Steve Bumbaugh describes a local D.C. charter movement that does not exist

I always respected Steve Bumbaugh’s contributions when he served on the DC Public Charter School Board. His passionate concern was always for those at the bottom of the economic ladder, the very students that the charter movement was established to serve. The fact is that when charter schools first arrived on the scene in Washington, D.C., the main reason that parents sent their offspring to one was for safety. It was probably a much better decision for poor families to keep their kids at home in 1996 for there was very little education going on in the traditional school system. DCPS was characterized by physically deteriorating classrooms and educational malpractice from the lectern.

In a column by Mr. Bumbaugh printed by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post, he describes an unnamed no-excuses charter school that four years ago he observed treating children like prisoners. He wrote:

“I discovered that children as young as 3 years old could spend an entire day in seclusion, away from their classmates, if they were wearing the wrong color shoes. I am dumbstruck. Is this even legal?”

I have personally visited many charters in Wards 7 and 8 and I have never seen an environment like the one he describes.

The opinion piece goes on to call for representation on the governing body of the DC PCSB to mirror the low-income student bodies that charters admit. From the article:

“In the District, 80 percent of families attending charters are eligible for free and reduced lunch, but the charter school board has not in its 25-year history appointed a single board member who lives in poverty. Why not adjust the PCSB’s contours to reflect the communities in which these schools are located instead of incessantly asking poor Black people to acclimate?”

The DC PCSB has done one thing consistently well since its founding twenty five years ago. It has focused on quality, allowing good schools to grow and replicate while closing those where academic progress has not been met. This mission has remained true no matter the racial and socioeconomic makeup of its members. I would hate to do anything that would disrupt this tradition.

But Mr. Bumbaugh does bring up a crucial point. Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been spent on this alternative sector, standardized test scores are not better for Black children compared to the regular schools. It is something I’ve noticed and written about for years.

The problem is due to a tremendous contradiction that exists in our local movement. Charter schools were designed to be fountains of innovation in teaching students that in the past were not well served by regular schools, and yet they are held beginning in their second year to high standards as measured by the Performance Management Framework. I would imagine it is extremely difficult to try something new when faced with the real possibility of closure. This is the reason that with time more and more charters resemble the schools for which they were meant to be an alternative.

Unfortunately, after writing about and supporting charters for over a decade I do not have a solution to this dilemma. However, I do know one thing. If you spend time in any of our charters your eyes will almost certainly tear up with joy due to the care and passion and energy being put forth by those doing the work.

Individual D.C. public schools are having to perform their own Covid-19 contact tracing

Yesterday, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson held a seven-hour public hearing to gather information on the process of re-opening schools this fall. The Washington Post’s Perry Stein covered the event, focusing only on the experiences of DCPS. For example, she writes:

“Publicly available data indicates that, as of Friday, D.C. Public Schools had reported 370 positive cases among its 52,000 students and 1,088 students were quarantined. There had also been 120 positive cases among the system’s 7,500 employees. The District has an asymptomatic testing program, but so far, it has failed to meet its goal to test at least 10 percent of students for the virus in every school each week.”

Ms. Stein leaves out the 43,857 scholars who learn in our nation’s capital charters, I guess because she insists that these schools are “publicly funded but privately run.” I mean really, if your job is to put into words what is happening in this town’s classrooms cover both sectors or simply refer to yourself as the government-run school reporter.

In her piece she documents parent complaints about how the year is going, including unstandardized procedures if a student tests positive, the lack of a virtual option for families that would rather keep their kids at home, and a dearth of study material when students have to quarantine. But here is the part that I found particularly disturbing:

“The union representing the principals has said the administration of contact tracing has wrongly fallen to individual schools.”

This statement appears to be accurate because the issue is also mentioned by DC Public Charter School Board executive director Dr. Michelle Walker-Davis in her testimony:

“And schools are adapting protocols to keep up with the evolving guidance. The flexibility afforded to LEAs in the interpretation of the guidance has put a lot of pressure and tough decisions on school leaders. Some of that flexibility, intended to account for the unique characteristics of each school community, has made it difficult to explain protocols and procedures to families to get them comfortable with safety plans.

We also hear contact tracing needs to improve. Currently, contact tracing is done at the individual school level by the school staff, based on guidance from DC Health and with support from OSSE. This process is burdensome, taxing already stressed educators, including those at our state education agency, whose primary focus should be on teaching and learning.”

