When Following The Law Fails The Public Interest

We here in DC have recently had a lot of “bumps in the road” regarding our public school governance. Indeed, some notable “bumps” of late* suggest that following the law regarding our schools may be, well, optional.

(*chancellor and deputy mayor skipping the lottery; employee background checks lapsing or not being done at all; not following the law regarding suspensions; denials of lead in playgrounds; no public notification for changes in protocol for lead in water testing; education leaders joking about attempts to prevent youth suicide)

Yet, we do not often consider the harm done when systems and rules are followed and work exactly as intended–even when the outcome fails the public interest.

The recent roll-out of PARCC scores hints at this, wherein amid modest annual gains, the same groups of students appear to be left behind year after year.

So it is that the good news–hey, we’re doing better than last year!–almost inevitably eclipses the real news, and test scores largely correlated with student household income are used not merely to fire teachers and punish/praise schools, but also to justify a status quo (we’re improving!) and goal (accountability!) that inevitably fail the public interest because of the (unspoken, unaddressed) reality of tens of thousands of students being left behind repeatedly.

To see this public failure more clearly, let us look at the recent, well-executed and legally mandated actions of one city education agency with respect to two schools.

Washington Latin

At its June 25 board meeting, the DC public charter school board (PCSB) was slated to vote on Washington Latin starting another campus. But at the meeting, PCSB chair Rick Cruz briefly explained the vote was tabled until a later meeting due to (unstated) board member concerns with the school’s expansion.

Materials on the PCSB website for that June 25 meeting contained a PCSB staff report, dated June 25, on Latin’s expansion. That June 25 staff report recommended, without any qualifications, that the school expand.

However, after that June 25 PCSB meeting, the materials concerning Latin that had been posted on the website were removed–including that June 25 PCSB staff report. When I asked for a copy, I was told by PCSB spokesperson Tomeika Bowden that it was no longer a public document. Instead, she noted, it was now a “deliberative document” and thus not available for public view.

Thankfully, the DC circuit court has noted that records that would otherwise qualify for a FOIA exemption are required to be released if the information was ever part of the public domain–which in the case of the June 25 staff report was true.

And equally thankfully, the FOIA officer for PCSB agreed, which is how you can see that June 25 staff report here. (It’s still not posted on the PCSB website BTW.)

Less than a month later–at its July 15 board meeting–PCSB voted to approve the expansion of Latin, albeit with a set of conditions, outlined in the July 15 PCSB staff report. The conditions included an apparent effort at increasing enrollment of at risk students, as Latin’s share of them is very small relative to the city as a whole.

(See here for a side-by-side comparison of the two PCSB staff reports on Latin’s expansion.)

Setting aside for a moment the apparent auto-pilot setting for PCSB staff greenlighting charter expansions on the basis of test scores (a la that June 25 staff report for Latin), the conditions that the July 15 staff report and PCSB members agreed to are admirable on one level, constituting a small step toward responsible governance of the schools that nearly half our students attend.

OTOH, they leave out the most important points.

For one, PCSB’s first condition for Latin–that the school will “consider” admitting students after 9th grade–demonstrates an (unstated) awareness of the consequences of charters not backfilling, without also demonstrating a willingness to be in front of this issue for all DC charters.

For another, the PCSB conditions of Latin ensuring staff training in trauma-informed practices and an updating of the school’s discipline policy would be entirely admirable if they had been enacted and/or enforced sometime before the school was noted to have disproportionate discipline rates for at risk students and students with disabilities (i.e., triple the rates of its non-at risk and disabled students).

Those PCSB conditions appear to be tied to another point of discussion regarding Latin: the relatively small percentage of at risk students the school educates (7% at the middle school and 16% at the high school). In conditioning approval on Latin recruiting more at risk students and not using sibling preference across campuses (which would effectively ensure that the current demographics of the school would be perpetuated at the new campus), PCSB appeared to be putting its thumb on the scales of choice in favor of equity.

Yet, there is no real backstop to any of it.

For instance, the school’s charter is up for review in SY20-21. The conditions of approval specify that if the charter is renewed (and why wouldn’t it be, given the school’s test scores, which largely determine PCSB approval?), “should the DC PCSB Board determine, at the time of the renewal decision, that the school has failed to make satisfactory progress in addressing disproportionality in the use of exclusionary discipline, the number of at-risk students served, and/or the performance of historically underperforming subgroups, the new charter agreement shall contain a mission-specific goal or goals to hold the school accountable in the remaining areas of concern.”

