The Grade Unknown: DC Charters Prize Their Autonomy. Does It Come At The Cost of Public Accountability?

Originally published in Washington City Paper on November 30, 2017.
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On a Monday night in late April, the D.C. Public Charter School Board convened for its monthly meeting with plans to vote on new charter school applications. One network, DC Preparatory Academy, submitted two requests for expansion: one to increase their student enrollment ceiling, and one to open a new elementary and middle school campus. Founded in 2003 and already operating five campuses, DC Prep is considered among the highest performing charter networks in the city. It was no surprise when the Charter Board’s staff recommended that the board vote in favor of the school’s proposals.

Yet around three hours into the meeting, when it finally came time to vote, board members started asking DC Prep leaders surprisingly tough questions. Board chairman Darren Woodruff noted that at DC Prep’s elementary campus in Anacostia, the out-of-school suspension rate stood at 6.9 percent, nearly double the charter sector’s average. And DC Prep’s Edgewood middle school campus, he said, had an out-of-school suspension rate of 27.9 percent, up from 18 percent the year before. For special education students, the suspension rate was dramatically higher—45 percent.

Woodruff was particularly troubled by the kindergarten suspensions. “I am struggling mightily to understand the logic behind suspending out-of-school 5-year-olds,” said Woodruff. “… I have been in education now for over 30 years and I can’t come up with an explanation that makes sense. I would love to hear anyone from your organization justify a 40 percent suspension rate for 5-year-olds who have disabilities. That’s the reason I will not vote for the expansion.”

Three other board members joined Woodruff in voting 4-3 against DC Prep’s expansion requests.

The votes were a huge shock—to charter supporters and critics alike. Critics were impressed the board turned down a well-regarded and well-connected network. Supporters were frustrated with the board for voting based on criteria not laid out in its own Charter Amendment Guidelines, the document governing how approvals would work.

Two months later, at their June monthly meeting, the PCSB board members abruptly reversed their decisions in re-votes as startling as the first. PCSB had given no notice that it would be revisiting DC Prep’s requests for expansion. A board member introduced it as a last-minute agenda amendment at the start of the meeting.

Seven weeks later, D.C.’s Office of Open Government issued a binding opinion that the PCSB had failed to properly notify the public, a violation of the Open Meetings Act and the School Reform Act. The Office lacked the authority to compel a re-vote, but recommended the PCSB avoid similar actions in the future.

Following this, a coalition of parents and advocates asked the PCSB to void its June vote, schedule a new meeting, and allow for community input. The PCSB stood its ground, saying it “respectfully disagrees” with the Office of Open Government’s conclusions, though it would voluntarily comply with their recommendations going forward.

What spurred the DC Prep vote reversals?

That question, and the fact that it’s proven hard to answer, embodies some of the thorniest public education issues in D.C. The city’s charter sector earns admiration from education reformers across the country, and the PCSB’s work is routinely held up as one of the most rigorous authorizing models in the nation. Autonomy in exchange for academic results has long been considered the grand bargain of the charter movement.

Locally, though, D.C. charters remain controversial. Some residents say the schools operate too much like a black box, and demand greater oversight over the sector—which receives nearly $800 million of taxpayer money per year. Questions have been mounting about the endgame for D.C. charter schools—which educate almost half of the city’s students. How quickly and far will they expand, and who gets to decide?

***

Charter schools are private entities authorized to provide public education, free of many rules and regulations that apply to traditional public schools. In D.C. all charters are nonprofits, though they can hire for-profit companies to run their schools.

The District’s Public Charter School Board hasn’t always been the city’s sole charter authorizer. When Congress amended the School Reform Act in 1996, it established the PCSB as an independent agency of the D.C. government, tasking it with opening and overseeing charter schools. But the D.C. Council also gave the now-defunct D.C. school board the same responsibilities, and for the next decade, the two entities together approved at least 55 charters throughout the capital. In 2006, however, the school board ceased authorizing charters, and the next year was eliminated altogether by the city’s Public Education Reform Amendment Act. This left the PCSB as the only authorizing body.

Today 46 percent of public school students in D.C. attend 120 charter schools operated by 66 nonprofit corporations, each of which constitutes its own separate school district. (Roughly 5,000 of those students are adult learners, a population DCPS barely educates.)

The PCSB is not exactly an intuitively structured entity. It has a seven-person board appointed by the D.C. mayor and approved by the Council. It also employs about 40 staff members, including an executive director—Scott Pearson—who reports to the board.

The PCSB’s role in the larger D.C. educational ecosystem is also not quite straightforward. Lines of responsibility within that ecosystem are often unclear, with multiple bodies orbiting each other, influencing each other, and sometimes colliding.

