Membership on the D.C. charter board dwindling

Last evening’s monthly meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board started strangely. Long-term member and previous vice chair Saba Bireda announced that this was her last meeting. Also on the Zoom broadcast for a short period was Naomi Shelton. She revealed that her last meeting was actually the August session. She had joined just to say her farewells. Both individuals received accolades from the remaining members of the board.

Recall that last June during a D.C. Council oversight hearing on the charter sector, Chairman Mendelson asked whether DC PCSB chair Rick Cruz and executive director Dr. Michelle Walker-Davis were aware of Mayor Muriel Bowser naming a replacement board member for Steve Bumbaugh whose term had ended, and whether she intended to renew the term of Ms. Shelton. Neither had any information. Now here we are at the end of September with Ms. Bireda having to step down apparently because she has accepted a position with the federal government that conflicts with her PCSB service and, as I postulated three months ago, Ms. Shelton will not get a second appointment to the board. This leaves the charter board with only four members. I cannot recall a time in the approximately twenty-five year history of the PCSB that the number of members has dropped so low.

I do not know if it is the impact of this terrible pandemic or the lack of support for his body from D.C.’s chief executive, but chair Rick Cruz appeared dejected. Or it could have been due to a general lack of enthusiasm by the populace for the charter movement as a whole. For also on this night, Ms. Walker-Davis announced that her organization is in the midst of reviewing the application process for new schools and for replication. Of course, this evaluation is long overdue, and I have called for years to make it simpler both for charters to open and grow. Charter school expansion has been much too bureaucratic. However, I was shocked to hear that because of this deliberation no new charter applications will be accepted until the 2023 cycle and all existing schools will also be prevented from adding additional grade levels until that time. Charter amendments for expansion of student ceiling limits will still be entertained. It felt to me that perhaps we should simply end this entire experiment in school reform.

Or maybe it already has stopped. Earlier in the day the Mayor mandated that all school employees and contractors, no matter what their role, will now have to vaccinated against Covid-19, without an option to skip the shot and be tested. This is something Rocketship PCS, Perry Street PCS, and Monument Academy PCS adopted weeks ago and a mandate that the charter movement should have led as it used to proudly set high standards. The DC Charter School Alliance went along with the move with founding executive director Shannon Hodge stating, “Charter school leaders and the DC Charter School Alliance are prepared to work together with Mayor Bowser, DC Public Schools, and DC Health to ensure we provide safe spaces to learn and adequately protect students and staff in the fight against COVID-19.” Really, what else could she say at this point?

As if all of this was not depressing enough, WAMU’s Martin Austermuhle reported last week that eleven charter schools have agreed to include an admission preference for at-risk students. The ability to offer this preference was granted to charters by the D.C. Council in 2020, and is in addition to admission preferences that include siblings of existing enrolled students, children of school employees, and special education students. As a school choice purist, I am fine with the admission advantage for siblings and employees but I stop there. In the most simple terms I do not believe anyone should be discriminated against when trying to gain a seat at these schools. The answer for charters wanting a greater proportion of at-risk students is to open more campuses that can serve these scholars, especially if we can accomplish this by taking over failing traditional schools. It is what we should have been doing for years.

Last month I observed a brief spark in our local charter ecosystem and I was hoping this was the start of a flame. It looks like the match has burned out.

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.

Mayoral control did not fix D.C.’s public schools

Yesterday, the editors of the Washington Post came out strongly against the suggestion by At-Large Councilmember Robert White that a committee be created to study the governance structure of D.C. public schools. They say that the move had one motive and that is to return DCPS to an arrangement in which it reports to the school board. In their piece the editors point out that Mr. White ran on the notion of ending Mayoral control. They wrote:

“Here is what is important: There has been undeniable progress in the city’s schools since mayoral control was instituted. A school system that was once unable to pay its teachers and ensure that buildings were ready for the first day of school has been completely transformed. There have been increases in student achievement across all student groups, and the national report card, the gold standard of testing, has shown D.C. to be one of the fastest improving systems in the country. Additionally, there is a flourishing public charter school sector that offers worthy choices to parents. There is no question that there is still much more to be done. Far too many children can’t read or do math, and the achievement gap between students of color and their White peers persists; new urgency is needed in addressing these challenges.”

