D.C. charter schools need a legal support organization

Please don’t get me wrong this morning. I am not seeking to disparage the fine work of established entities such as FOCUS, The DC Association of Chartered Public Schools, The Center for Education Reform, The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, or Charter Board Partners. But there is a key missing ingredient in the constellation of nonprofits that support school choice in the District of Columbia. We need a group of litigators.

I imagine a new center that will bring legal challenges in the name of educational freedom. Its mission would be similar to the libertarian Institute for Justice. From this organization’s website:

“The Institute for Justice combines cutting-edge litigation, sophisticated media relations, strategic research, boots-on-the-ground advocacy and much more to fight on behalf of those individuals who are denied their constitutional rights. Despite the challenge of taking on powerful government officials and entrenched precedents, IJ is successful in winning 70 percent of its cases in the court of law, in the court of public opinion or through legislative reforms.”

Since its creation in 1991, The Institute for Justice has been involved in more than 250 cases, including the argument of seven in front of the United States Supreme Court.

It is time to bring the power of something like an I.J. to the local charter movement in the nation’s capital. I imagine that this entity would join charters in fighting the myriad of issues now facing these public schools such as the availability of permanent facilities, equitable funding compared to DCPS, and legislation by the Mayor and Council that contradicts the School Reform Act. It would also rein in the charter board when it overreaches its authority. When union activity begins to percolate at our proud institutions such as Paul PCS, Cesar Chavez PCS, and Mundo Verde PCS, these schools would not be on their own. Let’s call it the DC Public Charter School Defense Initiative, which would jump into action, at no cost to those targeted by organized labor, to protect their autonomy.

In his tremendous book Voucher Wars author Clint Bolick describes his founding of I.J. with Chip Mellor, “It would be an explicitly libertarian law firm, with funding attracted by our commitment to a principled, long-term litigation strategy, rather than litigation following funding. . . And from the very first day, we vowed to defend every school choice program until the constitutional cloud was removed. We adopted a motto from the late-night television commercial: If you have a choice program, you have a lawyer!”

The same guiding principal would drive the work of DCPCSDI. If you have a charter school, then you have an attorney covering your back regarding the policy issues of the day. No longer would individual schools be an island trying to rid the educational landscape of wrongs. The battle would be joined by others experienced in using the courts to their advantage.

Who out there would be willing to take up this challenge?

Betsy DeVos: school choice is “a freedom philosophy”

There has been much coverage in the press and social media of the appearance of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in front of the Education Writers Association national conference taking place this week in Baltimore. Many reporters are talking about her remark that she doesn’t particularly like public speaking. She stated:

“I don’t enjoy the publicity that comes with my position. I don’t love being up onstage nor any kind of platform. I am an introvert.”

On the subject of her support of school choice, she articulated her argument as succinctly as I’ve heard anyone make it, as explained by Laura Meckler of the Washington Post:

“She recalled putting her children into a private, religious school in Michigan, and her sadness that so many other children in the area couldn’t attend that school. ‘I realized more and more the unfairness of the situation,’ she said.

Her conclusion was that students stuck with what she called traditional, failing public schools lack freedom.

‘I entered public life to promote policies that empower all families. Notice that I said families — families, not government,’ she said. ‘I trust the American people to live their own lives and to decide their own destinies. It’s a freedom philosophy.'”

This is the same line of reasoning I’ve heard from so many brave and smart individuals. People who have voiced similar opinions include Dr. Howard Fuller, Joseph E. Robert, Jr., Jeanne Allen, Michael Musante, Darcy Olsen, Katherine Bradley, David Boaz, Clint Bolick, Josh Rales, Eva Moskowitz, Donald Hense, Joseph Overton, and Anthony Williams, to name a few. The unfairness of the situation is what drives me to get up between four and five a.m. during the week to write about school choice.

Many people thought it was bold of Ms. DeVos to even show up at this meeting. After all, much of the press share a liberal political philosophy, and they have been attacking her as a person and her work professionally since before she even came into office.

But that’s simply what you do when you see an injustice and you desperately want to see it fixed.

