It’s time for an independent Office of the State Superintendent in the nation’s capital

There are two bills being debated currently in the D.C. Council regarding the reporting structure for the Office of the State Superintendent of Education in the District of Columbia. One suggestion is to have OSSE fall under the purview of the State Board of Education. This legislation should be dead on arrival since it reminds me of the terrible old days when the Board of Education contributed to our town having one of the worst run school systems in the country. No one wants to go back to those days.

However, the second proposal, authored by Councilmember Mary Cheh, comes out of more recent controversies around DCPS that arose four years ago. Beginning in November 2017, the traditional schools faced a trio of problems that came in quick succession. First, a study by WAMU and NPR found that many seniors attending Ballou High School should never have graduated. From their report:

“An investigation by WAMU and NPR has found that Ballou High School’s administration graduated dozens of students despite high rates of unexcused absences. WAMU and NPR reviewed hundreds of pages of Ballou’s attendance records, class rosters and emails after a DCPS employee shared the private documents. The documents showed that half of the graduates missed more than three months of school last year, unexcused. One in five students was absent more than present — missing more than 90 days of school. . . Another internal email obtained by WAMU and NPR from April shows that two months before graduation, only 57 students were on track to graduate, with dozens of students missing graduation requirements, community service requirements or failing classes needed to graduate.”

Then in February 2018, Deputy Mayor for Education Jenny Niles and DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson resigned after the D.C. inspector general had found that with Ms. Niles’ assistance one of Mr. Wilson’s children had bypassed the school lottery to gain admission to Wilson High School. She had been enrolled at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts but was not happy there.

That same month the Washington Post reported that OSSE had discovered that as many of half of the students attending the Duke Ellington School of the Performing Arts lived outside of D.C. but were claimed to be residents so the families would not have to pay tuition. The story stated that a lawyer at OSSE told officials in his organization to slow the fraud investigation “because of the risk of negative publicity during a mayoral election year.”

These incidents point to the problem of having OSSE report to the Mayor who also controls the traditional public schools. As Ms. Cheh indicates in her proposed legislation:

“However, in 2007, with the passage of the Public Education Reform Amendment Act of 2007 (“PERAA”), the SEO became the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, a change that came with much greater responsibility. OSSE took over a
number of responsibilities previously handled by the Board, including developing state-level standards and assessments, grantmaking, and, importantly, oversight of the District’s public schools. In addition, under PERAA, control of DCPS shifted from the Board of Education to the Mayor. For the first time, the District’s state level oversight body and its public school system were subordinate to the same person—the Mayor.

For this reason, OSSE is unlike any other state-level oversight body in the country. In every state, school districts answer to state-level education authorities, which are empowered to audit all school data and demand corrective action where an audit identifies areas of concern. In no other state does the state-level oversight body report to the head of a school system it oversees. This conflict of interest compromises the work of our Superintendent, risking the public’s trust in the integrity of our school data. Unfortunately, the effect of this conflict of interest on OSSE’s work is not merely speculative. In recent years, there have been concerning reports regarding OSSE’s oversight of our public school data, and failures to adequately identify errors or misrepresentations in data on student attendance, suspensions, and graduation rates. In these instances, it was members of the media—not OSSE—who identified these data issues and brought them to the public’s attention. In the normal course, such issues would have been identified as part of regular audits; that they were not raises genuine concerns about our audit processes and how OSSE oversees our school data. What’s more, at that time, it was reported that an OSSE attorney directed staff to delay a particular investigation because it was a mayoral election year.”

An independent OSSE would avoid the inherent conflict of interest that was established with PERAA’s passage in 2017.

I should mention that Shannon Hodge, the founding executive director of the DC Charter School Alliance, testified before the Council that she is opposed to both acts currently being debated about OSSE’s reporting structure. About Ms. Cheh’s suggestion she commented:

“Making OSSE an independent agency within the DC government, as the Office of the State Superintendent of Education Independence Amendment Act of 2021 (Bill 24-101) would do, would separate it from other agencies that it is deeply interconnected with. For example, OSSE and DC Health work closely together on a number of issues relating to the ongoing pandemic and need to be able to make coordinated decisions. OSSE simply needs the support and collaboration of every city agency to best accomplish their work.”

It is an unusual position because the new organizational structure of OSSE mirrors that of the DC Public Charter School Board. With the PCSB, the Mayor appoints the members but the body is run on its own. I say the council should pass this legislation.


Is Mayor Bowser trying to shutdown D.C.’s public charter school board?

These are certainly strange times for the District of Columbia’s charter school movement. As I pointed out toward the end of last month, there are now three vacancies on the DC Public Charter School Board. Saba Bireda stepped down in September and Naomi Shelton’s term concluded in August. There is still no nominee from Mayor Muriel Bowser to replace Steve Bumbaugh, a position that D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson wondered about during a hearing in June.