But here is where the Post editors are confused. The improvement in the traditional schools had nothing to do with who was in charge. The tremendous change in DCPS came due to competition from the charter sector. I know, because I watched all of this take place being an active participant as a charter school volunteer tutor, board member, and through my coverage of the movement.

Just to recap. As soon as the first charter school opened parents rushed to place their children in these facilities. Their decision was not primarily to provide their offspring with a better education, although that was a consideration. The driving concern was over the safety of their sons and daughters. The regular schools were routinely filled with gang members, drugs, and weapons. As I’ve written many times, it was often safer during this period to keep your kids home than to send them to the neighborhood schools.

As more charters opened, DCPS lost more of its pupils. Those of us who believe in school choice were waiting for DCPS to react, since funding was tied to how many students a school taught. Shockingly, it took DCPS losing more than twenty-five percent of its enrollment before we saw the election of Mayor Fenty over his campaigning on a promise to fix the schools. He brought Mayoral control, Chancellor Michelle Rhee, and modernization of school buildings that really should have been condemned due to their poor physical condition.

The Washington Post editors do get something perfectly right. There is much more work that needs to be done. This is why I’m struggling. If charters are what caused all schools to increase in quality, then why not have more of them? Will the editors heed my call to turn traditional schools over to the sector that has driven academic standards to soar? Why don’t we allow the competition for students to permanently close the academic achievement gap?

Again, as I’ve written on numerous occasions, now is the perfect opportunity to make such a dramatic change. Schools are mostly closed and trying to figure out how to reopen. Let’s give the regular schools the freedom and opportunity to re-cast themselves as a new version of themselves by offering them self-governance. I concur strongly with the Washington Post editor’s closing statement: “new urgency is needed in addressing these challenges.”

U.S. Supreme Court gives school choice greatest victory in 18 years

Yesterday, in its final day of the current term, the United States Supreme Court, in a five to four decision, ruled in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue that a school tuition tax credit program in Montana should have been allowed to include religious schools as recipients of the scholarships. The program was shuttered by the Montana Supreme Court because it permitted parents to send their children to sectarian schools as well as those that are nonreligious.

The finding of the court, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, could not have been clearer:

“The application of the no-aid provision discriminated against religious schools and the families whose children attend or hope to attend them in violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the Federal Constitution.”

In other words, the failure to allow parents to enroll their children in a religious school interfered with their free exercise of religion.

It is the most important U.S. Supreme Court decision since Zelman v. Simmons-Harris in 2002. In that case, the Court found that the inclusion of religious schools in a Cleveland private school voucher plan did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Zelman was a tremendous and hard-fought victory for school choice, and like Espinoza, was argued by the libertarian Institute for Justice. But there was also a tremendous difference between the two legal actions.

Cleveland’s state constitution does not include a Blaine Amendment, language contained in 37 state constitutions that prohibit taxpayer funds from going to religious schools. Here is what I wrote about Blaine Amendments last January when the U.S. Supreme Court head arguments in Espinoza and I predicted the eventual decision would be a victory for educational freedom:

“The heart of the today’s argument will revolve around the concept of the Blaine Amendment. Blaine Amendments were included in the constitution of 37 states in the 19th century. During this period, schools were dominated by Protestants and there was a rejection of the new wave of Catholic immigrants to this country. Blaine Amendments are named after U.S. Senator Blaine who in 1875 attempted to get a constitutional amendment passed mirroring those that were later adopted in state constitutions preventing public money going to religious institutions. Public schools at the time were already religious, according to the I.J., teaching nondenominational Protestant ideas. Catholics sought to influence the nature of instruction taking place in schools, and when that effort failed, sought funding for their own educational institutions.”

Blaine amendments have been used time and time again in the past to invalidate school choice plans that have allowed parents to pick religious schools. Now that this decision has come down and Blaine Amendments invalidated, look for the floodgates of private school choice programs to open widely across the country.