For instance, although the city’s Deputy Mayor of Education, Jennifer Niles, is tasked with overseeing public education across the city, the PCSB does not report directly to her. “I have a ‘dotted line’ relationship with the Deputy Mayor of Education,” explains Pearson, “which means I meet with her usually every week or two and we try to coordinate on things, but she can’t tell me what to do.”

The Council also distributes funds to charters and subjects the PCSB to oversight, though critics contend not enough of that has been exercised over the years. “Nobody really likes to rock the boat that much,” as one federal education researcher put it.

In 2015, the National Research Council produced an independent evaluation of D.C.’s school reforms. “Although D.C. has been called a ‘pioneer’ in its adoption of charter schools, how to coordinate them with [DC Public Schools] for the benefit of the city’s students is not evident,” the report concluded. The National Research Council found that lines of supervision and authority were not clearly demarcated among the city’s education agencies, and that the charter sector’s decentralized structure created unique challenges for accountability.

And since D.C.’s charter law was passed by Congress, even the Council’s authority over charters gets contested. In 2014, two charters and the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools sued the city, arguing that the Council was making budgetary decisions that violated the federal School Reform Act. A judge ruled against the charter plaintiffs this past October, but declined to weigh in on the Council’s overall authority. The plaintiffs are now appealing the decision.

***

A perennial question for D.C’s charter sector is how to sufficiently live up to their name—public charter schools—while also remaining independent and free from the kinds of regulation and red tape that other government agencies deal with on a regular basis. Many charter leaders say that their ability to bypass the political battles that afflict DCPS and the Council is what allows them to create innovative schools and prioritize the needs of students. Other education advocates look at the charter sector’s hefty budget—which grows larger every year—and ask whether all this autonomy really makes sense.

“I don’t have anything against charter schools, and I think mostly everybody working for charters has good intentions, but what D.C. shows, unambiguously, is that no matter how well-intentioned you are—that’s not adequate for the public’s purposes,” says Valerie Jablow, a DCPS parent.

The 21st Century School Fund, a small civic nonprofit that has long been part of the DCPS watchdog community, recognized that no organization was really taking on similar oversight duties for charters—monitoring things like whether public dollars are being spent directly on students, or if funds are being distributed equitably within and across schools.

“We’ve known for a long time that monitoring the charter sector was an issue, and I think we had some naiveté that maybe the charter advocacy groups were doing the work, but they weren’t,” says Mary Filardo, the group’s executive director.

Many interest groups across D.C organize on behalf of charters, including the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools, Friends of Choice in Urban Schools (FOCUS), Education Forward DC, Building Hope, and others. But these advocacy organizations are not considered impartial overseers for the public interest, and most—if not all—would consider monitoring charters’ financial decisions an inappropriate infringement of the schools’ autonomy.

This oversight problem was highlighted in 2013, when D.C.’s attorney general Irvin Nathan sued three former Options Public Charter School leaders for laundering over $3 million into two for-profit companies they owned. Nathan filed a second suit several months later against the founder of Community Academy Public Charter for allegedly diverting more than $13 million into a shell management company. But both schools had passed the PCSB’s financial inspection, with the charter board concluding that Options and Community Academy had demonstrated “no patterns of fiscal mismanagement.”

The Options lawsuit settled this past September, with its accused leaders agreeing to pay $575,000 to the charter (which is now under new leadership).

The financial scandals caused an uproar. But some in the charter sector felt giving PCSB more oversight authority over charter school budget books was a bureaucratic slippery slope. “Allowing the legal process to take care of malfeasance is the proper way to go, as opposed to the charter board imposing more regulation,” Kara Kerwin, president of the Center for Education Reform, told The Washington Post in 2014.

Scott Pearson says the PCSB has since taken steps to tighten its financial monitoring—for instance, the charter board can now look at the books or records of any school. “So we had a school that was effectively shielding oversight from us by taking the money and paying a management company and we couldn’t follow those dollars, but that issue doesn’t exist anymore,” he says. “It was a loophole and it’s resolved.”

***

Not everyone is convinced. Unlike like traditional public schools, charters are not subjected to the Freedom of Information Act. Citizens can use FOIA to get information on the public charter board, but not any of the city’s individual charter schools. (Charters in other states—like New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut—are subject to FOIA.)

“There is no nonprofit in the District of Columbia that receives as much taxpayer money as the charter school sector,” says Martin Welles, an attorney and DCPS parent. “Yet the taxpayer has no meaningful input because the processes are not transparent, and the private charter schools are not accountable to the public.” While the charter sector makes some data publicly available, Welles says “the whole crux of FOIA is to allow individuals to craft their own questions that they want answered.” And because charters are not legally obligated to respond to FOIA requests they receive, Welles argues it has “a chilling effect on inquiries.”

David Grosso, chair of the Council education committee, thinks getting data on schools is “a constant battle,” though one that’s not exclusive to the charter sector. “We are always trying to find ways to get more data out there and make it more transparent,” Grosso says. “But charters and DCPS have competing responsibilities and try to protect data that is sensitive for students, and parents, and schools.”