U.S. Education Secretary offers freedom to America’s students

Last week, United States Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced the introduction of legislation in Congress by Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Alabama Congressman Bradley Byrne to create federal Education Freedom Scholarships. The scholarships would allow individuals and businesses to make a financial contribution to a state nonprofit that would award these dollars to students for tuition or other expenses to fund their elementary or secondary school education. Those making contributions to these nonprofit entities would receive a dollar for dollar reduction in their federal tax obligation.

As stated in USA today, Ms. DeVos, Mr. Cruz, and Mr. Byrne explain the rationale behind their proposed law entitled the Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act.

“We recognize that each student is unique and deserves an education personalized for them. Scholarships could help students access a whole menu of opportunities, including dual enrollment, special education services, advanced or elective courses not available in their assigned school buildings, transportation to out-of-zone opportunities, among many others. All Americans need to be equipped for successful careers, and vital workforce preparation is in high demand. That’s why students could use scholarships to access career and technical education and apprenticeships, as well.”

They also explain in their commentary why a new approach is necessary regarding the education of our children:

“Today, too many young Americans are denied those opportunities. The numbers tell a grave story. We’re 24th in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math when compared with the rest of the world.

That’s not because our students aren’t capable of being No. 1. They are. But our government’s antiquated approach to education limits their ability to achieve their true potential.

A series of administrations on both sides of the aisle have tried to fill in the blank with more money and more control, each time expecting a different result.”

The plan is exactly the one that was promoted by Joseph Overton, a friend who was the senior vice-president at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy before he died in a plane crash in 2003. It comes a few days after the birthday of Joseph E. Robert, Jr., the Washington D.C. area businessman and philanthropist who was a major proponent of the nation’s capital’s Opportunity Scholarship Program. Mr. Robert passed away at the end of 2011. The OSP, since being establishment by Congress in 2009, has provided scholarships to private schools for kids living in poverty in the nation’s capital.

The main driver behind the act is freedom, which is what has led to all of the major accomplishments in this world. The authors’ write:

“The key element of the proposal is freedom for all involved. Eligible students, families, teachers and schools, as determined by their states — all can participate at will and any can elect not to participate if that’s the better choice for them. This is what freedom is all about.”

 

WAMU joins the crowd as criticizing public school choice as antidemocratic

Last week WAMU reporter Jenny Abamu wrote a feature pointing out that all three current leaders of Washington, D.C.’s traditional public schools, Hanseul Kang, State Superintendent of Education; Paul Kihn, Deputy Mayor of Education; and Lewis Ferebee, acting DCPS Chancellor; received training at the Broad Center. The slant of the article, so you don’t have to read it, is that the Center uses a focus on business in its approach to teaching school administrators to be better leaders. The great crime of this organization, founded as Ms. Abamu pointed out by “billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad” is that it favors charter schools.

The mission of the Broad Center, as stated on its website, is as follows:

“We work toward the day when American public education has been transformed into an engine of excellence and equity — so every student graduates ready for college, careers and life.”

Sounds like a nefarious group if there ever was one. Please allow me to explain what is going on here.

For hundreds of years this country has depended on democratic systems to run our public schools. I’m referring of course to elected boards of education. The result in urban classrooms is that quality suffered. The history in the District, which began to be reversed such a short time ago with the election of Mayor Adrian Fenty in 2007, was that the regular neighborhood public schools became someplace you wouldn’t want to send your kids. They were not safe, they were not managed, there was very little education taking place, and the walls were literally crumbing around the children.

Mr. Broad is utilizing the power of school choice to bring educational improvements to cities. It necessarily involves competition for students, since under choice systems, revenue follows the pupils. This can be described as a business approach to education, but here’s the crucial little secret. We rely on competition in life to make almost everything better. In fact, I would make the case that those who argue that we should eliminate competition are schizophrenic. They are insisting on a view of reality that does not exist, and one that is completely inconsistent with the nature of mankind.