The Washington Post, as it has done since I met with former editorial page director Colbert King in 1999, again came out strongly in favor of the Supreme Court’s reasoning:

“We think there is value in, and have supported, programs that — like the one envisioned by Montana lawmakers and D.C.’s successful Opportunity Scholarship Program — help low-income parents afford a choice in their children’s education, a choice that parents empowered with the economic means exercise by moving to a particular school district or sending their children to private school. It is important to remember that the scholarship goes to the child, and that the child’s family then decides which school best meets the needs of individual students. Schools that participate in these programs must meet academic requirements established by the state or locality, and some religiously affiliated schools have proved successful in boosting student achievement, attendance and civic engagement.

Ms. Espinoza chose Stillwater Christian School not because she wanted to advance its interests but because she wanted a school that fit her daughters’ needs and was a place where they could thrive. They — and other students who stand to benefit from opportunities opened up — are the true winners.”

In the midst of a pandemic, severe economic strife, and racial unrest, we can smile for a moment over the Supreme Court’s decision. It is possible that in the future there will be other wranglings over the constitutionality of programs that allow parents to pick the school of their choice for their children. But there will never be one as significant as Espinoza.

As we approach the Independence Day Fourth of July celebration, freedom just won a great triumph.

The fight for educational equity is not over

I’m inspired this morning by the words of my friend Virginia Walden Ford, the woman who became the symbol of the fight for private school vouchers for disadvantaged children in Washington, D.C. Below I reprint her Facebook post from yesterday:

I am a Black Woman. I grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas. When my father, William Harry Fowler, was named as the first Black Assistant Superintendent of the Little Rock School District in the late 60’s, “they” burned a cross in our yard and threw a rock through our window. From that point forward, I can say that I have seen and experienced racism my entire life.

Systemic racism is rooted deeply in America and, therefore, cannot easily be corrected. For many of us who have spent a lifetime fighting for racial justice, this is a moment of reckoning that has eluded us for far too long.

I read this today and was inspired.
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced”…James Baldwin- from The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (2010)

Therefore, I believe that for any change to occur, that it absolutely must be faced. That is why I am happy to see young people taking to the streets to exercise their constitutional right to protest. The world needs to know that BLACK LIVES MATTER. Seeing their faces in protest means America MUST face the issues that have been prominent in our lives far too long.

I have been fighting for justice for a long time, longer maybe than many of the young people who are out protesting have been alive. In all of those years of activism, I have learned about the power of love and the power of hope. Even in times of great struggle, it is important that we do not forget love or lose hope. We can make the world better, but only if we work together. When we come together as people of all races, sexes, and creeds we create change.

When we were fighting for educational opportunities for the young people of Washington, D.C., people tried to divide us. Well, first they tried to dismiss us, and when they could not do that, they tried to defeat us, and when they could not do that, they tried to divide us. It is important that the people fighting for justice today remember the lessons that we learned then. Do not let the most extreme voices define you. Stay true to yourselves. Find people who want to help and work with them. Forgive. Be kind. But fight HARD for what is right and never give up.

I am not done fighting for educational opportunities for kids. I am inspired by the young people making their voices heard. They give me hope for a better world. Let us get to work making this happen.

#BLACKLIVESMATTER

Blessings,
Virginia Walden Ford

We can never be done fighting for educational opportunities for kids. I may be overly optimistic, but I believe that if we had figured out how to close the academic achievement gap years ago we would not have seen the pandemic kill so many in the Black community. If we had solved the challenge of providing all children a quality education independent of their zip codes then the economic damage we are witnessing today would not have fallen so much harder on minorities.

We know the right thing to do when it comes to public education reform. We must provide quality seats to all students in whatever form that takes, private school vouchers, charter schools, or traditional ones. But we must act now. This should be the lesson from current events.

High COVID-19 death rate in D.C.’s Wards 5, 7 and 8 was predictable, just look at academic achievement gap

Fully eighty percent of those who have passed away from the Coronavirus in the District of Columbia are black. Almost all of these cases involve individuals who live in Wards 5, 7, and 8, the poorest areas of the city.

