good evening.  Achievement Prep PCS was up early in the agenda for a charter amendment.  The school has had an interesting reaction to the poor academic performance of its elementary school.  It wants to decrease the enrollment of its second and third grades so that each do not have more than 60 pupils.   The school believes that this will improve the culture and instruction of its students.  There are now 80 kids enrolled in the second grade and 93 children in the third grade.  Achievement Prep would hold an internal lottery through My Schools DC for these spaces for those currently in the first and second grades.  Unfortunately, for this portion of the meeting much of the sound was unavailable through the live feed, but the discussion was obviously tense.  It ended with the school’s founder and CEO Shantelle Wright accusing the board of “an abuse of power” and “the overreach of this board and this staff in particular.”  She was reacting to being told that the  PMF targets she agreed to at the November meeting in return for allowing her school to continue to be in business would have to be voted on by the PCSB in January.

There were a few positives.  D.C. Prep PCS, Eagle Academy PCS, and Center City PCS all sailed through their charter reviews, the first two schools at 15 years and the third at 10 years.  In addition, Lauren Catalano, the principal of Somerset PCS, did an amazingly admirable job making the case that conditions should not be placed on her school even if it was a lost cause.  In the end yesterday was an extremely tough session.