Do You See How This Works?

[the following was sent via email to Martin Austermuhle, reporter at WAMU]

Dear Martin,

I saw your recent story online, of the 20th anniversary of charter schools in DC, and was moved to write to you.

As evidence of lack of success, you cited how DCPS had lost kids from 1971 to 1996, when charters started. You might recall that this past fall, I wrote to you after reading your reporting on Kaya Henderson, where you cited a growing enrollment in DCPS as a sign of success, after years of losing kids to charter schools.

Both characterizations are wrong.

The city as a whole lost population in the time span you noted in this current piece (1971-1996).

In fact, between 1960 and 2000, DC’s population greatly declined—children most of all. Census data shows that in 1960, DC’s 243,054 children were 31% of its population. By 2010, even with DC’s overall population on the rise, our city’s 102,292 children represented a decline of 12% since 2000. In 2010, moreover, kids constituted only 17% of DC’s total population.

Should we thus conclude that the 12% decline in the child population of DC between 2000 and 2010 is attributable to the failure of charter schools, which educated a growing share of DC’s kids in that period and should have ensured that the population was growing, not shrinking?

Do you see how this works?

Such a conclusion is rather like the charter school representative who showed up at my ANC a few years back and blithely said that because everyone knew DC schools were “failing,” his (untested, nonexistent) school would be an improvement. (That was, by the way, how that charter school, and others, self-assessed our city’s “need” for their schools before the charter board approved them. There was no independent assessment–and no word otherwise from anyone running the majority of public schools here.)

Let me repeat that facile conclusion from census data: the decline of kids in DC between 2000 and 2010 is a result of charter school proliferation.

It doesn’t seem quite right, does it?

Yet, citing it is also like citing wait lists as a sign of school quality and success, as you do in your current piece (and as plenty of others here in DC have also done).

After all, what is one to think of a school with only 5 or 6 seats available and no waitlist–versus one with 75 seats available and a waitlist of 100 students? Is the school with a waitlist better than the one without a waitlist? How long should the waitlist be to indicate school virtue? Can we create a mathematical formula to show that the longer the waitlist (or is it fewer available seats?), the higher the test scores? Or better teacher quality? Or greater student retention? Or better facility condition? Or more extensive extracurricular offerings? Or better PTA fundraising?

Do you see how this works?

Similarly, how does one conclude that “competition” among schools is good, such that creating new ones in any way, shape or form inevitably makes existing ones better? How is that even possible, when we do not have an infinitely expanding student population in DC to fill those new schools without at the same time depopulating existing schools?

Perhaps not surprisingly, in the period since we have had charters in DC (remember: while our population of kids declined), we have had several rounds of by right school closures. The rationale behind the closures was that the closed schools were underenrolled and often in poor condition—and, not coincidentally, in areas with the highest numbers of poor children.

It was all very neat: close, consolidate, save money, save kids.

What really happened was that no money was saved by the school closures, and entire neighborhoods were left without a by right school. Not surprisingly, kids in those areas of the city attend charters at a higher rate than in other areas—with many charters moving into the closed school buildings, as they want and need facilities.

(It is still very neat.)

This spring, the director of the My School DC lottery, Cat Peretti, testified before the council that lottery survey results showed that the most important factor for parents choosing a school is proximity to home.

Not surprisingly, charter advocates want neighborhood preference—it would provide those schools enrollment stability. Indeed, enrollment stability has been a focus of the cross sector task force during its last three meetings, with charter neighborhood preference likely to be proposed as a policy recommendation by that group.

Ironically, however, neighborhood preference does not always provide DCPS enrollment stability! That’s because charter middle schools start in 5th grade—not in 6th like DCPS middle schools. This mismatch causes many DCPS elementaries to lose children from 4th to 5th grade–as others as well as a report WAMU aired noted.

This school year, for instance, DCPS’s Maury Elementary saw a good number of its 5th grade students pull out when they were offered seats at BASIS over the summer. Had the principal known that she would not have needed a 5th grade teacher–there are now too few kids for the classes that remain–she could have hired a counselor instead, something that the school desperately needs and does not have because she hired a 5th grade teacher to cover the kids that were, but now are not, enrolled.

So: How does school “competition” improve Maury this school year? Or, since I am not a Maury parent, give me “value” for my tax dollars?

Do you see how this works?

In the spring, when asked by the council what she and the cross sector task force would do about that 4th/5th grade mismatch between charters and DCPS, which causes problems citywide for DCPS and is a natural subject for the cross sector task force, the deputy mayor for education, whom you interviewed in your current piece, said she could do nothing, as she cannot make rules for charter schools.

And yet, the mayor is in control of all DC public schools, charter and DCPS–and the deputy mayor for education is appointed by, and reports to, the mayor. Moreover, ensuring neighborhood preference for charters is possible, and even desirable, by the task force the deputy mayor is in charge of–but ensuring similar enrollment stability for DCPS at the 4th and 5th grade levels by that same group is impossible because the deputy mayor doesn’t control charter schools.

Do you see how this works?

Despite my living here for a quarter century, I don’t know the DC you depicted in your story. It sure sounds like a nicer place than the one I live in, where the issue in our public schools isn’t some “competition” or “choice” or, as the title of your current piece goes, “learning to get along,” but the fact that ALL DC residents are disempowered in their own schools and have very little say in what goes on with our tax dollars used for them.

Perhaps most astonishingly, you attributed “failures within DCPS” as reason both Congress and the DC council created charter schools here.

DCPS has indeed had many failings, as I have documented to you before and do so regularly on–but DCPS has done nothing as grave as taking away the right of DC citizens to govern themselves!

