One day after call for increased funding for D.C. public schools, Mayor agrees to 4% jump

Yesterday, I wrote about a column in the Washington Post by Anthony Williams calling for a four percent increase in the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula. The same day, Twitter ignited with the news that D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser had agreed to include the additional spending in her fiscal 2021 budget. If approved by the Council, this will be a tremendous help for schools desperate to stay competitive with teacher salaries.

Mr. Williams in his piece talked about the revenue available to the District for such an investment. He wrote;

“The Office of the Chief Financial Officer recently announced the collection of $280 million in unanticipated revenue in fiscal 2019 and is projecting nearly $518 million in additional revenue over the next four years.”

In an article by the Post’s Perry Stein about the new incremental school spending she adds,

“Bowser’s announcement comes just days after her administration announced the city has a $1.43 billion rainy day fund.”

The reporter also included some interesting statistics about public school spending in the District of Columbia:

“In all, the mayor plans to spend about $989 million in city money on the District’s traditional public school system. The total spending figure represents an average increase of 8 percent for each campus in the traditional school system, with some of that boost reflecting expected growth in enrollment.”

More money for our students is big news, however, a couple of paragraphs in Ms. Stein’s story really caught my attention:

“But many schools — especially in Wards 7 and 8, the swaths of the city with the highest concentrations of poverty — have struggled with enrollment in recent years. Teachers have said they feel hamstrung, with declining enrollment leaving them with less funding and inadequate resources to serve their students and attract new ones.

Smaller schools are more expensive to operate and, with the opening of new campuses in the traditional public and charter sectors, the city has an increasing number of campuses with many vacant seats. A total of 38 high schools educate nearly 20,000 students in the traditional and charter sectors.”

The reality of underutilized traditional school school buildings, while nothing new, should at this point in our city’s efforts at public school reform drive a complete rethinking of the actual number of DCPS schools that are truly needed, how consolidation could lead to improved academic achievement for students, and which buildings could be turned over to the charter sector that desperately needs them.

Spending more money is easy. Realigning resources to match student needs is much more challenging. We have heard time and time again that parents do not care if a school is a regular one or a charter. They just want a quality education for their children. We have also listened as people across this town have called for coordination of resources between DCPS and charters.

Now is the time for real leadership.

Finally, a creative solution for D.C.’s charter school facility crises

Former D.C. Mayor and chief executive officer of the Federal City Council Anthony Williams had an editorial in yesterday’s Washington Post calling for several “investments” on our public schools. The column is timed to influence current D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s upcoming proposed 2021 fiscal year budget. Mr. Williams argues for stabilization of the 2.2 percent increase in the charter school facility allotment that was provided to schools last year, an at-risk student admission preference, an increase in the at-risk weighting in the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula, and a four percent across the board increase in the UPSFF.

The suggestions contained in the piece mirror those included in an “Open Letter to Mayor Bowser, Chairman Mendelson and the DC Council on 2020 Education Priorities” dated January 28, 2020 that is signed by 38 charter and public school advocacy group leaders, although these individuals state that they are writing on behalf of themselves and not their organizations. The letter supplements the recommendations of Mr. Williams, stating that the UPSFF at-risk student weighting should go up to 0.37 and remarks that the at-risk admission preference by schools be voluntary.

Both Mr. Williams and the Open Letter contain a intriguing incentive to increase charter school co-locations with traditional schools. As stated in the Post piece:

“We should also encourage more efficient use of existing public school buildings, including incentivizing co-locations of DCPS and public charter schools. One way to do that is by dedicating a portion of rent paid by a public charter school to the school-level budget of the “host” DCPS school. Doing so would provide resources for these schools schools without increasing the District’s overall budget while providing high-quality learning environments to more public school students. That is a true win-win.”

There you have it. The most promising positive suggestion regarding the stifling charter school facility shortage that I have seen in my 20 years of involvement in this movement. This concept desperately needs to be included in Ms. Bowser’s upcoming budget. In addition, she, together with the Deputy Mayor for Education, need to make co-location of charters with DCPS a priority of their school building utilization efforts going forward.

Now that we have a first step toward breaking the deadlock for charter classroom space what else can be done? Can the city provide developers a financial incentive to include schools in their projects? Can charters get first crack at properties that are condemned?

Here is one thing that should happen starting today. The Bowser Administration must follow the law and turn over vacant surplus DCPS building to them for their immediate use.