Really, on top of trying to teach kids wearing masks all day and using energy that should be channeled to instruction on keeping scholars safe, the individual staffs of our charters need to contact trace? You have got to be joking. This is the best plan that Mayor Bowser, Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn, and acting D.C. State Superintendent of Education Christina Grant can come up with after all these months on planning? This is ridiculous.

I wish that the DC PCSB and the DC Charter School Alliance had listened to me. Charters have throughout their history taken matters into their own hands. When no one would provide them with a building, even though they are public schools, they figured out how to get them. When the payment from the city didn’t come on time they somehow managed to meet payroll. When a long line of education experts said they couldn’t close the academic achievement gap they produced standardized test scores as high as selective institutions.

The movement needs to stop feeling like they are somehow inferior to traditional facilities. Also, they have to end their fear of the Mayor. Charters must once again be bold in the face of all the odds stacked against them. That is the way we will reach the golden goal of equity.



Washington D.C. should offer virtual school instruction this fall

Yesterday, WTOP revealed that all Prince George’s public school parents who want to enroll their Kindergarten through six grade students in virtual learning will be able to do so. This program will be in effect until a Covid-19 vaccine is available for children under twelve years old. It makes sense.

There are still details we do not understand about this virus. My wife Michele and I vacationed in Provincetown, Massachusetts right before Independence Day. No one was wearing masks and social distancing was not being practiced. However, I’m confident that one hundred percent of the people walking on Commercial Street were vaccinated. Approximately, one thousand people contracted the virus that weekend, some needing to be hospitalized. I listened to one individual who became ill state that he had experienced the worse forty-eight hours of his life.

Also Wednesday, the DC State Board of Education sent a letter to Mayor Muriel Bowser requesting that a virtual option be granted for pupils. In rationally spelled out arguments the board requests Ms. Bowser to also relax attendance rules, allow waivers for in-person learning to include one for household members who have a health exemption, end referrals of student absences due to Covid to the Child and Family Services Agency, increase weekly Covid testing to all students and staff from the current policy of ten percent of unvaccinated individuals, add a requirement that all staff and students older than sixteen be required to be vaccinated according to CDC guidelines, and increase resources for mental heath care and treatment. In addition, the communication includes a request that the Mayor issue a new public health emergency so that the city pays for Covid testing, and reverse the mandate that prevents school nurses from caring for students and staff that may have contracted the disease. These recommendations are completely logical to me.

The critical factor is that charter schools may decide on their own to again offer online classrooms. The DC Public Charter School Board can begin today approving amendments from schools that request them to make this a reality. I spoke to one prominent charter leader recently who explained that the school had been encouraged to apply for a virtual teaching amendment only to later be told that the request would be denied. I will not conjecture here about the reason behind the reversal.

CNN reports today that over one hundred thousand people are now hospitalized in the United States, more than double this time last year. From the article:

“With no vaccines available to children under 12 and school starting up across the country, experts are concerned about the growing number of infections among children. Texas Children’s Hospital is seeing an unprecedented surge of coronavirus cases, with a record number of kids being hospitalized for the virus, and children are showing up sicker than before, Dr. Jim Versalovic, interim pediatrician in chief at the Houston-based hospital system told CNN Wednesday.”

Many in our community have first-hand experience with the devastating impact of Covid-19. The impact has been particularly bleak for the Black community, where eighty percent of Covid deaths occurred. It is the prudent and dignified action to take to offer these families a virtual learning option.

D.C. charter school movement shows signs of renewal

Yesterday, in a highly unusual move, the DC Public Charter School Board held its monthly meeting at one o’clock p.m. instead of in the evening. That is far from the perfect time to ensure maximum public participation. But it is summer and there was only one item on the agenda. The board considered allowing the See Forever Foundation, the organization that currently operates two campuses of the Maya Angelou Public Charter Schools, to open a second high school at the D.C. jail.

The charter amendment request provided an excellent opportunity to hear from the school’s new chief executive officer Clarisse Mendoza Davis. She was so articulate and positive in her remarks that if you are having a bad day I highly recommend watching this hearing so that your frame of mind can be flipped in the completely opposite direction. Ms. Davis spoke passionately about literally meeting these students where they are, including having her staff figure out how to teach young people who are in solitary confinement and permitted only an hour a day to leave their cells. After her presentation, the board quickly and unanimously approved the request.