American society is really at a turning point. We can continue the whining about privatization, millionaires contributing to charter schools, school choice in general, open meeting laws, answering FOIA requests, and all of the other nonsense. Or we can lead our lives in order to make a contribution to the betterment of society by doing everything we can to support those brave men and women who are working everyday with all of their might to educate those young people who in the past were tossed to the curb. It is actually this simple.

Your decision.

Washington Post editors have gone silent on public school reform

I was reading a story in the Washington Post this morning by Moriah Balingit regarding how legislators in West Virginia gave in to the local teachers’ union after a half day strike, and removed legislation that would have created charter schools and education savings accounts for special education students. State Senate president Mitch Carmichael, according to Ms. Balingit, had this to say about the cowardly representatives:

“Comprehensive education reform that will improve student performance, provide parental choice and empower teachers is coming — because parents, taxpayers, and job providers want our broken public education system fixed now.” 

West Virginia led the country a year ago by having the first strike by teachers for higher wages and benefits. This was followed by similar actions in other localities, most recently in Los Angeles. In many of these battles charter schools are cast as the villain even though all these institutions are doing is providing a quality education to those children who are currently not receiving one.

But if you followed the Washington Post editorial page commentary you would know extremely little about the lies being spread by unions across the nation about these alternative schools. This is too bad, since the Post used to one of the greatest proponents of educational freedom. Consider this 2008 piece in support of the Opportunity Scholarship Program:

“A minefield awaits Mr. Fenty as he prepares to testify tomorrow before a House appropriations subcommittee. President Bush’s budget includes an unprecedented $74 million to bolster education in the District, dividing the money along three pathways. Public schools would get a big chunk to undertake such initiatives as teacher ‘pay for performance’ and leadership training for principals. There would be money to replicate high-performing charter schools. And $18 million would go to the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides grants for low-income children to attend private schools; it is this third purpose that’s expected to come under scrutiny, if not attack. A Republican-controlled Congress barely approved the program in 2004, and the Democrats who now rule the House are sworn enemies of vouchers. It doesn’t help that District Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) has been a fierce opponent.

We would hope that Congress would recognize certain truths. First, that the time for a rhetorical debate about this program has passed. There are 1,900 children enrolled — quite happily — in the program. What’s at stake is not a political point of honor but the opportunity for children to go to schools that work for them. Second, it’s a program that is supported by District leaders and embraced by their constituents. A measure of its popularity is how demand for the scholarships outstrips capacity. It’s encouraging that the House subcommittee on financial services and general government, which will hold the hearing, is chaired by Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.), a true believer in the importance of home rule.

Of all the arguments against vouchers, the most pernicious is that they hurt public schools. Never mind that D.C. public schools benefit financially from the funding formula. Public schools failed long before vouchers were even conceived of, and no less an authority than D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee dismisses that argument out of hand. As she told the Wall Street Journal, ‘I would never, as long as I am in this role, do anything to limit another parent’s ability to make a choice for their child. Ever.’ Let’s hope Congress feels that same compunction.”

We desperately need some of this bravery today. There are currently so many challenges facing our local charter movement, such as the lack of facilities and inequitable funding compared to the traditional schools, in which we could really use their help. D.C.’s charters, that are successfully closing the academic achievement gap for the first time in the history of public education and that are keeping kids out of prison and alive, are being criticized almost daily regarding the need to comply with FOIA requests and opening up board meetings to the public. But these arguments, along with the comments that charters are public schools that are privately run controlled by the dollars of millionaires, are perfectly identical to those that were offered when private school vouchers were first introduced. They are being foisted upon us for one reason only; to protect the status quo so that unions can maintain control over the public school bureaucracy.

It is time for editors of the Washington Post to point out the false statements by those against school choice, and to shine a bright light on the singular motivation behind their claims.

School reform advocates like to say education is a civil right; they don’t believe it

What a great way to wake up in the morning.  Today, I read the Charter Board Partner’s vignette by David Connerty-Marin highlighting the work of Maria Blaeuer, who serves as a volunteer treasurer on the board of directors of Kingsman Academy PCS.  Last May, I interviewed Shannon Hodge, Kingsman’s executive director.  Mr. Connerty-Marin writes:

“When she was in private practice as a legal advocate working with special education students, Maria Blaeuer, who is now board treasurer at Kingsman Academy PCS in Washington, DC, spent much of her professional time in an adversarial role with schools, advocating for the needs of her student clients. While she felt her work was important, she was also frustrated by her limited ability to help change the problems in the system that were at the root of the issue.