U.S. House Speaker Pelosi and D.C. Delegate Norton shortchange District children by $15 million a year

In about a month, on February 24, 2020, we will celebrate the birthday of Joseph E. Robert, Jr. Had he not passed away at the end of 2011 from brain cancer, Mr. Robert would be 68 years old. When he was alive he was a ferocious supporter of D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program that provides to children living in poverty free tuition to private elementary and secondary schools. For years Mr. Robert’s organization, the Washington Scholarship Fund, was the administrator of this federal initiative.

Beginning in 2020 the OSP was up for renewal. Supporters, such as Republican Senator Ron Johnson and Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, sought to make these scholarships available in perpetuity and increase funding to $75 million annually. In the legislation’s early days, Mr. Robert drove bipartisan support for the scholarships by promoting the three-sector approach that gives equal dollars to DCPS, charters, and the voucher plan. Under the most recent proposal, $25 million would have gone to the three groups. Mayor Muriel Bowser, to her tremendous credit, was a strong supporter of the measure.

Now some background. Since 2004, the three-sector initiative has resulted in more than $787 million for Kindergarten to twelfth grade education in Washington, D.C.

Despite the additional funding that this legislation would have brought our city, and ignoring local wishes, U.S. House of Representative Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Representative for the District of Columbia Eleanor Holmes Norton blocked the recent bill. Lost to charters, traditional schools, and the OSP is an additional $15 million each and every year, money that could have gone to support teachers. The most that they would agree to was a four-year extension.

After 20 years of public education reform in the nation’s capital, the achievement gap is holding stubbornly steady at about 60 points. Thousands of kids sit on charter school wait lists. Many traditional schools register English and math proficiency rates in the teens. Despite heroic efforts my many these issues are not going away any time soon.  At this point, it makes perfect sense that we should do whatever we can to extend to families all possible options to obtain a quality education for their children.  This includes providing private school vouchers to low income students.

I just don’t understand what is going on here. We are talking about our neighbors, with some of the most at-risk kids living in eyesight of the Washington Monument. Where is the sense of justice, equity, and decency that we seek for our society?

Why, in this one simple case, can’t adults just do the right thing?

KIPP DC PCS plans to create a $90 million educational complex in Ward 8

Monday came the exciting news that KIPP DC PCS was awarded the former Ferebee-Hope Elementary School so that it can create its second high school. The transfer of the closed DCPS facility represents the first traditional school building turned over to a charter by Mayor Muriel Bowser in her five years in office. In this area Ms. Bowser has been a tremendous disappointment.

The request for proposal for Ferebee was highly unusual in that it included a requirement that the winner renovate a community center on the property that includes a swimming pool. Cost is most likely the major factor that contributed to only KIPP bidding on the project. However, I do believe there is a reason for everything, and a note from Allison Fansler, the KIPP DC president, only reinforced my belief. She wrote:

“Along with the high school facility, KIPP DC will build a brand new recreation center to replace the existing one located at Ferebee-Hope. This facility will be operated by the Department of Parks & Recreation and include an indoor pool, boxing gym, and more. Also on the site, KIPP DC will construct a community center for partner organizations to provide various community benefits. We were excited to submit a proposal to the city along with Washington Nationals Youth Baseball AcademyTraining Grounds adult education program, and MedStar Georgetown University Hospital’s Department of Psychiatry who will provide mental-health services for neighborhood residents and KIPP DC families. Partnership was at the core of our proposal for the site and we are excited to work together with these exceptional organizations. . . We listened to the needs and dreams of the community, our families, and students throughout this process and I’m so proud of the proposal we put forward with them at the heart of the plan to redevelop Ferebee-Hope.”

The school will open at the start of the 2021-to-2022 school year, becoming the permanent home to Somerset College Preparatory PCS that KIPP took over last fall. The announcement stated that KIPP will enter into a $40 million capital campaign using private funds to support the development.

There always has to be a naysayer out there and in this case it is the Washington Post’s Perry Stein. In her piece covering the rejuvenation of Ferebee she felt the need to point out:

“The city’s decision to lease the vacant Ferebee-Hope Elementary School building in Southeast Washington means citywide enrollment on KIPP campuses could grow to more than 7,600 students in coming years — representing about 15 percent of the city’s charter sector and 7 percent of all public school students. . .

The opening of a KIPP DC high school in Southeast Washington could pose competitive troubles for the three high schools in the traditional public school system east of the Anacostia River, which are struggling with low enrollment. If the KIPP school reaches the projected maximum enrollment of 800, it would exceed current enrollment at each of the three neighborhood high schools.”

As a steadfast proponent of regular schools, Ms. Stein should have more confidence in the product that they are offering instead of assuming parents would move their kids to KIPP. But in reality this is exactly what will happen.