The news has been flooded with stories explaining that those with underlying health conditions are more susceptible to passing away from the disease. Medical experts and social scientists have also known for years that when people live in poverty their environment is characterized by negative social determinants of health that lead to the chronic illnesses that are now contributing to the demise of these individuals. Adverse Childhood Events also plague this population, and having a high number of ACE’s has been shown to be a precursor to the development of serious maladies.

It is all one horrific circle, one that starts from the time kids come onto this Earth. Perhaps the first real indicator of the problem is the three-year-old boys and girls that come into our schools already academically behind. The gap in knowledge between white students and minority pupils in the nation’s capital is 60 points. It is perhaps the largest in the country, and is a span that despite twenty-five years of public education reform has not budged.

I have written time and time again about our need to take this achievement gap deadly seriously. Until we ensure that all students receive a quality education, we will never break the cycle that is now taking away the future from our neighbors. We must ensure that those brave souls who create schools serving the most at-risk students have the financial support and other resources that can reverse the situation for those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

There are numerous charter schools that have taken on this challenge. But there are so many obstacles in their way that it is a miracle that their visionary leaders don’t run the other way. Some of these blockades are put in place by our city leadership in the form of the inequitable funding that charters receive compared to the traditional schools. Another challenge is the severe lack of permanent facilities that our Mayor will not talk about while ignoring a chorus of pleas to turn over vacant DCPS buildings. Our own charter board contributes to the issue through bureaucratic oversight of existing schools and those groups that want to create new classrooms.

Until we are serious about closing the academic achievement gap we will never eliminate the health gap that we are experiencing for all to see today. There are no words to describe the horror of the current situation.

However, I’m an eternal optimist so I believe something good can come out of this tragedy. Someone out there could decide that enough is enough. One person can still change the world.

2020 Presidential election is turning into a missed opportunity to improve civil rights of children

The other day I was emailing with Joel Klein, the first Chancellor of New York City School under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The conversation brought me back to his tremendous 2014 book, “Lessons of Hope.” He wrote:

“The issue of poverty and its effect on our ability to educate kids dominates the contemporary debate on school reform and improvement. From the day I became chancellor, many people told me, “You’ll never fix education in America until you fix poverty.” I’ve always believed the reverse is true: we’ll never fix poverty until we fix education. Sure, a strong safety net and support programs for poor families are appropriate and necessary. But we’ve recently celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, and it seems fair to say that we must seek new approaches as our problems increase.

Safety-net and support programs can never do what a good education can; they can never instill in a disadvantaged child the belief that society can work for for him in the same that it works for middle- and upper-class children. it is the sense of belonging-the feeling that the game is not rigged from the start-that allows a child to find autonomy, productivity, and ultimately, happiness. That’s what education did for me. And that’s why, whenever I talk about education reform, I like to recall the wise, if haunting, words of Frederick Douglass, himself a slave, who said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair men.”

This election cycle it feels like we have given up trying to build strong children. The subject of public education is rarely mentioned, even though the last civil rights struggle in this country is being able to provide an excellent public education for everyone no matter their socioeconomic status. On the national stage Democratic candidates, if they talk about schools at all, make sure to broadcast their opposition to charters.

Even Mr. Bloomberg, who during his tenure as New York City’s chief executive drove enrollment in charters from 4,442 students in 18 schools to 183 charters serving 71,422 students, said this the other evening about the issue during the Presidential Democratic debate: “I’m not sure they’re appropriate every place.”

It’s all terribly discouraging. With academic proficiency rates across the country in the thirty percent range, an achievement gap between affluent and poor that only continues to rise, and stagnant national standardized test scores, no one is offering a blueprint to reinvent what is clearly not working.

Well, I’m not running for office and no one has asked my opinion but I will provide one anyway.

We desperately need to eliminate the top-down bureaucratic nature of teaching kids. Elected representatives must introduce school choice plans that impact as many children as possible as quickly as possible. These would include private school vouchers, educational savings accounts, tax credit scholarships, or charter schools. I’m completely agnostic about the specific structure, I just know that we need to immediately introduce competition for students that will drive all educational delivery systems to improve.

We say that our goal is to provide a quality seat to every student who need one. But we have been saying this for 25 years now.

