Talking Transparency (Now, With A Petition)

After more than half an hour of public witnesses laying into the charter board’s proposed transparency policy at the board’s January 28 meeting, it was clear that transparency in DC is completely in the eye of the beholder—the beholder with power, that is.

(Testimony starts at minute 14 in the video here.)

If nothing else, the testimony provides lots more reasons to sign the petition by DC teacher group EmpowerEd to city leaders, calling for all DC’s publicly funded schools to be subject to the same requirements, including FOIA and the Open Meetings Act. (Sign it here.)

Here, for the record, is the charter board’s proposed transparency policy:

“Beginning in school year 2019-20, schools will be required to post the following documents publicly on their websites:

1. Charter school board of trustees meeting calendar
2. High school course offerings and graduation requirements
3. School calendar
4. Student handbook
5. At-risk funding plans
6. Annual report
7. Title IX coordinator contact information
8. Lottery procedures (schools not participating in My School DC)
9. Student application (schools not participating in My School DC)
10. Student enrollment form”

Not that this isn’t reasonable–but it does nothing to prevent, say, a school board meeting to radically overhaul its school by closing two campuses for the next school year and then dropping the bomb on its own school community only days–literally–before the end of the lottery.

(Yeah, talking about you, Cesar Chavez.)

And it doesn’t address when a school discusses expanding with no recent record of that discussion publicly available, except for a little side note here and possibly by FOIA from the charter board, providing one knows what to FOIA.

(Yeah, talking about you, Washington Latin.)

The charter board’s seemingly inoffensive, and stunningly inadequate, transparency policy was thoroughly debunked by public witnesses at the Jan. 28 meeting, including WTU head Elizabeth Davis and newly pink-slipped Chavez teachers. Together, they pointed out how a transparency policy should provide an access point for the public about all school meetings and information about those meetings; how much money is brought into each school via philanthropy and fundraising and how it is spent; credit recovery policies; building conditions; how much teachers are paid; and how much any nonprofit running the school gets to keep of the fundraising.

That last point was brought by a BASIS parent, who noted that parents at that school are encouraged to donate to a fund that provides annual bonuses to teachers. How much of what parents donate, he wondered, actually makes it to the teachers?

That’s a very good question, given that our charter teachers are not exactly raking in the big bucks–unlike their administrators.

(That parent’s question may be all the more important since BASIS apparently doesn’t make public the compensation its school officers receive. Look at p. 8, part VII of all the 990 forms for BASIS listed here; they look like this. Maybe I missed something–or are the payments “industry secrets“?)

Ironically, a lot of the suggestions in the testimony were pointed out to charter board staff before that board meeting.

In response to a question from board chair Rick Cruz, charter board staff member Rashida Young noted that the charter board’s Parent and Alumni Leadership Council suggested mandating charter schools post

–budgets and use of funds;
–philanthropy money;
–names of special education and homeless coordinators;
–school org. charts;
–department heads;
–transportation ops; and
–student and family handbooks,

none of which was included in the transparency policy as outlined above.

(Another board member, Naomi Shelton, asked what feedback partner organizations had in the policy. Young responded that charter board staff got feedback only from TenSquare. Because–uh, yeah.)

Despite the fact that the charter board was clearly chastised by the testimony, it is not obvious to what extent the board’s final transparency policy (to be voted on possibly next month) will be, well, transparent.

Which is to say that it’s in fine company.

Take the recent vote of the charter board to revoke the charter of National Collegiate Prep. Like the vote to revoke Excel’s charter, it prompted questions about the fairness of the PMF, the charter board’s methodology for judging its schools.

As documents obtained by FOIA from the charter board show (see here for a recent dump and here for the Excel dump), the PMF has a slight, but persistent, bias against schools with large at risk populations. Given how heavily both the PMF and our city’s new STAR school rating system depend on test scores, and how correlated the STAR rating is with student demographics (see here too), we now know that the fate of most DC publicly funded schools inevitably lies, to some unknown degree, on the number of students they have who are poor.

Let that sink in.

(And read what this means from a teacher’s perspective.)

There are always outliers, of course–the so-called “beating the odds” schools that have large numbers of at risk children and higher test scores and thus seem to put all of this socioeconomic anxiety to bed. But aside from marketing spiels, we have no idea how those schools got there (drill and kill? luck? skill? moving kids between campuses? some combination thereof?) and no way to share that information so that other schools could benefit from good practices.

Indeed, the sheer depth of what we don’t know and are not told goes well beyond test scores and ratings. For instance, we not only have no publicly available data on the condition of 43% of our school buildings, but we also

–have been gaslighted concerning the offer of Kenilworth, a closed DCPS school, to a charter school, apparently outside the law;
–were never told who made the decisions to create Bard high school or expand Banneker;
–and do not know what city workers have discussed about the future use of the school building at 800 Euclid St. NW, the current Banneker high school, which some have intimated is destined for a public/private partnership with Amazon and the Howard charter middle school.