In order to focus on the positive let’s conclude with the final sentence from Ms. Fansler’s message:

“The strength of our vision for Ferebee-Hope came about through true partnership and I am excited to continue this as we bring this vision to fruition for the students of KIPP DC and broader community.”

This is an exceptionally exciting opportunity for the future of our children.

At monthly D.C. charter board meeting Mayor Bower demonstrates who’s boss

Mayor Muriel Bowser shocked the DC Public Charter School Board and those in the audience by showing up in person Monday evening to address its monthly meeting. She dominated the opening public comment portion of the session, first introducing the Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn, who was sitting in the first row, and then going on to thank Scott Pearson for the excellent job he has done in his role as PCSB executive director. Ms. Bowser commented that “I don’t know what Scott will do next but I know he will be excellent at it.”

The Mayor went on to say that she wished the current board well because they have to select Mr. Pearson’s replacement. Ms. Bowser predicted that they will have a good pool of candidates from which to choose because D.C. public schools are the envy of the nation thanks to the progress this urban school district has made in reading and in math across all subgroups of children. She said that we cannot “let up one bit” on demanding what all of our kids need.

Ms. Bowser then revealed the reason she was present. “I’m here to check on you,” she asserted. She pointed out that the city is now working on its 2020 to 2021 budget. The Mayor boasted that her school budget has gone up in each of the five years that she has been in office.

She spoke on a wide variety of topics such as school safety, student transportation, and making additional resources available for charters for concerns such as teacher salaries.

Ms. Bowser then turned to the board for questions. Chairman Rick Cruz started the conversation by stating that many of the areas that the Mayor raised have been discussed by his board. He then gently brought up the facility issue by thanking the Mayor for awarding Ferebee-Hope Elementary School to KIPP DC PCS and said he hoped that other buildings would be turned over to charters. The announcement that KIPP had won the request for proposal for this school was made earlier in the day. The move marks the first time the Bowser Administration has provided a closed former traditional school to a charter.

Mr. Cruz then quickly pivoted to a discussion regarding filling the executive director vacancy. When other board members were asked for questions, member Ricarda Ganjam inquired bravely as to the school the Mayor would like her daughter to attend. The answer was Shepherd Elementary, the one in Ms. Bowser’s neighborhood. Steve Bumbaugh shyly wanted to know the one or two things the PCSB could do to improve its performance.

The audience was then asked to participate. The sole taker was Appletree Institute for Education Innovation’s president and CEO Jack McCarthy. This is the same Jack McCarthy who had to shutter a campus for at-risk three and four year old’s when the Deputy Mayor for Education failed to find a replacement site for one of Appletree’s campuses when the building was closed as part of a DCPS school renovation. His cause was taken up by the editors of both the Washington Post (twice) and the Wall Street Journal. His question: Could the city work with developers to have them include space for schools in their projects?

This was the extent of the facility discussion. The Mayor failed to bring up the subject despite the fact that she has faced tremendous pressure over the past several months in the form of the DC Association of Public Charter School’s End the List campaign to release an estimated over one million square feet of excess space controlled by DCPS that by law should have been turned over to charters. No one from the board or others in the room challenged her. Not a single person brought up the FOCUS-engineered charter school funding inequity lawsuit.

After a thirty minute performance Ms. Bowser and her entourage proudly strutted out of the room. And strut she should have done. The charter school community was put in their place. The Mayor entered the epicenter of our local movement and emerged without even one verbal scratch.

Now the quandary becomes, if even the DC Public Charter School Board will not defend charters, who will?

D.C. school buildings need to be turned over to an independent agency

I read with supreme interest yesterday’s Washington Post story by Perry Stein about the decision by DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee to close Washington Metropolitan Opportunity Academy, a poor performing alternative public school serving 150 middle and high school students near Howard University. It is the first school closed by the system since 2013. My immediate question was whether the building would be turned over to a charter. My answer came in the last paragraph of the reporter’s article:

“A spokesman for Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn said the District does not yet know what it will do with the building. He said keeping it in the school system’s inventory is one option.”

This response is totally unacceptable. Friends of Choice in Urban Schools and others have estimated that there is currently over a million square feet of excess building space that the traditional school system is holding that should be available to charters. Other D.C. Mayors have turned scores of excess buildings over to the sector that educates 43,556 students or 46 percent of all public school pupils in the District. Mayor Muriel Bowser is talking about providing one in her five years in office, as long as the winner of the request for proposal agrees to renovate a community center on the site that includes the complete refurbishing of a swimming pool. A final decision on who gets this land has yet to be made.