The opportunity for Maya Angelou came because the D.C. jail’s contract with DCPS to provide instruction to inmates through its Inspiring Youth Program concludes at the end of September. The Department of Corrections then contacted Maya Angelou PCS to see if it would provide the service. It is fascinating to me that the D.C. government reached out to a charter. If it can do it in this instance, then I do not see why it cannot do the same regarding replacing all of the failing traditional schools that are doing a disservice to our children with charters.

The other positive development on Monday was that the Washington Post’s Jay Mathews wrote a glowing column regarding the work of my friend Susan Schaeffler, the CEO of KIPP DC PCS. The occasion was the twentieth anniversary of Ms. Schaeffler opening her first campus in a church basement to teach low income kids. Mr. Mathew remarked:

“As the chief executive of KIPP DC, she now leads 20 schools with 7,300 students from preschool through high school. That is 7 percent of the D.C. public school population. Her team has established high standards for learning that have drawn strong support from D.C. families, while evolving from a focus on just college to a promise to help students achieve successful careers — what KIPP calls “choice-filled lives”— by whatever paths they select.”

I first met Susan and KIPP DC’s president Allison Fansler years ago at one of Fight for Children’s Fight Night charity galas. I’m sure they were invited due to their close relationship with Michela English, then the president and CEO of Fight for Children. I was chairman of the Washington Latin PCS board and invited Susan to become one of our trustees. Washington Latin was sometimes criticized for being a school for affluent families which was not true. In fact, it had one of the most diverse student bodies I had ever seen for a charter. I wanted to do something tangible to demonstrate that we were dedicated to instructing all children in the city. Susan agreed to join us and despite her incredibly busy schedule she attended our meetings and made many strong contributions to our institution. When it became clear that her day job and family commitments were just too much to serve formally at Latin she became a trusted advisor to head of school Martha Cutts until she retired from leading the charter.

Yesterday was a great day.

Mayor Bowser takes first step in charterizing all D.C. public schools

Last week, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced her choice to replace Hanseul Kang as the State Superintendent of Education. Ms. Bower’s selection is Christina Grant, who oversaw the charter school sector in Philadelphia. 68,364 students attend charters in Philadelphia across 68 schools representing 36.4 percent of city’s public school students. In Washington D.C. there are 66 charter schools located on 125 campuses educating 43,795 pupils. The Mayor’s press release on the nomination of Ms. Grant say this about her qualifications:

“She recently served as the Chief of Charter Schools and Innovation for The School District of Philadelphia, she oversaw a budget of more than $1 billion and a portfolio of both district and charter schools. In this capacity, Dr. Grant managed a complex organization, working closely with the Superintendent of Schools and the President of the Board of Education and Mayor’s Chief Education Officer. Dr. Grant’s career began as a public school teacher in Harlem; since then, she’s held numerous roles in education, including as Superintendent of the Great Oaks Foundation and Deputy Executive Director at the New York City Department of Education.”

Not mentioned in Ms. Bowser’s statement is that Ms. Grant was a teacher in New York City for a KIPP public charter school and that her role as executive director in New York City Public Schools involved managing the process for the opening of new charters. Following her stint with NYC schools, she moved on to become executive director of NYCAN, a New York City-based charter advocacy organization.

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein revealed that Ms. Grant received training at the Broad Academy, a pro-charter educational leadership program that is now run by Ms. Kang at Yale University. Ms. Stein mentions that D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn and Chancellor Lewis Ferebee also attended the Broad Academy.

When schools in the nation’s capital finally reopen fully in the fall I expect that Ms. Grant, in her effort to bring equity in education to all District students, will fight to expand the charter sector by replacing failing DCPS facilities with schools of choice.

Consistent with our efforts in public education to provide a quality seat to any child who needs one is an expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship Program, the federal private school voucher program in our city. But there are storm clouds on the horizon regarding the plan. D.C. Congressional Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton announced that as part of President Biden’s proposed budget he supports “winding down” the scholarships. Here Mr. Biden is following in the muddy footsteps of his idol Barack Obama, who stopped new entrants from participating in the O.S.P. when he was President, directly hurting students living in poverty. I think suggesting to make this move after a year of remote learning is especially heartless and cruel.

One more thought for today. When I tuned into the May monthly meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board I noticed that Steve Bumbaugh was not present. It turns out that his term had expired. I will greatly miss Mr. Bumbaugh’s presence on the board. His observations and comments were always insightful. He was an especially strong advocate for those on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder in Washington, D.C. Mr. Bumbaugh had a profound appreciation of the nature of school choice, and gave great deference to the opinions of parents as to whether a school under review should be allowed to continue operating.

