The Cross Sector Task Force & Orwellian Expertise

This past Tuesday, September 27, the cross sector task force met. Since it started work earlier this year, the task force has held monthly public meetings to discuss issues relating to coordination and cooperation between the two sectors of public education in DC: charter schools and DCPS. The task force will continue meeting through June 2017 and then issue recommendations to the mayor based on its discussions and public input on its recommendations.

The meeting last week was to discuss conclusions from three prior meetings, in which mid-year mobility was discussed. For some schools, mobility is hugely disruptive, as many (including, memorably, teacher David Tansey) testified before the council.

Since spring, the task force has looked at data for student mobility from October through June: so-called mid-year mobility. The data it used found that mobility is much higher in DCPS than in charter schools and is correlated with poor academic performance. It also found that most students move in or out of DC—not between sectors.

The graphic below was handed out during last week’s meeting concerning the conclusions the group reached examining DC public school mobility data:


In a list of more than 50 points raised by the task force in discussing this data, at least ten revolved around two points: the effect of mobility on at risk kids and the schools they attend and the effect of per pupil funding following (or not) kids as they move through DC public schools.

But in the official summary of those discussions, the DME’s staff noted as equally important a single point made by one person: neighborhood preference for charter schools.

Think that math through for a minute:

At least 20% of the task force discussion in May on mobility concerned two topics–but one of the conclusions was a single person’s comment on neighborhood preference for charter schools.

Last week, several task force members discussed the fact that the task force had not yet addressed the mismatch between middle school grades at charters and DCPS, which results in enrollment instability for DCPS elementary schools at 5th grade.

Instead, at last week’s meeting the DME’s staff presented two topics to discuss around enrollment stability: by right charter schools and transfer and exit policies. The task force as a group had not selected those two, specific topics. Rather, they were selected by the DME and her staff from an array of topics (none of which included the 5th to 6th grade mismatch) to pursue as the policy recommendations for enrollment stability from the task force.

The task force then broke apart into two groups to discuss each.

I sat in on the group that discussed by right charter schools, which the DME staff touted as a way to “alleviate the disproportionate impact of mobility on DCPS.”

[Ed. note to high school students reading this: Read the paragraph above, look at the chart above it, then look at the title of this post. Discuss.]

The people in the task force group that discussed by right charter schools represented zero (0) by right schools. They were Erika Harrell; former mayor Anthony Williams; Jim Sandman; Claudia Lujan; Jenn Comey; Darren Woodruff; Kemba Hendrix, and Melissa Kim. (Their bios are available here.)

Here below are my notes of the discussion:

Jenn Comey, a DME staffer, started by noting that neighborhood preference was distinct from the issue of by right charters. The former is weighting in the lottery for people in a geographical area for a particular charter in that area. The latter would give students in a particular area the right to attend a specific charter school in the area.

Darren Woodruff, chair of the charter board, noted that by right charters are a “complete nonstarter” for the charter board because they are too restrictive. There was some discussion about the fact that such schools would be made to serve everyone and anyone; would end up having a higher churn rate than would be expected at a charter school; and that choice would be limited because all seats would go first to in bounds students.

Claudia Lujan (a DME staffer who is headed to DCPS soon) then noted that this by right charter proposal was to address the disproportionate impact of mobility on DCPS, because with by right charters, DCPS would not have to maintain schools that are underenrolled and poorly performing and can just give them up to be run as charter schools.

Melissa Kim–former Deal MS principal and current chief academic officer for KIPP DC–noted that such closures and transfers to charters would be good, as it would address “consistently failing” schools within DCPS.

Lujan then mentioned that Achievement Prep already has a lot of kids in its neighborhood, so it’s already functioning in part as a neighborhood school.

Woodruff noted that he didn’t think by right charters would address the issue of choice and then noted that the lack of decent facilities for charters would ensure that a by right charter school might not be able to guarantee staying at a particular location.

That was when DME staffers Comey and Lujan quickly noted that any by right charter school could just use existing DCPS school buildings.

This launched a discussion about funding for facilities, in which Comey, Lujan, and Woodruff agreed that by using existing DCPS school buildings for by right charters, along with assurance of capital funds and long-term leases, by right charters actually might work (as long as everything else about those by right charters remained autonomous).

With some more discussion along the lines of questions about who gets rights to what school (per Comey: families would have the right to only one school, either DCPS or a by right charter), several people noted that right now, charter schools want to move in to underperforming schools, but DCPS doesn’t want to give those schools up. In response to Darren Woodruff asking what the “added value” of a by right charter would be, Kim noted that the conversion of those DCPS schools to “high-quality” schools by a “proven” charter operator would be the added value.

[Ed. note: Hmm, is KIPP a “proven” charter operator, by any chance?]

Finally, Erika Harrell, a charter parent, asked what would happen to neighborhood schools run by DCPS in such a scheme. Lujan noted that it very well could result in DCPS closures, but then mentioned DCPS’s Davis Elementary, which was closed in 2013 and is being used a as swing space for DCPS. Davis could, Lujan noted, become a by right charter—which then animated the group about the uses of other, closed, DCPS buildings for charter schools as well as the use of large (and underenrolled) DCPS high schools like Coolidge being taken over by charter high schools like Washington Latin.

The idea behind by right charters, noted Lujan, was “how to leverage the benefits of both” sectors.

[Ed. note to high school students: See first ed. note above.]

Darren Woodruff concluded the discussion by noting that the task force had spent no time discussing academic outcomes and that the charter board is committed to closing schools that are not doing well. He was concerned that they would not have that freedom with by right charter schools.