Rather, that took the deep money and power of charter advocates, who pushed legislation in Congress to create charter schools in DC, legislation that taxpayers of DC had nothing to do with but were forced to accept and, worse, pay for with our own money.

In an attempt at self-governance, the DC council (which unlike Congress actually IS elected by DC taxpayers) amended that Congressional charter legislation, to account for how we run our public schools.

Local, elected, control of public schools paid for by local tax dollars–sounds like a democracy, right?

Now, even that role of our city council is up for judgment in a lawsuit that two DC charter schools and a charter advocacy organization have filed in federal court. The lawsuit not only alleges that DC charter schools have not been given their proper due in funding, equivalent to what they calculate DCPS has received, but that by amending that charter legislation forced upon us by a body in which we have no representation, our city council has violated its role. At the heart of the lawsuit is not merely that charter schools in DC are equivalent to DCPS schools, but that we do not have the right to govern the schools that we pay for.

Do you see how this works?

The idea that everyone everywhere is guaranteed a decent public education by right is the cornerstone of American democracy. How can that happen if the people who pay for that education here in DC have little say in it? How can that be when the people entrusted with ensuring that education here in DC say they can do nothing about it?

I wrote to you almost a year ago, because I was concerned that your depiction of Kaya Henderson’s work in DCPS was inaccurate–and not the success story that is often heralded.

But however Henderson’s work is regarded, the fact remains that the school system she oversees is fundamentally different from charter schools: not better OR worse, as the conversation often goes.

That is, unlike charters, DCPS has a duty to educate all comers, all the time, ensuring that our very American, democratic guarantee of equitable public education for all, everywhere, is kept.

That promise is not about school “access.” It’s not about having a chance in the lottery (which is not choice–just chance). It’s not about balancing transit options to take advantage of those lottery chances. It’s not about vouchers or different curricula or “competition” or “choice.”

It’s not even about “getting along”!

You see, the main public education event here in DC (and everywhere in America, for that matter) is that guarantee of equitable public education for all, everywhere, which only one system of schools here provides (and, as we have documented, sometimes not well at all).

Maybe because that guarantee is not flashy, it’s not much talked about in DC policy circles.

But without that guarantee, there can be no real school choice–which is why, if you think about it, it’s downright odd that it’s almost never mentioned in DC when we talk about school choice and competition.

That is:

–Has anyone interviewed the parents of students in DC charter schools that have been closed–at a rate as high as 40%–about their thoughts on school choice? Has anyone asked any of the hundreds of former Potomac Prep parents–which is losing its charter today–how they feel about being forced to choose other schools after the 2015 lottery was over? And how actual lottery participants felt when the charter board ensured those Potomac Prep kids would find placements, despite not being in the lottery?

–Has anyone asked the people left in DC neighborhoods where there are no more by right schools what they think about school competition? Did they have a choice when charter school replaced their by right schools–that is, did they get to compete different schools against one another for their neighborhoods and choose the “winner”?

–Has anyone publicized interviews with principals and teachers at all public schools in DC, both charter and DCPS, that have lost enrollment because new schools are started without any coordination whatsoever with existing ones (often, on the basis of saying those existing ones are failing)? Have they said that such competition has improved their schools?

–Has anyone calculated the costs of opening, and closing public schools at the rates we do here in DC–a closure rate as high as 5 schools every year for the last 20 years? (See my testimony here, footnote 9.) Because if we value this uncontrolled experiment (at least as far as the mayor and her deputy are concerned, as I noted above), then we as taxpayers ought to know exactly what its costs are, since we are paying for it every single day.

–Besides this blog, has any reporter in DC asked why OSSE is combining test scores from different math tests at the same grade level to come up with a (fake) competency score for PARCC? This has ramifications for school choice, as test scores are often relied upon as indicators of a school’s virtue (as you yourself have indicated in your most recent story on the latest PARCC scores). If a school is using a more difficult math test–say, like Stuart-Hobson giving some of its 7th and 8th graders the Algebra 1 test–then the competency of those students is not comparable to the competency of 7th and 8th graders taking the regular PARCC math test–say, like 7th and 8th graders at BASIS. Not surprisingly, scores for the latter are higher than the scores at Stuart-Hobson: 60.5% scoring 4 or higher versus 11.1% at Stuart-Hobson. (That is, until you dig down into the scores of Stuart-Hobson kids taking the more advanced assessments, where you get a different picture: 23.7% scoring 4 or higher, and 55.9% scoring 3 or higher.) The fact remains that we cannot compare math scores at Stuart-Hobson and BASIS, since the kids at Stuart-Hobson were taking different tests with different degrees of difficulty! So, can creating out of whole cloth a school score in this manner meaningfully and truthfully inform school choice?

Because the answer to all of these questions is “No,” I must thus ask:

Now, do you see how this works?



3 thoughts on “Do You See How This Works?

  1. Again I am so impressed and thankful for your thoughtful, smart analysis. Thank you Valerie. Any response from Martin A.?


  2. September 1, 2016, Martin Austermuhle, WAMU reporter, responded via email:

    “Thanks for the thoughtful email, Valerie. In my story I tried to avoid some of the past fights over charters and DCPS and look at where things are, but I probably did resort to some base foundations that could be debated. You raise some interesting points, and I’ll consider them in my future reporting. I spoke to Suzanne Wells and Natalie Hopkinson for the story, and they raised some similar concerns. I couldn’t fit everything into the story, sadly, due to time and space constraints. But I see this all as part of an ongoing conversation, and there’s more stories to come on schools (not just from me; we’re hiring a new education reporter soon). We’ll have a chance to revisit a lot of what you raise, and I’ll make sure to pass along your contact info to my colleagues.”


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