His absence leaves a critical vacancy on the board.

Future bleak for approval of new charter schools in the District of Columbia

Last Monday evening the DC Public Charter School Board considered for approval five applications that they had heard new school representatives present the prior month. Board member Steve Bumbaugh commented before the vote on Capital Experience Lab PCS that “this is one of the finest applications” that he had read during his six-year tenure on the board. He went on to say that he himself had opened a charter school, so he could see the promise of what this new school could become.

So what did the members of the PCSB do following his remarks? They turned down the school in a four to three ruling.

The discussion over whether to create additional classrooms started out on a highly defensive note. Here is board chair Rick Cruz’s remarks regarding this part of the meeting’s agenda:

“As long as public charter schools have been in Washington, DC, there has been a debate about them: Many have been concerned, arguing that we have too many public charter schools and contending that they take away resources from more traditional options.    And each time this Board has considered opening new schools, many in the city worry that there is not enough need and not enough demand.

“The Board sees it differently. Yes, the number of public charter schools grew in the early years, but for the last decade the percentage of public school students attending traditional and charter schools has stayed roughly the same, with more than half attending traditional DCPS schools. And that’s because both sectors open new schools, while closing others. With charters, we have a process of regular review and oversight that allows us to close schools which are underperforming. 

“In fact, since 2014 when I joined the Board, we have opened 21 schools while closing 15. And when I say schools, I am referring to campuses not [local education agencies] LEAs.

“My basic point is that charter application approvals are but only one part of the story. One needs to look at the whole picture — from applications to oversight, from improvement to closing if necessary.

“Often the controversy around charters is framed as one of budget dollars being taken by charter schools away from the traditional neighborhood schools. That is simply not true. Public charter schools get funded per pupil. The dollars belong to them and their families. And, over my time on the Board and in the sector, we have seen real increases in funding under the leadership of Mayor Bowser. One sector does not take from the other.

“Public charter schools were created as an alternative approach to provide public education — to offer innovation, quality, and choice to families that wanted another way. In Washington, DC, we continue to work toward that goal. And our work is not done. We need to keep looking for ways – through our oversight and monitoring — to make public charter schools better. Why?  Because the students and families of this city deserve this. They deserve better.”

The tone is quite different from a statement released by the board in 2019 when D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn attempted to put pressure on the PCSB to restrict the number of new school applications given the green light to open.

“Despite concerns about ‘under-utilization’ by the DC Deputy Mayor of Education, families are choosing public charter schools for their students. This year, 59% of public charter schools had longer waitlists than they did last year, and roughly 67% of applicants on waitlists are waiting for a seat at a top-ranking public charter school. Quality matters to families. This is why we want to ensure that there are excellent options available throughout the city.”

That year five out of eleven bids to create new facilities were approved.

This year it was only one. The story of what happened to CAPX is one around fear around demand. Board member Lea Crusey remarked that the board has approved 2,000 new high school seats over the next 10 years and that of the eight pre-Kindergarten to twelfth grade charters approved to open over the last four years, only two charters have met their first year enrollment target.

It is now easy to understand why only Wildflower PCS was granted a charter. Here you have a small school with a Montessori model aimed at enrolling at-risk children. There is high demand for Montessori-based pedagogy in the city. The existing schools, both traditional and charter, that are based upon this framework are oversubscribed. Even though there is tremendous need for more Montessori schools in the city, the charter board cut the number of 60-pupil campuses proposed by Wildflower from eight to six.

When you see a high quality innovative charter like CAPX being denied and an extremely specialized school like Wildflower being approved, it means that the portfolio of charter schools in the nation’s capital is now basically fixed.

Only 1 new D.C. charter school application should be approved by board

Tonight, the DC Public Charter School Board will vote on five applications for new schools that it entertained last month. Only one of these should be approved to open during the 2022-to-2023 term.

Capital Experience Lab PCS applied last year and the board missed an opportunity by failing to give this charter the green light. Now the submission to the board has been improved. According to the school,

“We have spent the past year learning from and implementing the feedback we received from the PCSB last March.
We have focused on the areas of demonstrating demand, strengthening team capacity, planning inclusively to meet
the needs of all learners, and building out a more comprehensive high school plan.”