Arguments against opening charters’ books and internal communications to further public scrutiny involve protecting the sector’s independence. “I’m a political libertarian and I want these charters to be absolutely free, as much as possible, to operate the way they see fit,” says Mark Lerner, a longtime D.C. school choice advocate.

Scott Pearson thinks that because the PCSB is subject to FOIA, D.C. has struck the right balance between public accountability and protecting charter autonomy. “What I’ve argued is that because we’re a strong authorizer and scrutinize the charters’ work so carefully—we read all their [meeting] minutes, we actually attend some of their meetings, and we have the right to look over any book or record—that provides the right balance, while also allowing the school boards to operate in a way that allows them to be most effective,” he says.

Pearson used to be on a charter school board in California, where they were subject to the state’s open meetings law. “It was very difficult to talk about confidential matters and to get people who were willing to join the board,” he says, adding that some charter boards then held (illegal) off-the-record meetings.

In D.C. the charter board has access to anything it wants, and though the public can file FOIA requests with the PCSB, the PCSB cannot provide information on charters that it has not already collected. For example, if I want to read emails sent between specific charter school leaders, I can only obtain those records in the (extremely unlikely) event that the PCSB has already obtained them for itself; I could not expect the PCSB to seek them out for me.

Charter advocates are leery of the PCSB collecting too much information, bogging schools down with administrative mandates and bureaucracy.

“The public charter board is the regulator, and all regulators—almost if by nature—will try and put more and more rules in place,” says Lerner, the self-proclaimed libertarian. “But the charter board actually has very little power [given] the way the School Reform Act was written, and these schools are supposed to be independent.”

Irene Holtzman, the executive director of FOCUS, says she spent years working in D.C. school administration, focused on data, compliance, and operations. “My heart is in data, accountability, and research, but satisfying my curiosity is not sufficient to saddle schools with more data collection,” she says. “I think there is a demand for more and more information, but I’m not entirely sure that people have considered the significant opportunity cost of getting that information.”

Holtzman argues that there’s an immense amount of “underutilized” information out there already that she’d like to see people take advantage of before asking charters to produce even more. School leaders, she emphasized, should stay focused on running their schools.

***

Concerns over financial transparency are not restricted to the charters themselves. The PCSB itself has at times come under suspicion. (Not without cause: the former chief financial officer of the PCSB allegedly aided the Options Charter self-dealing scam, settling those claims for $84,000.)

The money flowing into and out of the PCSB is both substantial in quantity and not closely monitored. The PCSB has the authority to accept unlimited gifts, grants, and contributions from anyone without obtaining mayoral approval, and has accepted nearly $10 million since 2003, including from the Walton Family Foundation, the Dell Foundation, and the DC Chamber of Commerce. PCSB spokesperson Tomeika Bowden says philanthropic support helped the charter sector develop things like evaluative tools and management frameworks. Between 2003-12, outside gifts made up 20 percent of the PCSB’s budget, yet between 2013-2017, under Pearson’s leadership, that number has dropped to 8 percent.

Though it’s not just outside contributions that raise questions. In 2008 The Washington Post  found “conflicts of interest involving almost $200 million worth of business deals, typically real estate transactions, at more than a third of the District’s 60 charter schools.”  The Post also reported that the then-PCSB board chair, Thomas Nida, who was also a United Bank senior vice president, “voted repeatedly to increase student enrollment—and thus taxpayer funding—for charter schools that borrow money from his bank.” Nida was first appointed to the PCSB in 2003, elected chairman in 2004, and served in that role—even after the Post investigation—until February 2010.

The city is statutorily required to provide all students with “by-right” public schools, meaning schools children are entitled to attend. No charter in the city is a by-right school. Some civic watchdogs look at the evolving charter/DCPS landscape and ask: If more charters open, at some point won’t it become impossible to provide by-right public schools for all?

Deputy Mayor of Education Jennifer Niles doesn’t think so, and insists that D.C. will always have DCPS and by-right schools. “We’re not going to charter-ize the whole system and we’re not going to make charters go away,” she tells City Paper.

Yet long-term facilities planning has proven a consistent problem.

Tensions escalated in 2014 when Harmony School of Excellence, a new science-themed charter, announced it would be opening across the street from Langley Elementary, a DCPS science-themed school—both educating the same grades.

DCPS’ then-chancellor, Kaya Henderson, had no idea this plan was in the works. In an interview later with The Washington Post, Henderson said the Harmony-Langley situation was a clear example of why there needs to be more strategic planning across the two education sectors, including more efficient uses of taxpayer resources. “Either we want neighborhood schools or we want cannibalism, but you can’t have both,” she said.