Enough is enough. If this Mayor and Deputy Mayor for Education cannot objectively assess whether it needs to maintain classroom structures in its inventory then we need an independent agency to manage the properties.

Charters are desperate for buildings in which to operate. For those of you who are not familiar with the exciting charter movement in the nation’s capital you really need to visit one of these locations. These are public schools that resemble private schools in setting high expectations for both students and staff. They are on a life or death mission to close the academic achievement gap because they are held accountable to meet stellar standards set by themselves and the DC Public Charter School Board. They have to operate in this manner because they are institutions of choice in which perceived weaknesses by parents will drive them to take their children somewhere else along with their scholarship money.

The Mayor is over DCPS but not charters. Therefore, I can see in a twisted, distorted way why she would want to keep the school buildings she has control over. But for someone who represents all citizens of our great city this really does not make any sense. There are an estimated almost 20,000 children on wait lists trying to obtain admission to a charter school.

If Ms. Bowser cannot make the right decision because of politics, personal bias, or poor judgment, then we desperately need an independent, nonpartisan, government body that is empowered to do the right thing. New charters are ready to open their doors and others are dying to expand. The moment to act is now.

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.

D.C. charter board receives applications to open 4 new schools

The DC Public Charter School Board announced yesterday that it has received four applications for new schools that, if approved, would open during the 2021-to-2022 term.

The applicants include:

Capital Experience Lab (CAPX LAB): A 700-student school going from grades six through twelve that wants to locate in Ward 6 and is based upon “inquiry-based learning experiences.” Fascinating to me is that Patricia Brantley, Friendship PCS’s chief executive officer, is listed as a board member. This, combined with the fact that the school has been incubated by CityBridge Education significantly raises the probability that it will be approved.

Global Citizens: The other CityBridge-sponsored applicant, this 525-student pre-Kindergarten through fifth grade charter would be based in Ward 7 or 8 and would offer a dual language immersion program in either Mandarin and English or Spanish and English. There are people with extremely impressive credentials associated with Global Citizens. The principal of the charter would be Jenifer Moore. I interviewed Ms. Moore when she was the interim head of school for Sela PCS and she blew me away. Listed as advisers are my friends Daniela Anello, head of school of DC Bilingual PCS, Maquita Alexander, executive director of Washington Yu Ying PCS, and Erika Bryant, executive director of Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom PCS.

The Garden School of Business and Entrepreneurship: A charter for 410 students in grades nine through twelve that would operate in Ward 8. The school’s executive summary states that it “will be the ultimate soil for building consciously aware, financially free, and holistically intelligent high school students in Washington, D.C. Our business and entrepreneurship model activates the voice, ideas, and confidence in students that are needed to economically succeed in their world.”

Washington Arabic: A second dual immersion school that applied in 2019. This school wants to open in Ward 1, 4, 5, or 6, with a preference on 6, and would teach 544 students in grades pre-Kindergarten three through fifth. Last year’s proposal received enthusiastic support from several board members so the hope is that it can make it across the finish line this time.

It appears that what this list lacks in number it makes up in quality. Let’s sincerely hope that progress is made on the permanent facility issue by the time these schools need to find space.

The applicants will have a public hearing in February and be voted on at the March monthly meeting of the DC PCSB.

Exclusive Interview with Rick Cruz, chair DC Public Charter School Board

I had the great privilege recently of interviewing Rick Cruz, chair of the DC Public Charter School Board.  I had also spoke to Mr. Cruz about a year ago.  I first asked him to reflect on the resignation of Scott Pearson, the PCSB executive director.  Mr. Pearson has stated that he will leave his position at the end of May 2020.

“It is bittersweet, there is no other way to describe it,” Mr. Cruz said solemnly.  “We have a really good partnership.  Scott has worked very well with the Board and with our many stakeholders.  He has done so while significantly raising the quality of our systems, processes, and data.  He has built an outstanding team and prepared them for his transition.  The job of the PCSB may sound bureaucratic, but Scott developed a solid environment of trust and for being fair and transparent and steadfast.  Charter schools in D.C. understand the expectations of the PCSB and the standards to which we hold them. The work of authorizing charter schools has advanced greatly under Scott’s leadership and he leaves quite a legacy for us to build upon.  Scott has said that he lives his life in chapters and now we enter a new chapter for the PCSB.”

