The Waning Weeks Of September: Just Like The Others, Only More So

–Last Monday, September 21, the DC public charter school board (PCSB) held a discussion of Ingenuity Prep (IP) and allegations that special ed services were not provided appropriately or safely. (See the video here.)

Before the meeting, the charter board made clear it is not calling for a revocation of the school’s charter (see its letter to the two former IP staffers who have publicly spoken out numerous times.) Even the founder of IP has weighed in.

To be sure, there is no shortage of publicly funded schools in DC that have been the subject of legal action alleging violations of IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. In the last 2 years alone, for instance, Bridges, Mundo Verde, EL Haynes, and Friendship have seen lawsuits, and one has just been filed against DCPS alleging abuse of special needs students.

Yet, what was incredible about this PCSB meeting was not merely the ongoing effort by former administrators to illuminate what exactly is going on at Ingenuity Prep–nor even the (unsolicited) public commentary at that same meeting of teachers literally begging for help for their fellow teachers to have something more than 2 minutes a month to detail problems before the charter board and to have a place of safety from which to bring up problems.

Rather, the truly incredible thing is what preceded all those statements: a brief check in from charter schools starting just this school year. It wasn’t that their presentations mainly functioned as press releases, but that there is no way for anyone charged with their oversight on the public dime to actually check in with what these schools are actually doing in this pandemic.

In a city with a plurality of its children at risk, and a plenitude of allegations of IDEA violations, this just feels, well, wrong.

Those PCSB discussions with each new charter school reminded me of a question that Ward 2 state board candidate Allister Chang (endorsed by the Post!) put to me some weeks ago: what do you say to the flexibility and speed that charters can deploy to respond to exigencies like distance learning?

To be sure, the question practically answers itself. After all, what’s NOT to like about speed and flexibility? Indeed, both seem entirely good things to deploy at a school–who in their right mind would be against them?

Until you realize, of course, that there is no definition of what either actually means in this context–and now, in this pandemic, no way of truly accounting for them, either.

For instance, maybe speed means putting children and teachers into classrooms even if HVAC isn’t, well, perfect.

Or PPE available for all.

And maybe flexibility means putting children as young as 3 into a seclusion room because of dress code violations.

That last example, BTW, came up during the PCSB meeting, when about 2 hours in board member Steve Bumbaugh detailed just that happening at Ingenuity Prep.

Because PCSB explicitly did not recommend revocation of IP’s charter, PCSB’s actions now rather beg the question: but for the whistleblowers, what would PCSB do?

The answer appears to be nothing.

–In the face of a few (not all) DC council members demanding DCPS present a plan for re-opening schools on its announced date of November 9, and parents and community members expressing skepticism that it will be done safely–and given that 13 DCPS schools will re-open for someone somehow this week–the DC council is planning to hold a hearing later this week (October 2!) on distance learning.

In light of all those efforts to make distance learning a distant memory with, uh, speed (and flexibility! though whose remains an open question), perhaps a better use of the council’s time would be in sussing out what, exactly, DCPS is doing with regard to funding its schools.

For instance, at the DCPS budget townhall on September 14, on changing its budget model, there were no statements by officials about basic items, like a commitment to avoiding closures and why, if funding models are so important, DC has funded schools inequitably for decades regardless of funding model.

Although the survey that DCPS promulgated beforehand had only 403 participants (!), the hundreds of comments received were, well, incredible and spoke not only to the persistent underfunding of DCPS schools of right, but their political powerlessness.

[Confidential note to DC ed reformers: I know that such political powerlessness suggests that the relatively small percentage of students attending their in bounds school has relegated education rights to just another choice, like deli salamis or tires at Costco. To be sure, thusly ignoring closures that have ensured schools of choice are closer to some DC kids than their in bounds schools is but one (stupid, possibly venal) thing. But extending this sentiment to other public franchises that are not always utilized by a majority of people all the time—say, libraries or voting—makes clear its utter bankruptcy. As with schools of right, libraries, and voting, people care deeply about their public enfranchisements, no matter whether they personally use them a lot or a little–or never. It’s that whole democracy thing, you know. Unless, of course, public disenfranchisement is your point—in which case, at least you know who to vote for this year. Good luck with that.]

Because I couldn’t figure out how to download the survey responses from this website, I made screenshots and put them into a 96-page document (!) (apologies for any double screenshots).

Here is a download of all the questions during the presentation.

–On Wednesday September 16, the state board of education met to vote on a resolution calling for changes in the STAR rating, to minimize bias against schools serving large proportions of poor students. It was a contentious vote—which is pretty incredible, given that the rating is mainly based on test scores, which have been correlated with household income, which is quite skewed in DC and its public schools. Thus, the STAR rating’s problems are not exactly, uh, unknown.

Ironically (or, given how the discussion went, predictably) the state board also voted on a resolution honoring the service of outgoing head of the office of the state superintendent of education (OSSE), Hanseul Kang, who created the STAR rating system. She is headed to direct the Broad Center at Yale, which not only is she an alum of, but also trains school superintendents in the ways of ed reform. (Or, as inestimable DCPS parent & ed researcher Betsy Wolf put it, “It’s like TFA [Teach for America] but for superintendents, and it’s funded by a former Wall Street billionaire.”)

This is not to say that Kang is an outlier: both current and former DCPS chancellors and Paul Kihn, the current deputy mayor for education, are alums of the program.

The cognitive dissonance between DC’s education leaders and their glorious STAR ratings, and the reality of those ratings on the ground (needless vilification, loss of enrollment), was underscored at that meeting by someone directly affected: Alex O’Sullivan, a student board member, who (accurately) called the ratings “dehumanizing.”

[Confidential to Mayor Bowser & DC Council: Though he has yet to graduate from high school, Alex would make a very good candidate for head of OSSE—because at this point in our local and national politics, we need public servants for whom basic humanity, respect, and decency are natural–as he clearly demonstrated. You’re welcome.]

Though the recent debate between at large state board of education candidates danced around all of these issues—none of which are new (see here for as primer), there are more debates, slated for tonight, of at large candidates, which may raise these issues once more.

BTW: You can see excellent questions and responses from candidates on education issues here, courtesy of the Washington Teachers’ Union. (And from the inestimable Dr. Wolf, here’s a graphic representation of those responses.) And local education coalition C4DC has yet more candidate responses on education issues here

–Finally, today, Wednesday September 30, at noon, the DC Council facilities and procurement committee is holding a hearing on legislation that would better regulate the environmental safety of DC’s green spaces. (Like, you know, playgrounds with lead and other hazards, including, most recently, Janney’s.) 

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