‘One of the hard things about doing individual advocacy and litigation is that you’re only fixing it for one kid. After 10 years, I saw that when I fixed it for one kid, there were 10 more kids just like him, right behind. I wanted to be part of a space where I could work on a system to serve all of those kids. That’s really why I joined the Kingsman board.’

In addition to a specific and relevant skill set and experience, Maria says the most important thing a board member brings to a school board is a ‘belief and understanding that all kids have a civil and human right to education.’ And that belief makes the work both easier and more meaningful, she says. ‘Spreadsheets are boring, but spreadsheets in service of a human right are kind of amazing.'”

I, and numerous school reform advocates, have for decades echoed the emotionally moving words of Ms. Blaeuer.  But now I’m starting to believe that they are, in many cases, only that:  words.  Because if we truly believed in our hearts and minds that “all kids have a civil and human right to education” then perhaps we would do some or all of the following:

We would expand charter schools in the District to include management of low performing DCPS facilities.

A high performing charter school would offer to take over Ballou High School.

A high performing charter school would come forward to add Excel PCS to its portfolio, whose charter was just revoked by the DC Public Charter School Board.

D.C.’s charters would accept children at any grade and at anytime throughout the school year.

The city would push to greatly expand the Opportunity Scholarship program that provides private school scholarships to kids living in poverty.

The Mayor and City Council would resolve the inequitable public funding of charters compared to the traditional schools and thereby end the FOCUS engineered lawsuit charters have brought against the local government.

Policy leaders would once and for all solve the charter school facility problem so that each and every school that needs a building would be entitled to one.

This time of year we watch the newsreels of what Martin Luther King, Jr. and other exceedingly brave men and women did in the name of civil rights.  When it comes to the person to play his part regarding education in the nation’s capital, there is currently a vacancy.

 

 

One size does not fit all in public education

Like so many people my age I’m tired of seeing everyone on the street glued to their cell phones.  But the amazing thing about this trend of staring into glass rectangles is that if you could see what individuals were looking at odds are no two would be viewing the same thing.

We all have different interests and are motivated by different experiences.  This is the exactly the point U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has been making on a “Rethinking Schools” tour she has been on for the last seven days in six states.  In Wyoming, at the beginning of her visits, she highlighted this concept, as explained by the Washington Post’s David Von Drehle:

“Most students are starting a new school year this is all too familiar.  Desks lined up in rows.  Their teacher standing in front of the room, framed by a blackboard.  They dive into a curriculum written for the ‘average’ student.  They follow the same schedule, the same routine – just waiting to be saved by the bell.  It’s a mundane malaise that dampens dreams, dims horizons and denies futures.”

In a beautifully written piece, Mr. Von Drehle describes Secretary DeVos’s time at Kansas City Academy, a six through twelfth grade private school with 76 students.  This is not exactly the type of institution where you would expect to find Ms. DeVos.  As the Post writer observes, the school’s “heavy emphasis on the arts, the environment and social justice makes it an attractive option for progressive families.  School lunches are farm-to-table.”

Protesters joined Ms. DeVos for her visit.  Supporters of the school were aghast that she stopped by.  A student who recently graduated from City Academy said she was “scared of someone coming into the school who disagrees with just about everything they believe.”  This same former pupil went on to indicate that bathrooms at the academy are “trans-friendly.”

Now I will allow Mr. Von Drehle to tell the rest of the story:

“But as she pinched out a clay pot in the ceramics room and whipped up a veggie burger in the culinary room, DeVos was a living reminder that people who disagree about some things don’t have to disagree on everything.  DeVos agrees passionately with one of the founding concepts of Kansas City Academy and the other schools around the country that practice ‘Expeditionary Learning.’   That is:  Not all students learn in the same way or thrive in the same settings.  This realization has sparked innovation in schools over the past generation.  But it does pose obvious challenges to traditional public schools that group students by geographical boundaries rather than individual needs. . .