I thought once again the representatives from the school did an exceptional job in their presentation. While the members of the PCSB have the right to ask almost any question they want, the line of inquiry around Ms. Dailey-Reese’s record as executive director of City Arts and Prep PCS went beyond common decency. She did everything in her power to improve the academic performance of her students.

Wildflower PCS will be denied because the school leaders were not able to give a clear vision of roles and responsibilities between those running the charter at the local level compared to the national organization. This is a CityBridge Education supported application so I’m on dangerous grounds casting my vote against the efforts of this group.

The charter board was especially excited about the application from Heru Academy PCS, particularly because it would enroll students with emotional and physical disabilities. While this is a noble cause I just didn’t believe that the those doing the presentation demonstrated sufficient knowledge and experience to take on this mighty challenge.

I have similar feelings about Lotus PCS and  M.E.C.C.A. Business Learning Institute PCS. The applications were fine but I didn’t get the sense that the representatives had the background to leap into the turbulent world of charter school start-ups.

All of this is too bad because as you are aware I want as many charter schools to open in the nation’s capital as possible.

Complicating the issue of approving new schools is the fear as expressed by some board members that there are currently too many available seats in District schools. In an article by the Washington Post’s Perry Stein that appeared last Thursday, the reporter states that board member Saba Bireda observed, “In all, the charter board has approved nine middle and high schools that are in the process of opening, expanding or adding more grade levels, with the potential to add more than 3,000 seats in the city.” Another trustee, Jim Sandman remarked at the March board meeting, ““I am concerned about the under-enrollment of a number of current middle schools in Wards 5 and 6.”

Being a proponent of a strong education marketplace, I say the more schools the better and let parents vote with their feet as to which will financially be able to support themselves and which will have to close. I just wish the applications for new schools had been stronger.

D.C. Charter School Alliance asks the Mayor for millions; let’s go another route

A February 10th letter from Shannon Hodge, the founding executive director of the D.C. Charter School Alliance, addressed to Mayor Muriel Bowser and Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn, lays out a detailed wish list of additional funding for both charters and DCPS as part of the FY 2022 budget. Here are the recommendations:

● Increase the UPSFF foundation level by 4% to partially close the gap between current funding levels and the recommended levels from the 2013 DC Education Adequacy Study.
● Increase the facilities allotment by 3.1% to ensure that charter schools continue to receive funds needed to secure and maintain school buildings.
● Increase the at-risk funding weight to .37, the level recommended in the 2013 adequacy study, to direct needed funds to our students most in need of targeted interventions and support.
● Provide $6.4M to expand the Department of Behavioral Health’s school-based mental health program, which will enable 80 additional schools to address student and family mental health needs that instability and loss during the last year have likely exacerbated.
● Increase the English learner weight to .61, the level recommended in the 2013 adequacy study, to support undocumented students who are often excluded from receiving other financial supports due to lack of documentation.

In addition, Ms. Hodge seeks a couple of “legislative adjustments” which will also add to the educational funding stream:

● Create a statutory requirement for review of the definition of “at-risk” under the DC Code to ensure the definition appropriately captures the students in need of additional funding support.
● Continue the automatic escalation of facilities funding for public charter schools with a 3.1% annual increase for each of the next five years to ensure continuity of funding for charter school facilities.

The justification for all of this added public funding is, of course, a continuing effort to close the academic achievement gap between the affluent and poor. The letter states that “While our students have made significant improvements over the years, our investments have not yet produced the education outcomes necessary for every part of our city to thrive. And with COVID-19 disproportionately affecting low-income communities, even more is needed to close opportunity gaps.”

I asked the Alliance for an estimate of the impact on the city’s budget if all of the above requests were granted. There was no response. Therefore, I did a little back-of-the-envelope analysis of my own. The Uniform Per Student Funding Formula’s current base to pay for teaching one pupil a year is $11,310. The four percent increase would bring this number to $11,762. Applying this new payment to 94,412 students leads to $42.7 million in new spending per year. On the charter school facility side, a student generates $3,408 in revenue a year. Bringing this number up by 3.1 percent would generate another $4.6 million in costs. So between the two changes we are talking about around $50 million more annually for public education while recognizing that Washington, D.C., according to Ms. Hodge, “enjoys one of the highest per-pupil allocations for education funding in the country.”