Here in the nation’s capital we must greatly increase the number of charters. But first, so that they have a place to open, we need to pass a law that states that any approved charter or replicated campus gets the right to a permanent facility.

I’m done begging Mayor Muriel Bowser for buildings. I see the answer in the courts. Let’s teach her a lesson that no matter your position of power you cannot skirt the law. Hasn’t she said exactly the same thing about the President?

Here’s the bottom line. I’m out of patience and I’m completely frustrated. If you are a parent trying to get your child into a quality school in this city and you find out that there is a wait list of 2,000 kids, then the only option you have is to move. For most families, relocation is not possible.

Is this what we want for our town?

I’m done with the leaders who state they care about public education. They do not.

In State of the Union speech, President calls for expansion of private school vouchers

Here are the remarks of President Trump last evening on the subject of school choice:

“The next step forward in building an inclusive society is making sure that every young American gets a great education and the opportunity to achieve the American Dream. Yet, for too long, countless American children have been trapped in failing government schools. To rescue these students, 18 States have created school choice in the form of Opportunity Scholarships. The programs are so popular, that tens of thousands of students remain on waiting lists. One of those students is Janiyah Davis, a fourth grader from Philadelphia. Janiyah’s mom Stephanie is a single parent. She would do anything to give her daughter a better future. But last year, that future was put further out of reach when Pennsylvania’s Governor vetoed legislation to expand school choice for 50,000 children.

Janiyah and Stephanie are in the gallery this evening. But there is more to their story. Janiyah, I am pleased to inform you that your long wait is over. I can proudly announce tonight that an Opportunity Scholarship has become available, it is going to you, and you will soon be heading to the school of your choice!

Now, I call on the Congress to give 1 million American children the same opportunity Janiyah has just received. Pass the Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act — because no parent should be forced to send their child to a failing government school.”

In the nation’s capital, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi blocked expansion of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program that denies our city an additional $15 million a year for the education of our children and denies making this program permanent.

In 2020, no parent should be forced to send their child to a failing government school. This should be a fundamental civil right.

It is about to get much harder for opponents of school choice to block parental freedom

Today, the United States Supreme Court will hear Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, a case argued by the libertarian nonprofit Institute for Justice. Here’s the background of this litigation which is explained by the Institute much better than I could ever do:

“In 2015, the Montana Legislature passed a program that provided a tax break to Montanans if they contributed to charitable organizations that provide scholarships for children. The program allowed families to use those scholarships at any private school in Montana—religious or nonreligious. But the Montana Department of Revenue interpreted the state constitution to forbid the participation of religious schools. Representing families who were unable to participate in the program because they send their children to religious schools as well as one family who was able to use the scholarship before it was suspended, the Institute for Justice sued and won on their behalf at the trial court. But the Montana Supreme Court reversed that ruling and declared that the entire program was invalid because it included religious options for parents. By striking down the entire program, even for those children attending secular private schools, the court made the impact of the discrimination even worse. Thankfully, families were permitted to continue receiving scholarships through the 2019-2020 school year.”

Espinoza is relevant to two of the twenty seven amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Amendment 1: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The families involved who sought to use the scholarships to attend a Catholic school claim that their free exercise of religion is being obstructed.

Amendment 17, section 1: All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The action of the Montana Supreme Court, according to the Institute for Justice, denied equal protection of the law simply based upon their religious beliefs.

In addition, the organization argues that restricting families from sending their children to parochial schools under the scholarship plan represents discrimination against religious beliefs that is prohibited by the Establishment Clause.

The heart of the today’s argument will revolve around the concept of the Blaine Amendment. Blaine Amendments were included in the constitution of 37 states in the 19th century. During this period, schools were dominated by Protestants and there was a rejection of the new wave of Catholic immigrants to this country. Blaine Amendments are named after U.S. Senator Blaine who in 1875 attempted to get a constitutional amendment passed mirroring those that were later adopted in state constitutions preventing public money going to religious institutions. Public schools at the time were already religious, according to the I.J., teaching nondenominational Protestant ideas. Catholics sought to influence the nature of instruction taking place in schools, and when that effort failed, sought funding for their own educational institutions.