DeVos finished her 90-minute visit by answering questions from students in government class, where she made a warm impression on students who had found her mean and forbidding on YouTube.  [Tiger] Baker [a senior at Kansas City Academy] said that ‘she was personally nice, respectful – kind of a mom thing.  I loved being able to talk to her personally.’  When asked by the secretary why she chose his school to visit, DeVos replied that she admired the school’s approach to nurturing individuality.”

If we are to finally close the academic achievement gap and bring children living in poverty up to the same scholarly level as affluent families we are going to have to drastically change the way we having been teaching our kids in the past.  This is the point of Ms. DeVos’ trip to Kansas City Academy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trinity Lutheran Supreme Court ruling is not the final verdict on allowing private school vouchers

Last April I called your attention to Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc,. vs. Sara Parker Pauley, in her official capacity which had been argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.  Here’s what I wrote:

“The case revolves around the church’s desire to participate in a Missouri state program that recycles used tires for material that provides rubber surfaces for playgrounds. The local Department of Natural Resources refused Trinity’s request for a $20,000 grant to be spent on the resurfacing of its playground because of the state constitution’s Blaine Amendment, which reads ‘No money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion.’”

In a seven to two ruling, the court found yesterday that because the Trinity Lutheran Church was trying to obtain a public service that non-sectarian organizations were also getting it could not be discriminated against because of its religious affiliation.  As the CATO Institute’s Neal McClusky points out “This should have been a simple decision: It is clearly unequal treatment of religious Americans under the law to say “the reason you are ineligible for this benefit for which anyone else is eligible is that you are religious.”

The opinion of the majority stated that “the exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution all the same, and cannot stand.”  But, as the Center for Education Reform points out, the finding was narrow in scope and did not directly address the Blaine Amendments that are found in the constitutions of 37 states.  This will have to come on another day.  For now, we will simply have to continue to fight for parents to have the freedom to send their children to the school of their choice.

School voucher supports should keep their eyes on Trinity Lutheran Supreme Court case

Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court heard Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc,. vs. Sara Parker Pauley, in her official capacity.  The case revolves around the church’s desire to participate in a Missouri state program that recycles used tires for material that provides rubber surfaces for playgrounds.  The local Department of Natural Resources refused Trinity’s request for a $20,000 grant to be spent on the resurfacing of its playground because of the state constitution’s Blaine Amendment, which reads “No money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion.”

The Washington Post’s George Will points out that 37 states have a form of the Blaine Amendment in their constitutions, and Congress required its adoption for new states wanting to join our nation.  The columnist explains that Blaine Amendments are named after James Blaine who was a “Republican Speaker of the House and 1884 presidential nominee.”  Mr. Blaine was upset with the proliferation of Catholic schools in this country, and therefore wanted to make sure that public funds were not going to support their expansion.  These amendments are of particular interest to school choice supporters since voucher plans throughout this country have been judged unconstitutional because the programs include secular schools.  The scholarships are therefore seen as taxpayer money going to help religious institutions.

Trinity Church sued, according to Mr. Will, saying “the state is abridging its First Amendment right to the ‘free exercise’ of religion and denying the 14th Amendment guarantee of ‘equal protection of the laws.'”

The whole argument against allowing the church access to this money is absurd.  As Michael McConnell, a church vs. state subject matter expert law professor from Stanford University has written about this case, “A scraped knee is a scraped knee whether it happens at a Montessori day care or a Lutheran day care.”  The bottom line is that the Missouri program is in place to protect the safety of its children.

An extremely similar line of reasoning applies to the use of private school vouchers.  They are being provided to parents so that they can make the best decision as to where they can sent their kids to learn.  This has nothing to do with favoring one religion over another, or promoting a particular system of worship as establishing an American church.

Mr. Will goes on to reveal that the U.S. Supreme Court has adopted a three-part test for allowing public dollars to pass to religions institutions.  “A statute pertaining to contact between government and religion does not constitute establishment of religion if the statute has ‘a secular legislative purpose’ (again: knees), it neither advances nor inhibits religion, and it does not involve ‘excessive government entanglement with religion.'”