I then wanted to know from Mr. Cruz what characteristics he would like to see in the next executive director.  “I don’t want to jump the gun,” Mr. Cruz answered, “since there are multiple round tables being held in which students, parents, teachers, school leaders, and the general public can provide input on what is important to them about the next executive director.  However, I do think it’s important that we do much more work to share how public charter schools are successfully impacting the lives of students. I believe we could do more around communication and because we haven’t this has resulted in some push back from certain constituencies.  For example, the 2019 DC Report Card was just released by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education and it showed that KIPP Promise Academy PCS and the Congress Heights campus of Center City PCS are the only five star ranked schools east of the Anacostia River.  This is great news and every family and D.C. residents should know that public charter schools are providing a quality education to students living in Wards 7 and 8. Alternatively, we have some people saying that we do not need more charters, and yet we have schools like Friendship Technology Preparatory PCS, Mundo Verde PCS, and District of Columbia International School PCS offering differentiated approaches to educating our youth and parents want these distinct programs.  Others may say that charters are wasting scarce  public funds, but charters teach the same percentages of at-risk and special education students that the traditional schools do.”

One area I was especially interested in was Mr. Cruz’s opinion about the relatively similar standardized test scores charters reported this year in measures such as PARCC and NAEP compared to DCPS.  Mr. Cruz was ready with his response.  “DCPS has had steady improvements that is a fact.  We still score higher with African American pupils and our results continue to improve year after year.  One possible explanation is that over the past several school years we have asked much of our schools.  For example, there are new requirements around exclusionary discipline policies.  However, I am confident that over the next few years we will see charter schools continue to drive increases in academic performance and innovate. For example, we have a crop of new schools that are opening in fall 2020,  each of them offering new types of programming, and most of them founded by local education leaders.  These schools have innovative models that have the potential to spur academic growth.”

We then moved on to the recent controversy regarding DC Prep PCS purchasing a property on Frankford Street Southeast as a possible site for its Anacostia Middle School.  I asked Mr. Cruz if he thought this matter was handled appropriately by school leadership.  “In a perfect world, we would be able to match facilities to new schools early in the process which would markedly smooth engagement with communities and make things easier for families. However, the situation with DC Prep is a stark reminder that we desperately need clarity regarding the freeing up of surplus DCPS building for use by charters.  In addition, we really must consider solutions such as co-locating charter schools with underutilized DCPS schools.  Research shows there are many benefits to doing so. While in the past charter school leaders were uncertain about the feasibility of co-location, I have spoken to many school leaders who now express they are open to this solution for classroom space.”

Next, we pivoted our discussion to Councilmember Charles Allen’s transparency bill before the D.C. Council.  I asked Mr. Cruz for his opinion regarding requiring opening charter school board meetings and the call for individual charters to respond to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.  Mr. Cruz had a firm stance on each issue.  “I’m comfortable with our policy that dictates schools have designated open board meetings,” the PCSB chair asserted. “I do recommend that when there are certain topics before the board, such as school budgets, the changes need to be discussed in public.  Open meetings are a great opportunity for school leaders to experiment with how their families are engaged in important decisions.”

Mr. Cruz continued, “Regarding FOIA, after receiving input from school administrators, I really agree with them that these inquiries should be handed by PCSB.  To be honest, I have yet to see data points, except for individual teacher salaries, that cannot be found in the information the charter board posts on its website, especially considering all of the documents available on the Transparency Hub.  We certainly do not want to cripple schools due to them trying to comply with FOIA requests.  Also, we have to be sure that concerns focused on individual students are kept confidential.  The PCSB has the staff to redact sensitive information that individual schools do not possess.”

When the two of us got together it was the day after FOCUS and the DC Association of Chartered Pubic Schools announced that they were merging.  I asked Mr. Cruz if he had a view on this change.  “I do,” Mr. Cruz reflected.  “As a sector over the last five years or more we have become complacent regarding adherence to the [D.C.] School Reform Act.  There has definitely grown a void in the advocacy space.  So the decision to bring these two groups together makes a lot of sense to me.”

I wanted to conclude our meeting by raising the topic of the student safety issues that took place at Monument Academy PCS and Rocketship Rise Academy PCS.  My comment to Mr. Cruz revolved around whether the public should have known about these incidents earlier.  The PCSB chair explained.  “Regarding Monument there were a set of occurrences that ranged from minor to serious for a school that also includes a boarding component.  There were many interactions between the school’s board and the PCSB several months before the media was involved.  Unfortunately issues do arise, but this is not an excuse.  In the case of both Monument and Rocketship the charter board staff followed its policies.  In each instance we followed our Community Complaint policy. ”

As I talked to Mr. Cruz, I’m reminded of the truly significant role public charter schools now play in our community and the important work facing the next executive director.