I know it has been an exceptionally challenging twelve months when it comes to instructing our children. The pandemic has brought massive new costs in personal protective equipment, laptops, and other equipment and supplies. But then again, Ms. Bowser last December awarded $10 million dollars to charters to cover these costs. This comes on top of a $16 million grant from the federal government tied to increasing literacy for disadvantaged students. Let’s also not forget contributions schools have received from the DC Education Equity Fund. It’s really hard to keep up with all of this spending.

It is also not as if the Mayor has not been providing educational resources to the charter and traditional school sectors. Since Ms. Bowser came into office in 2015, I cannot recall a time when the UPSFF was not increased as part of the annual budget cycle.

Therefore, I think its more than fair to ask what we have received for this level of financial commitments? I’ll save you the drumroll. The District of Columbia has one of the nation’s largest academic achievement gaps at about 60 points. In addition, despite the heroic efforts of teachers and education leaders, it has not budged for decades.

Therefore, I really think it’s time to try something different. Let’s convert all the traditional schools to charters. In addition, the DC Public Charter School Board must approve more charter operators in the city. Simultaneously, now that Scott Pearson is no longer the board’s executive director, his successor Dr. Michelle Walker-Davis needs to figure out how to provide the schools under her jurisdiction the freedom that they enjoyed when these alternative schools were first created in the nation’s capital.

This terrible pandemic has taught us that we cannot continue to conduct our business as we have in the past. Let’s apply this lesson to the city’s education budget.

D.C. charter board receives 5 applications to open new schools

The DC Public Charter School Board revealed yesterday that it has received five applications to open new schools at the start of the 2022-to-2023 school term.

The first applicant, Capital Experience Lab PCS, came before the board last year. I thought it should have been approved by the board. Here’s what I wrote then:

“The presentations by the new applicants were fascinating. Right out of the gate I’ll wager the entire pot on the Capital Experience Lab PCS being given the green light. Sometimes new bids for charters have an alignment in components that cannot be stopped and this is the case with this school. The support from CityBridge Education combined with Friendship PCS’s CEO Patricia Brantley as a board member and the selection of Lanette Dailey-Reese as head of school present a powerful foundation. I hope you remember Ms. Dailey-Reese as the highly impressive individual who almost single-handily saved City Arts and Prep PCS from closure. This mission of the CAPX LAB around utilizing the wealth of resources present in the nation’s capital as its classroom cannot be topped.”

Ms. Dailey-Reese reprises her role as executive director and Patricia Brantley remains a board member. It would be a sixth grade through ninth grade charter that hopes to locate in Ward 2 or Ward 6 with a total of 622 students at full capacity. As a reminder, this is the applicant that wants to integrate Washington, D.C.’s rich presence of cultural institutions into its pedagogy.

Wildflower PCS would become a pre-Kindergarten through fifth grade charter that would create eight “micro” Montessori schools in Wards 5, 6, 7, and 8 instructing a total of 300 students. Now before you reject this application right off the bat due to its complexity, you need to know that there are Wildflower schools today in 13 states, with several localities having more than one school. These are teacher-led institutions supported by the Wildflower Foundation. The first Wildflower school opened in 2014.

I’m sure that the board will heavily scrutinize the relationship between the Wildflower Foundation and the individual schools, especially after the mixed track record out-of-town franchises have had in the District.

An application that has to be taken seriously is the one from Heru Academy PCS. The founders want to create a kindergarten through eighth grade school in Ward 7 or 8 that focuses on teaching children with emotional and physical disabilities. However, there are some red flags here. The application states that the school wants to open and expand to the fifth grade but the growth model in the document goes to grade eight. The narrative states that the school eventually wants to expand through high school. In addition, the charter board often does not like schools that start at kindergarten. Why not teach kids at pre-Kindergarten? There is also a foundation that sits above the school. Explanations will have to be provided around the structure.

Another strong bid is from Lotus PCS, which wants to become a pre-Kindergarten through eight grade school with 342 students in Wards 5 or 6. The mission of this charter is to close the academic and opportunity achievement gap. Lotus PCS would be the first school in the nation’s capital to be affiliated with Big Picture Learning, a network of 65 schools in the United States, with other facilities around the world. Lotus PCS is centered on an inclusion model of teaching that revolves around the way students learn.

Again, look for the DC PCSB to want information on Big Picture Learning and its relationship to the school to be opened in our city.