As can easily be deducted from the above language the Missouri program passes these requirements as does any private school voucher plan.

A decision will come this summer.

 

 

 

 

D.C. Mayor right on school choice; U.S. Education Secretary is not

Last night, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser gave her third annual State of the District address and there was plenty in there for advocates of school choice to cheer.  In a strong direct refutation of a letter sent to Congress by 13 D.C. Council members, including David Grosso, the chairman of its education committee, that called for a phasing out of the Opportunity Scholarship Program that allows children living in poverty to attend private schools, the Mayor had this to say early in her remarks:

“We call on the President and Congress to uphold our 3-sector school funding approach that enhances PUBLIC EDUCATION funding in DC.” [Capitalization is in the original text.]

Of course, the 3-sector funds include equal dollars annually for the OSP, charters, and traditional schools.

Later on in her speech she returned to the subject of the District’s schools and commented on the charter sector:

“This year, I am also proud to further increase the public charter school facility allotment by 2.2 percent this year, and lock that increase in for the next four years. Adding millions more to the school facilities all across the District. As well as make available more public buildings for public charter school use.”

The raise in the per peril facility allotment does not reach the $3,250 floor that charter leaders had wanted, but at $3,193 it comes close.  Now Ms. Bowser just needs to add an automatic increase for inflation.  We are also going to hold her accountable for her promise to make additional surplus DCPS buildings available to those institutions that now educate 46 percent of all public school pupils in the nation’s capital.

While the D.C. Mayor hit the nail on the head regarding school choice, last Wednesday U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos missed it.  She was speaking at the Brookings Institution on the release of its 2016 Education Choice and Competition Index compiled by Senior Fellow Russ Whitehurst.  Denver, Colorado is the city at the top of the study’s rankings for having the greatest amount of school choice.  However, as the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss reports, Ms. DeVos did not agree.  From the Education Secretary’s prepared statement as provided by the Post:

“I am hopeful this report helps light a fire under [low-scoring cities] to better serve students. And while we may be tempted to emulate cities with a higher grade, I would urge a careful look.

The two-highest scoring districts, Denver and New Orleans, both receive A’s, but they arrive there in very different ways.

New Orleans provides a large number of choices to parents: All of its public schools are charters, and there is a good supply of affordable private schools. The state also provides vouchers to low-income students to attend private schools if they choose. Combined with its easy-to-use common application, New Orleans’ sophisticated matching system maximizes parental preference and school assignment.

Meanwhile, Denver scored well because of the single application process for both charter and traditional public schools, as well as a website that allows parents to make side-by-side comparisons of schools. But the simple process masks the limited choices.”

As I’ve written about many times before, I had the great opportunity to spend some time in Denver last summer as part of the Amplify School Choice conference sponsored by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.  There I learned first hand about the strong growth of charters in this city, and the way that the traditional public schools are held to the same accountability standards that charters face.  Here is what I wrote last August:

“Since 2005, according to Mr. Dan Schaller, director of advocacy for the Colorado League of Charter Schools, ‘DPS has closed or replaced 48 schools and opened more than 70, the majority of them charters.’  Low performing charters have also been shuttered.  For example, during the 2010 to 2011 school year 25 percent of schools up for renewal were closed.  Today there are 55 charter schools in Denver out of a total of 223, teaching 18.3 percent of all public school students.

The results of these initiatives have been nothing short of amazing.  The Denver Public School system is now the fastest growing urban district in America.  The high school graduation rate has jumped to 65 percent in four years.  From 2004 to 2014, the proportion of students at or above grade level in reading, math, and writing has climbed from 33 percent to 48 percent.”

Also, as I’ve mentioned on numerous occasions, there is a District-Charter Collaboration Compact in this city that has many features that should be emulated here in D.C. and other places across the country.  I strongly recommend that Secretary DeVos make a visit to Denver and see the miracles taking place there such as the outstanding education being provided to low income children by schools such as DSST PCS.