And that’s not even talking about answers for logical questions about things we DO know something about, such as

–How will the February 8 deadline for securing a facility affect the three charter schools–Statesmen, Appletree SW, and Lee Montessori–still looking for sites while accepting lottery applications? (Hey! Maybe someone somewhere offered Kenilworth again to Statesmen??)

–Is there a school behind the mayor’s apparent effort to either kill or relocate the ice arena at Ft. Dupont and repurpose the money intended for its renovation?

–Does everyone know that in our new STAR rating, the number of 5-star schools is capped–and that there will always be 1-star schools, no matter how much every school has improved?

–How is it possible for a school to close two campuses in the wake of a variety of purported failures–and both school leader and board escape consequence? (Yeah, looking at you again, Chavez.)

–And how is it ethical for TenSquare, the consulting company recently helping advise the charter board about the PMF bias, to not only make money from Chavez despite the school’s failures, but to be positioned to make yet more money advising DC’s charter schools about the same rating system that it is helping to revise?

All of which is to say that if you have not already, please sign the petition–and tell 50 of your DC BFFs to sign as well, because civic darkness is good for no one.

(Except the folks with power.)

5 thoughts on “Talking Transparency (Now, With A Petition)

  1. Hi Valerie, where do I look within the Star Rating info. for language about the cap on 5-star schools? Also, where does the Bard facility fit into this facility musical chairs game? They will only be in Davis ES for a year. What other building East of the River could work for them? Are there capital funds set aside for Bard?

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  2. Wish I had some answers–sorry!

    –Where do I look within the Star Rating info. for language about the cap on 5-star schools?

    I have no idea; this was discussed at an LSAT meeting I attended, wherein DCPS staff noted the relative nature of the STAR rating, such that there will always be 1 star schools, with the points assigned for each measure edited every few years, and a cap on 5 star schools. I looked through the publicly available guidebook for any information about this and didn’t see any (it’s here: https://osse.dc.gov/publication/2018-dc-school-report-card-and-star-framework-technical-guide) It was apparent to me that all this was messaged to staff; as it is, staff at schools see a different dataset than what is publicly available for the star ratings.

    –Also, where does the Bard facility fit into this facility musical chairs game? What other building East of the River could work for them?

    I have no idea–for all any of us know, that’s what’s driving the ice arena decision making. It’s just a guessing game for the public at this moment–so much for the PACE Act! As for other buildings, any school that is still owned by DC but is leased for another use (say, a charter) could be pushed into use by the DCPS chancellor for this purpose. That’s 38-1802.09 in DC code, which states that “the Chancellor may, at any time, make a request to the Mayor based on the need for additional space as a result of projected enrollment increases to reclaim an excess school facility that has not yet been transferred pursuant to this subsection.” While it appears that this action is true only for excessed schools that have not undergone the RFP process yet (for a charter, say), there is also nothing in the code to indicate that a lease expiring on a closed and excessed DCPS facility might not be renewed if there is need for additional DCPS space. Renewal of leases is a city-driven function, and there are lots of former DCPS schools around the city that are being leased.

    –Are there capital funds set aside for Bard? I have no idea. But I will be most curious to know how that will go–I have spent years being told how if my school gets X, another will be denied X–so what schools (literally) are going to pay for Bard and how will that go? I think in a few strokes since the fall, our mayor made David Grosso’s work on the PACE Act irrelevant.

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  3. Valerie,
    Can you clarify about Lee Montessori’s “unsecured location” status? Is the Brookland location moving? Or is this about the Southeast expansion campus? I didn’t find anything on the Lee website.
    Apple SW, by comparison, has a post about the campus move.
    Thanks.
    Gabe

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  4. Yes–Lee is one of three schools approved to have new campuses besides their current ones, but all of them have to get a site before they can accept students from this round of the lottery. Their deadline to do so is February 8. The lottery ends tonight at midnight.

    If you go to myschooldc’s website, select the tab on the upper left under “schools” that says “participating schools”–and then you will see the second Lee listing along with the fact it’s supposed to start in 2019 in “ward x” (very Speed Racer-ish!).

    The charter board approved Lee’s creation of another campus, in either Ward 7 or 8, at their December meeting; see here: https://www.dcpcsb.org/event/board-meeting-december-2018 (transcript of the meeting is here: https://www.dcpcsb.org/sites/default/files/2018-12-17%20December%2017%20Meeting%20Transcript.pdf
    Discussion of the additional campus begins on p. 324).

    Appletree has apparently made a move for space in a new development in SW DC (see here: https://capitolhillcorner.org/2019/01/24/anc6d-recommends-approval-of-waterfront-station-amidon-pta-pushes-back-on-charter-school/). Like Lee, both Appletree and Statesmen have no location listed in that myschooldc listing of participating schools.

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