The fifth applicant is the M.E.C.C.A. Business Learning Institute PCS, an applicant that was rejected in 2018. But now the number of students the charter wants to enroll is tremendously different. Three years ago, the total size of the school reached 990 students in grades six through twelve. Now, the total count for this business education-based and vocational charter is just 175. I remember that the group did not impress me years ago and we will have to see if there is a much improved presentation in 2021.

This will be the first application cycle for new DC PCSB executive director Michelle Walker-Davis. Under her predecessor Scott Pearson the board only approved around 20 percent of those seeking to open new charters. Let’s sincerely hope that her support for school choice is stronger.

5 year D.C. charter school movement secret revealed

Former DC Public Charter School Board executive director Scott Pearson penned an article in the online journal Education Next entitled “5 Things We Learned in D.C. About How to Advance Charter Schools.” In the piece Mr. Pearson answers a question that has haunted the movement since 2015. That spring he wrote a commentary co-authored with Skip McCoy, the DC PCSB chair at the time, that made the argument that the balance between the number of children attending charters compared to DCPS “is about right.”

The editorial sent a shockwave through the local charter school movement. Leaders could not understand why such an argument would be made, especially at this moment in history, by the two people who were supposed to be the city’s strongest charter school advocates. As charters were growing at a record pace school choice supporters were looking forward to the day when the majority of students in the nation’s capital would be enrolled in these alternative schools. The thought was that the shift in the demographics between the two sectors would bring more resources to charters in the areas of funding and facilities, as well as provide a quality education to thousands of pupils who had been left behind for decades by the regular schools.

Now, a couple of months after stepping down from his position at the charter board, Mr. Pearson offers his rationale for the action he took and I warn you that it is not pretty. Under a section labeled “Remove the Existential Angst” he writes:

“In 2012 D.C. charters served 41% of pupils, up from 25% ten years earlier. With share growth of two to three percentage points each year it was simple to forecast that a generation hence DCPS would be reduced to a tiny remnant—or eliminated entirely. For some national charter school theorists, this was the goal, an extreme position in an active national debate about the ‘end state’ of charter schools.

In D.C., though, this possibility raised the political temperature tremendously.

It turned out most people in D.C. supported both charters and DCPS. Many families had children in both sectors. Many city elders were proud DCPS alumni. And, significantly, DCPS, under Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson’s leadership, was turning around, embracing core ed reform principles. Few Washingtonians wanted to see DCPS cast into the dustbin of history. As long as this was the looming future, any decision we made about approving new schools or new school growth was seen through this apocalyptic lens.

So I, along with my board chair, penned an op-ed in the Washington Post arguing that ‘the balance we have, with a thriving public charter sector and strong traditional schools, is about right.’ We didn’t impose caps to maintain this balance. But by closing low-performing schools, only letting high-performing schools grow, and approving only the strongest new applicants, we kept our market share below 50%.

Did this win over everyone? No. But it ensured that the mayor remained a strong charter supporter. It kept any discussion of limiting charter growth off the city council agenda. And it kept the average D.C. resident broadly comfortable with an education reform movement supportive of both sectors.”

In other words, Mr. Pearson’s and Mr. McCoy’s motive behind their polemic was purely political. They reasoned that by closing lower performing schools, severely restricting the ability of existing charters to replicate and expand, and blocking the approval of new charter school applicants, they could drive the proportion of students attending charters to remain under fifty percent of the total number of public school students enrolled, thereby making the movement more palatable to elected officials and other citizens.

I have spent thousands of words arguing that the DC PCSB has made it too difficult to open new schools and allow existing schools to add additional students. Now I understand completely why nothing was done to reverse the situation. But the explanation makes me severely depressed. The outcome of the strategy set by Mr. Pearson was that students were blocked from attending charters who could have greatly benefited from access to these schools.

In addition, the plan did not work. In the “Crossing the Chasm Isn’t Enough” final section of the Education Next blog post Mr. Pearson admits that the District’s charters are facing resistance like never before:

“But the rise of white progressive politics in the city, in combination with a somewhat re-energized union movement, has left our schools fighting attacks on multiple fronts–and often losing. We lost last year when the City Council regulated suspensions and expulsions. And we lost this year when the City Council mandated open charter-school governing-board meetings. We know there is more waiting in the wings – limits to growth, teacher representatives on charter boards, efforts to control our spending and our curricula.”


The sad conclusion is that Mr. Pearson’s effort to placate the public has backfired. The only true outcome of purposely stalling charter expansion has been reduce the number of kids attending charters in the nation’s capital.