Then a bombshell landed when Mr. Bumbaugh wrote a recent editorial promoted by anti-charter Washington Post columnist Valerie Strauss in which he calls into question the very existence of the alternative sector that now educates 46 percent of all public school students, numbering approximately 46,500, in the nation’s capital.

“The District must rethink its charter schools,” Mr. Bumbaugh asserted.

The timing of the column is curious as the writer goes on to mention that two more representatives of the PCSB will see their volunteer service come to an end in the coming year. This would leave only two of seven slots filled. If there is to be continuity regarding this organization, then members really should be added now.

Perhaps there is a reason for Ms. Bowser’s delay. The Washington Post’s Perry Stein is fond of stating that charter schools are public entities that are privately run. For years, the charter board has been criticized by those who oppose the sector as not being responsible to the citizenry. As the Mayor contemplates a run for a third term it is possible that she would like to take an action to quell these concerns. One move I could imagine her making is to fold responsibility for the city’s charters under the State Board of Education.

This is not so farfetched. The board was the original authorizer of charters in the District. They got out of the charter business at the same time that the Mayor took over control of the regular schools. One way for the Mayor to exert authority over these freewheeling charters is to group them with DCPS under one governing body. It would essentially put all 95,000 pupils under her purview.

We have a former member of the charter board stating that the 25 year experiment in school reform needs to be re-imagined. Scott Pearson’s replacement, Dr. Michelle Walker-Davis, has placed a twelve month pause on the approval of new schools and the grade level expansion of existing classrooms. Ms. Bowser is dictating the COVID response for both sectors. Now the Council has exceeded its powers in passing a law expanding virtual learning in charters.

From where I am sitting, it appears that the PCSB is coming to an end.

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. parents and educators fight over bringing children back to in classroom learning

Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has mandated that children return to the classroom when DCPS starts school on August 30th. But many parents and instructors are raising concerns. Yesterday in an excellent article the Washington City Paper’s Ambar Castillo captured these issues as expressed at a State Board of Education meeting last Wednesday evening, which revolve around fear of the rise of Covid-19’s Delta variant, the inability of students to accomplish social distancing due to a lack of space, the fact that there is no available vaccine for children younger than twelve years old, and the lack of a virtual learning option. In addition, parents argued that lunch should be provided outdoors, which led Raymond Weeden, the Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS executive director, to explain that this is not possible for his attendees because of the large number of shootings around the school’s Anacostia neighborhood.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the City Paper piece was the revelation that the founder and long-term head of Achievement Prep PCS has now joined the DC Charter School Alliance. Sarah Lewis is listed on the school’s website as the interim CEO. Ms. Castillo wrote:

“Shantelle Wright, the DC Charter School Alliance Interim Director of Advocacy and Policy, expressed a need for “a citywide contingency plan should the District have an unexpected outbreak that puts schools remaining open at risk.” She said the alliance is asking the mayor to include charter schools when the city coordinates a protocol to tackle an even worse COVID caseload crisis.”

Ms. Wright is expressing a point of view previously expressed by the Alliance that is driving me up the wall. What happened to the days when charters took control of their own destiny? Isn’t it possible for the Alliance or the DC Public Charter School Board to devise a contingency plan for an unexpected outbreak? How hard can it be? Wouldn’t the answer be to return to distance learning lesson plans?

The DCPCS has granted permission to KIPP DC PCS and Maya Angelou PCS to offer limited virtual learning going forward. The board turned down a request for Howard University PCS’s request to do the same although no reason was given. Apparently, AppleTree PCS withdrew an initial request to be able to provide virtual instruction. Friendship PCS already has an online institute.

At the same meeting complaints were raised about Ms. Bowser’s expressed policy that school nurses will not be allowed to care for students or teachers who may have contracted the virus. This would be handled by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. WTOP’s Acacia James captured Washington Latin PCS’s head of school Peter Anderson explaining that his school’s nurse resigned due to this condition. From her article:

“’When we pushed back on this, our nurse also tried to push back on this, was told nothing’s going to change and so she quit,’ Anderson said. ‘And so now we no longer have a nurse and we don’t know what the situation is going to be for us.’”

There is also controversy over testing. Ms. James stated that the city will cover the cost of testing ten percent of students. However, if a school decides to test more than this number, it will have to pay.

It appears that D.C.’s school sectors are about to begin a grand experiment of teaching children in person during a pandemic.