Henderson proposed a system where DCPS and charter school officials work together to figure out which neighborhoods needed new, good schools, and which could benefit from more specialized programs. The charter board could then use that information when determining which new charters to approve. “A citywide conversation about how many schools do we need, and how do we get to the right number of schools, as opposed to continuing to allow as many schools to proliferate as possible, is probably a necessary conversation to have at some point,” Henderson said at the time.

But three and a half years later, that conversation still does not exist. “PCSB staff believe that proximity to another school is not a valid reason for denying a charter the right to open, and that proximity may even benefit the DCPS school,” reported the National Research Council in 2015. Scott Pearson has said that, “protecting a traditional school is no reason to keep a great charter school from opening its doors.” Plus, Pearson says, it’s hard enough as it is to lock down facility space in Washington, and if the city really wanted to help influence charter site-planning, then it should work harder to give charter operators some of the city’s surplus school buildings that sit vacant.

“We believe in collaboration [with DCPS], but collaboration is not about land-use,” says Ramona Edelin, the executive director of the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools.

The D.C. Code requires that the mayor submit a “Facilities Master Plan” to the Council every 10 years—a guide for managing the city’s school facilities and supply of public school seats. The plan must include, among other things, the capacity of existing schools, projected facility needs for each local education agency, and recommendations for using or reducing excess space.

Public school advocates say that any fiscally responsible plan must include all the school facilities the city uses and pays for, including charters. But the charter-sector has pushed back, saying they are not legally required to produce long-term growth plans, let alone share them with city planners.

To navigate this conundrum, Niles established a two-year “Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force” to explore policy issues between DCPS and charters. The task force is set to end in February 2018, and the Facilities Master Plan will be released sometime after that.

“The cross-sector task force is kind of a weak attempt to get voluntary cooperation by charter schools,” remarks Mary Levy, a veteran independent budget analyst for D.C. schools.

The resistance toward coordinated planning has fueled questions about whether it’s appropriate to expand charters—at significant cost to the city—while traditional schools still have capacity. According to data compiled by the 21st Century School Fund, D.C. has about 18,000 unused pre-kindergarten through 12th grade seats available, and another 7,000 if one counts the seats in closed schools still owned by the District.

But charter leaders think these figures exaggerate the real picture, and say that unless and until all public school seats in the city are “high-quality” seats, they should not stop opening new charters. “I am acutely aware that we do not have enough great schools, and our highest-performing schools almost always have waitlists,” says Pearson. “That’s the moral urgency I feel.”

Don Soifer, vice chair of the PCSB, echoes this idea. “With 13,000 students on charter waitlists and when one-in-three 14 year olds in the District still test at below-basic levels in math,” he asked City Paper, “can we afford to let the urgency of creating more high-quality educational opportunities for children be compromised for reason of simplifying the planning process for adults?”

Is this a subtle call for an all-charter city?

Pearson says he has no interest in getting rid of traditional public schools. In an interview with City Paper he said that given the charter board’s rigorous authorizing standards, and DCPS’ own improvement, he doesn’t expect the charter sector will even hit 50 percent market share for another decade. “I think we’re holding that rough balance, and by my forecast we will have a rough balance for as far as the eye can see,” he says.

But Mark Lerner disputes the idea that the city has struck the right balance between the two sectors, and would prefer D.C. to look more like New Orleans, which has nearly all charters. “I want to see the traditional school system disappear,” he says, adding that talk of a charter “collaboration” with DCPS strikes him as a euphemism for “cooptation.”

And others see further charterization as likely or inevitable. Levy, the independent budget analyst, estimates that DCPS loses almost one percent of market share every single year to the charter sector, as the District’s enrollment increases have not been nearly as fast as the city’s school-age population. Filardo of the 21st Century School Fund says that if DCPS sticks to its proposed five-year strategic plan, which calls to enroll 54,000 students in traditional public schools by 2022, it may soon be unable to provide neighborhood schools in all communities. Public school advocates say that given the city’s population growth projections, DCPS should aim to enroll 65,000 students by 2022 instead. According to Filardo, “DCPS is actively avoiding planning for increased growth, while the charter sector is aggressively planning for new school openings and expanding enrollment caps.”

Critics like Jablow say the charter sector has gone too far in demonizing democratic input in the name of maintaining independence. “A democratic public education for all has become the enemy,” she says.

In May, Jablow testified before the Council laying out a series of recommendations she’d like to see the charter sector adopt, including overhauling the charter board website so it’s easier for the public to study all schools, allowing more time for public comment, and holding more than one meeting per month, and not only in the evenings. “The charter board needs to be responsible for the public in ways it is not right now, as it is the only place where the public can go with concerns that exist in a larger sphere or if a school is unresponsive,” she argued.

As the city continues to craft and shape its growth plans for public education and school buildings, how and whether people will be able to weigh in on these questions remains to be seen.

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