While opponents of school choice have over the years successfully utilized state Blaine Amendments to block implementation of school choice programs that have included sectarian facilities, there have been two important legal developments that have weakened this line of attack.

First, in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, another school choice case argued by the Institute for Justice, the Supreme Court in 2002 found that a Cleveland private school voucher program that included Catholic schools provided tuition money to students and did not directly support religious entities. Then, in 2017, the Court ruled in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc., vs. Comer that preventing a church from getting access to a state grant available to other nonsectarian schools in order to improve the safety of public playgrounds was discriminatory against the religion.

School choice advocates were disappointed that Trinity did not invalidate state Blaine Amendments. This will come from the ruling this summer in Espinoza. Watch for the conservative-leaning Supreme Court to overturn the actions around the scholarship program in Montana.

According to I.J. president and general council Scott Bullock, “If we’re successful in Espinoza, we’ll remove the largest legal obstacle standing between thousands of children and their chance to receive a better education.”

Successful they will be.

D.C. Auditor misinterprets study on school enrollment and education reporters follow

Last week the Office of the District of Columbia Auditor, together with the Johns Hopkins School of Education Center for Research and Reform in Education, released what it referred to as a comprehensive study on annual enrollment projections for DCPS and charter schools in the nation’s capital. While it found that these estimates are oftentimes inaccurate, this turns out not to be the major conclusion of the voluminous report.

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein quotes Kathy Patterson, the D.C. Auditor as stating, “the findings illustrate the unintended consequences of having a city with many school options for families.”

Not to be outdone, WAMU’s Debbie Truong includes this line from Erin Roth, research director in the auditor’s office, “Everything you do is going to impact other schools. Nothing is in isolation.” 

So now let me tell you what is actually going on here. The District has an exceptionally active school choice environment in which it has been estimated that 75 percent of children attend a school other than the one in their backyard. The investigation found that parents who chose a school other than their neighborhood school tend to pick a facility that has a lower proportion of at-risk children than the one their offspring would be assigned to attend. This has the impact of lowering the number of students attending the neighborhood school, thereby decreasing the amount of revenue this school receives since in D.C. money follows the child. The authors worry that the loss of dollars will harm the very students that need the most financial support.

Ms. Patterson refers to this as an unintended consequence. She has this exactly backwards. The cause and effect are operating exactly as planned. The only problem here is that the government is failing to react according to the voice of the consumers. Instead of keeping the neighborhood school operating as it has in the past, it needs to heed the demands of families and either close the school, merge it with one that is instructing at a higher level, or turn its management over to a charter school.

Please allow me to illustrate my point. The following paragraph comes directly from Ms. Stein’s article:

“For example, only 9.8 percent of students who live in the boundaries of Anacostia High — a neighborhood school in Southeast Washington — have elected to attend the school. It has an at-risk population of 81 percent, and 35 percent of students require special education, according to city data. By comparison, Thurgood Marshall Academy — a charter high school near Anacostia High — has an at-risk population of 54 percent. Twenty percent of its students have special education needs.”

Now every parent knows that you do not want your child to attend Anacostia High. The school has been a train wreck for decades. The logical conclusion would be to get your child into Thurgood Marshall if you can, a Performance Management Framework Tier 1 school that is successfully closing the academic achievement gap. Ms. Stein failed to mention that while Anacostia has empty hallways, Thurgood Marshall has been consistently at full enrollment. The movement of students is as intended as possible.

The researcher from the Auditor’s office seems to imply that Thurgood Marshall has somehow negatively impacted Anacostia High. Nothing could be further from the truth. What the charter school has done is provide a life preserver to kids who would probably end up in jail or worse. Instead, graduates of Thurgood Marshall go on to college.

The study is a vehicle to impact public policy in a way favored by the authors. Here we have a review of enrollment projections being turned into an polemic for more taxpayer earnings being given to failed educational institutions.

The paper has many other findings, such as charter schools tend to lose students during the school year while DCPS sees the opposite trend. We have known about this mobility issue for 20 years. What I was most shocked to find contained in this work is that in 2020 there is still no correction to a DCPS’s school budget, as is the case with charters, when the May estimate for the following school term turns out not to be true the following October.

You have got to be kidding.