That all sounds good and well–but the governing body that commends itself on holding schools accountable would do so in this case ONLY if it decided to do so for as few as one of those things (check out that “and/or”!). And even then, the intervention would be merely a new charter and new goals, so that actual accountability would be years after the fact of a problem with any one of those things–all of which would be identified by unknown actors in an unknowable manner.

That perfectly legal (lack of) oversight doesn’t inspire warm democratic fuzzies.

And then there’s the whole location thing:

The school has not only not identified a locale for its new campus, but there was no mention of focusing on locating where at risk students live (i.e., in the poorest areas of the city). The only possible mention of location was in the condition that specifies the school will provide some sort of transit option for students in wards 5 and 7 “whose families request such service, provided there are a minimum of five such students.”

By comparison, take a look where Latin provided buses in SY18-19.

Then look at the cost.

While school choice advocates relish the blindness of the lottery, they remain quite silent about the fact that school choice itself is not blind. Setting aside actions by schools that could shape choice (i.e., encouraging parents to give large amounts of money or sending buses to wealthier areas of the city), the bottom line is that when a student body is not representative of DC’s public school students in general, but rather more affluent, it inevitably benefits in its STAR and PMF ratings, since both of those ratings are heavily weighted toward test scores, which are correlated with household income.

This underscores the fact that school choice is not policy and that it can (and in this case apparently does) exacerbate the segregation we see in our schools in a variety of ways (including, in DCPS selective schools, with students with disabilities)–much like the real estate divide that school choice advocates decry.

Yet, Latin’s expansion and replication have been put into terms that imply it will be a public service–by providing more “quality seats.” So it is that the conditions that PCSB set for Latin appear to be a good first step toward a more fulsome understanding of “quality”–except that none of it can truly ensure that “quality” is even partly decoupled from test scores, much less effect meaningful change.

The actual PCSB vote on Latin’s expansion was yet more evidence of such apparent self-justification: only two charter board members, Naomi Shelton and Steve Bumbaugh, voted against it. But Shelton works for the KIPP Foundation, whose KIPP DC schools are Latin’s competition, so to the extent that her vote was predicated on a distaste for whatever Latin was or is doing was completely overshadowed by her inevitable conflict of interest–a conflict that PCSB’s own website has minimized, by presenting Shelton’s employer as merely another nonprofit supporting public schools.

(NB: A complaint I filed in July with the board of ethics and government accountability about Shelton’s apparent conflict of interest has not been addressed yet as far as I know.)

Rocketship

Last week, PCSB made available on its website the August 2 application of Rocketship to locate a new campus in Ward 5. The idea is that the application would be available for public comment by September 16, for a vote by PCSB on October 21.

But PCSB’s legally mandated exercise is very late to Rocketship’s party.

For instance, on July 24, Rocketship held an event cast as a discussion of school choice and equity for Ward 5. Whatever else it may have discussed, the event inevitably served as notice and advertisement both about Rocketship’s aspirations in the ward.

Rocketship made clear early in its application its rationale for Ward 5 as the location of its new campus:

“We performed an extensive needs analysis which allowed us to review multiple wards across Washington, DC and found that the Fort Totten neighborhood has a number of high performing schools, but still has many students who do not have access to a high performing schools [sic]. We believe that a Rocketship school can meet this need. Rocketship has already undergone extensive planning and preparation for constructing our facility and engaging community members for our third campus.”

Rocketship’s application went on to note that the community around the Fort Totten area is in “flux,” with senior citizens but also (boldface mine) “young families moving into the neighborhood which will offer families with children consistent with school age of students attending Rocketship schools.”

Notwithstanding the implied predation in that bolded phrase (the people moving in potentially offer children to the school, not vice versa), the reality is that neither PCSB nor the public have access to the “extensive needs analysis” that Rocketship performed. So it is that tens of millions of taxpayer dollars hang in the balance on the (unseen and unknown) justification that Rocketship provides for its own existence and expansion–all perfectly legal and mandated by PCSB.