 

Dramatic difference between charter and DCPS high school student absentee rates

Yesterday, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education released a preliminary report investigating high school student absentee rates in the aftermath of the WAMU and NPR story revealing that students at Ballou High School were graduated even after missing more than three months of class.  It was not flattering.  From the findings:

“Between the 2014-15 and 2016-17 school years absenteeism among students in their fourth year of high school steadily increased, particularly at the highest levels of absenteeism (Figure 1). In the 2016-17 school year, 7.9% of graduates missed more than half of instructional days (extremely chronically absent), up from 3.7% in 2014-15. While the number of non-graduates has decreased over the past three years, the proportion of non-graduates who have missed more than half of instructional days at their graduating school has risen by five percentage points. More than half (51.1%) of non-graduates in 2016-17 were extremely chronically absent. The proportion of graduates among profoundly chronically absent or extremely chronically absent students has increased significantly over the past three years (Figure 2). In 2016-17, 82.6% of the 579 students in their fourth year of high school who missed between 30%-49.99% of school graduated; 44.8% of the 592 students who missed more than 50% of school graduated. The graduation rate for students with extreme chronic absenteeism has increased by more than 20 percentage points between 2014-15 and 2016-17. The number of students graduating in spite of missing more than half of instructional days has more than doubled.

In 2016-17, 11.4% of graduates from D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) high schools had missed more than 50% of instructional days at their graduating school. More than 30% of graduates (30.6%) missed at least thirty percent of instructional days. While the rise in high rates of absenteeism among graduates and nongraduates is alarming, equally concerning is the precipitous decline in the proportion of students in the graduating cohort with satisfactory attendance. In 2014-15, nearly 20% of graduates had missed less than 5% of instructional days, but by 2016-17 the corresponding proportion had dropped to 7.7%. Only 178 graduates out of 2,307 from all DCPS high schools had satisfactory attendance during the 2016-17 school year; more than 75% of graduates met the state definition of chronic absenteeism, missing more than 10% of school days.”

Charter schools, however, have a diametrically opposed record compared to DCPS, eventhough the sector serves a higher proportion of economically disadvantaged students:

“High schools in the charter sector have had much more stable patterns of attendance in the past three years than high schools in DCPS (Figures 9 and 10). The distributions of absenteeism for both graduates and non-graduates do not appear to vary significantly from year-to-year. Across the charter sector, there are few students within the highest bands of absenteeism, and students who reach profound or extreme levels of chronic absence tend to be concentrated among non-graduates. In 2016-17, less than 5% of students, fewer than ten students total, who missed more than 50% of instructional days graduated. The graduation rate for profoundly chronically absent students grew between 2014-15 and 2016-17, but has remained below 50%.”

So what are the implications of these numbers?  There are many.  First, as argued here, Mayor Bowser must immediately entertain proposals for a high performing charter to take over Ballou.  Next, we need a replacement for DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson.  In an article in yesterday’s Washington Post, new full-time education reporter Perry Stein revealed that Mr. Wilson has finally made the decision that the principal of Ballou when all of the trouble at the school was noticed will not be returning.  In addition, in reaction to the claim that teachers had known about the chronic absentee problem with seniors for sometime and that administrators had taken steps to cover them up, he is going to appoint an ombudsman to listen to employee concerns.

These are baby steps.  When proficiency rates are around 30 percent some bold changes need to be made.  Let’s see how many charters can be permitted to manage low performing DCPS facilities.  We, as a city, need to shift education reform into high gear.  Our students deserve nothing less.  State Board of Education, are you listening?

D.C.’s State Board of Education announces Every Student Succeeds Act Task Force members

Yesterday, the D.C. State Board of Education released the names of those whose nominations were accepted to serve on the task force overseeing implementation of the city’s plan around the Every Student Succeeds Act, the law that replaced No Child Left Behind.  The presence of pro-school choice individuals on this body is exceptionally important since the Office of the State Superintendent of Education will begin ranking both charters and traditional schools using a common grading system.  The resulting membership could not have been much better.

First of all, the task force is being headed by Dr. Lannette Woodruff, the SBOE Ward 4 Representative and wife of the chairman of the DC Public Charter School Board, Dr. Darren Woodruff.  Joining her will be my hero Donald Hense, founder and chairman of Friendship PCS.  The fact that Mr. Hense is involved will I’m sure let all charter leaders rest comfortably at night since the Friendship PCS founder is known to be direct.

Also part of this team will be Alexander Rose-Henig, Basis DC PCS dean of students; Anne Herr, the FOCUS director of quality; Deborah Williams, Inspired Teaching PCS head of school; Jacque Patterson, Rocketship D.C. PCS regional director; Julie Anne Green, executive director New Futures and previous long-time director of marketing at E.L. Haynes PCS; Ramona Edelin, executive director, D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools; Richard Pohlman, executive director Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS, and a representative from the DC Public Charter School Board.

While the charter presence is good I could not help noticing that of our ten people sitting on the Task Force, six of them are in one of ten non-voting slots.  But it really will not matter since I’m confident Mr. Hense will have us covered.  The only selection I would have included that is not on the list is someone from the think tank/advocacy world such as Mieka Wick, from CityBridge Education, or Keith Gordon of Fight for Children.

We will be monitoring the activity of this group here.  Let’s hope it makes more progress than the D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education’s Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force, although that sets the bar at an extremely low level.