If we look at this discussion in an “open-minded” manner (as task force members are exhorted to do), then we need to examine not merely who was not in that group discussing by right charters (that would be everyone in DC employed by, or otherwise associated with, by right schools), but also what the people in charge of DC public education who were in that room (Lujan, Comey, Woodruff) did not mention that was actually critical to know.

To wit:

–DC has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in renovating its DCPS schools, with the idea that such modernized facilities help secure the right to public education that those schools represent. Is that to be simply handed over to charter operators?

—DC has invested years in a process of re-drawing boundaries, which would then have to be changed to accommodate by right charter schools. How would that work–and how would it work when by right charter schools are closed or opened, given that there is no coordination right now?

—A by right school is more than a mere guarantor of a seat to a child in a particular area; charter schools right now tout having different rules for suspension, expulsion, and acceptances than by right schools. In other words, charters are not mini-me’s of DCPS schools. How is that to be accommodated in a by right charter system?

—We have enough data now to show that school openings and especially closures are costly—not merely emotionally for students, parents, and staff, but in cold hard taxpayer cash. How is that cost to be accounted for?

Oh, and then there’s the obvious:

–Has anyone discussing those issues even spoken to anyone at all associated with a by right school (students, teachers, administrators, parents, janitors, food workers, in bounds families, etc.) to ask if they thought their schools were “consistent failing” and thus would be better off closed or run as charters? To what extent would any of those stakeholders have any choice in determining that as a policy recommendation? To what extent do charter stakeholders have any choice when their schools close? And by what measure is “consistently failing” determined: by standardized test scores that are not standardized?

To be sure, the task force needs to be free in what it discusses.

But fact free?

When those in public service omit important information, or make conclusions unsupported by the data they present, they squander the extraordinarily valuable resource of people giving their time to be a part of important discussions.

Not to mention making any discussion only appear free.

Related: It was announced at the meeting last week that the task force meet will twice in October, possibly in closed meetings: once, to discuss by right charter schools and transfer and exit policies further and then, to have a half-day retreat. Both meetings are to finalize policy recommendations before presenting them to the community in three citywide meetings before Thanksgiving.

It is unclear if those previously unannounced October meetings violate the Open Meetings Act in DC—but given that a citizen had to file a complaint with the Office of Open Government for anyone to be able to sit in on any task force meeting, don’t hold your breath.

3 thoughts on “The Cross Sector Task Force & Orwellian Expertise

  1. “By right charter schools?”
    “By right charter schools” as a way to address enrollment stability?
    This is such a far cry from the recommendation in the Boundary Review report to bring some coordination to the location, opening, and closing of schools. The picture your notes paint is much more one of charters taking over DCPS schools than it is collaborating, as in working together to avoid problems of too many schools in one place and too few in another.
    But it is the line of thinking of former mayor Gray in his speech of June 2013 wherein he envisioned the two sectors all mushed together in a number of ways, one of which was giving a neighborhood preference to charters, another to insert charters into and as part of feeder patterns. He also told people they needed to stop having an “ideological” preference for DCPS or charter schools.
    I had hoped that the Boundary Review Committee had made clear that kind of mushing up was/is not what the majority wants, but I’m not surprised that the DME and her charter friends and allies are taking every advantage of the DME’s office/power to push their agenda, which is, for some of them, to replace all public schools with charters–across the country.
    I’ve wondered from the beginning if this task force wasn’t just a way around the Boundary Review Committee’s very clear affirmation of the majority’s strong desire for the traditional, municipal, by-right system of DCPS, supplemented by choices both within DCPS and from among some charters.
    From what you’ve reported, it is certainly easy to see it that way.


  2. Getting into the minds of others is always a precarious adventure. Odds are my guesses will at some point be proven wrong, or in need of amendment. Some members of the task force have clear agendas, others are much more open-minded. So far, I’ve actually been impressed: it may not be a model of deliberative democracy – and certainly won’t be if the ultimate policies of this administration do not reflect the group’s recommendations – but it is more deliberative – more problem-centered – more expertise-driven – than I expected. My impression of the task force aside, here is what I think Niles / Bowser would like the task force to recommend, and where we will likely end up.

    1. Policymakers and charter advocates seem convinced that DCPS will never do EOTP middle schools and high schools well. Especially high schools. By right charters is a version of the kind of partnerships between charters and districts tried in places like Lawrence, MA. It’s silly politics to call them by right charters instead of something more neutral, but I think Niles-Bowswer would love to recruit “proven” charter operators to address the challenge of having so many underenrolled / “underperforming” DCPS schools. My guess is this does not happen. Still, it’s an issue that is not going away and will surely be revisited in the years ahead.

    2. The uniform per student funding formula will be changed – this strikes me as a done deal – from an annual payment to something either quarterly or semi-annually. Niles in particular seems convinced that incentivizing charters to raise retention rates will decrease midyear transfers into DCPS. Churn is a problem that everyone acknowledges, even if some charter advocates want to focus on out-of-state arrivals and deemphasize the intra-district, charter to DCPS component. I do not think this will work as intended, by she seems sold on the idea that the financial incentive will convince charters to keep their most difficult / disruptive students and reduce churn throughout the system. My assumption is that charters put a much higher price on school “culture” than she realizes, and will barely, if at all, change their current practices. I also think that charters will find other ways to bolster enrollment to capitalize on the extra resources (the probability of a student on the wait list being a “better” student is pretty high), and that this might increase churn.

    3. Bowser seems to love the idea of weighted lottery preference for some charters in low-income neighborhoods, and her affection goes back several years. It’s a easy sell politically, so I expect some version of this to end up as official policy.

    Forgive the crude summary, but I teach shortly and have to prepare for class!


    P.S. Thanks for your very detailed impressions of the discussion I missed out on (I was in the other room).


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