Later, the application references the current publicly funded schools in Fort Totten and Ward 5 as being “highly specialized.” Yet later references in the application make clear that many of these “highly specialized” schools offer dual language programs. Rocketship thus proposes to deliver something presumably better than dual language–and also (presumably) less “specialized.”

Setting aside the fact that dual language programming is widely considered desirable in DC, one must ask where all this self-justification ends: What constitutes “highly specialized?” What isn’t “highly specialized”? When are there too many “high-performing” schools in an area? Too few? And who’s defining ANY of that besides an (inevitably) self-interested applicant?

The Rocketship application also notes that eventually, the total facilities costs for all three Rocketship campuses in DC (the chain currently has one campus each in wards 7 and 8) would amount to $6.5 million per year, for about 2112 students. That comes out to about $3068 per student–which is LESS than what the school would get from the city for per student facilities fees (in FY20, that amount is $3335). Amazingly, Rocketship also notes that the school has already “identified more than $1 million in philanthropic support for the third site.”

Given the ongoing propaganda of how charters are denied real estate in DC, Rocketship’s is an extraordinary admission: not merely that the school is exceptionally well-funded, but that they will not even need all the public funds they may be entitled to for their facilities!

(Sooo: Will the school return those extra funds? Heh: why would they? All DC charters are entitled to do anything they want with their facilities allocations–literally anything, including paying bonuses, padding bank accounts, or burning the cash in a bonfire. It’s all good and all perfectly legal.)

What is also extraordinary about this is that Rocketship was approved in 2013 to have up to 8 campuses in DC–with the only action of PCSB for any of it being a simple approval of the locations, not the actual fact of those campuses.

Indeed, by the time this application got to PCSB on August 2, all the real work was already over: the lease for the Ward 5 campus was signed, a search was underway for subtenants (with a clause that CityBridge Foundation’s imprimatur will be considered a positive quality for subtenants), and substantial plans had been made for the building itself.

Rocketship also sent out letters in July notifying 18 DCPS schools** and 17 charters*** in nearby areas of the new Rocketship campus. (The way in which these letters are presented on the application website is a little scattered; presumably the recipients actually got them–and could read them.)

Now, one could regard notifying 35 publicly funded schools as due diligence!

But in reality, that adherence to the letter of the law about public notification is insane busywork: even if every single one of those 35 schools hated the idea of Rocketship and spoke out loudly against it, that criticism is meaningless. The only body that can stop this campus is PCSB–and the only matter that could stand in the way of PCSB’s approval is not community distaste, but the fact that Rocketship’s Ward 8 campus was below the PMF score set in the school’s charter for expansion. Even that may be a moot point, since new PMF scores come out in November, and PARCC scores came out already.

In other words, but for the existence of one (possible) PMF score, there is no earthly reason why PCSB would not vote in favor of this new Rocketship campus–not community opposition nor the existence (or lack) of “high-performing” schools nor the school’s (publicly unseen) needs analysis.

All of which makes a mockery of the mandated public process currently underway, while writing out the public entirely from any real decisionmaking while the public is on the hook for the cost.

And the kicker? Everyone’s following the law.

**DCPS schools that received notification from Rocketship (the relatively large number of education campuses on this list suggests the influence of prior DCPS closures in and around Ward 5, which meant not only redrawing feeder patterns but also accommodating more kids in more grades in fewer remaining schools):

Brightwood EC
Raymond EC
Truesdell EC
Whittier EC
Wheatley EC
LaSalle Backus EC
Takoma EC
West EC
Brookland (sent to an EC, but it’s a middle school)
Langdon (sent to an EC, but it’s an elementary)
Noyes (ditto)
Burroughs
Bunker Hill
Dorothy Height
Powell
Langley
Bruce Monroe
Barnard

***Charters that received notification from Rocketship:

Harmony
Friendship Woodridge
Friendship Ideal
Elsie Whitlow Stokes
Capital City Lower School
EL Haynes
Mary McLeod Bethune
DC Prep Edgewood
DC Bilingual
Center City Petworth
Center City Brightwood
Bridges
Perry Street Prep
Hope Lamond
Creative Minds
Lee Montessori
Breakthrough Montessori

One thought on “When Following The Law Fails The Public Interest

  1. That law needs a serious rewrite. It is definitely not in the public interest in general and for the charter school students and families in particular.

    Like

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