Originally published in Washington City Paper on October 10, 2018.
This week D.C. will hold its third and final round of public meetings for a little-known planning process that could reshape the city’s balance between neighborhood schools and charters.
For the past 16 months, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office has been developing a blueprint for the future of the city’s schools, known as a “Master Facilities Plan.” By law, this comprehensive report will provide city leaders with an overview of the state of school buildings across the District. The goal is to analyze population projections and school building data so that policymakers can plan for the next decade of D.C. public education. How should resources be directed? What schools need to be built? Where?
The stakes are high. Though D.C. has one of the largest charter school sectors in the country—educating nearly half of all city students—most families assume they could still send their child to their local neighborhood school, a District of Columbia Public School, if they wanted. A 2014 advisory committee on student assignment led by the deputy mayor for education found strong public support for maintaining schools that students living within a certain distance are entitled to attend.
But since 2008, the number of charters in the city has increased from 93 to 120, while the number of neighborhood schools has declined from 134 to 114. Only four new DCPS schools have opened in the city during this period, compared with 27 charters. Many advocates say there needs to be more coordination between the two school sectors if D.C. wants to ensure that all families have access to a neighborhood public school in the future.
Expected demographic shifts add another layer of complexity. The D.C. Auditor projectsschool enrollment to grow by 12,000 to 17,000 students in the next 10 years, with the bulk of that growth occurring in the middle and upper grades. A separate analysis produced by the D.C. Policy Center puts those estimates even higher, predicting just over 21,000 new students by 2026.
The city historically hasn’t been great at planning for school facilities—inequitably distributing capital dollars, haphazardly drawing school boundary lines, and failing to ensure that taxpayers get the best bang for their buck. The D.C. Auditor’s office examined school modernizations between 2010 and 2013 and found that the city lacked “basic financial management” over its $1.2 billion in spending, allowing large cost-overruns and misallocated funds. “District resources are finite,” said Auditor Kathy Patterson at the time. “We owe it to taxpayers to see that modernization funds are spent well and prudently, to assure our ability to complete the task of upgrading all of our schools.” The 21st Century School Fund, a local nonprofit that advocates for high-quality school buildings, estimates D.C. will need to budget at least $400 million annually to maintain its DCPS and charter schools in good repair.
While more than $4 billion has already been spent on local school upgrades since 2000, schools with high rates of students in poverty have historically gotten the short end of the stick. Some schools that clamored for renovations received practically no money for capital improvements, while others successfully lobbied for multiple rounds of investment.
D.C.’s leaders have taken a weaving path to this moment. School facility planning has been a long-standing issue, but has grown especially charged since 2015, when, aware of mounting issues, city leadership finally resolved to act. At an oversight hearing before the Council, then-DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson advocated for revamping the school modernization process. “My very honest assessment is that the whole [capital improvement] process is jacked up,” she said, calling it too political and expensive, and proposed a new, transparent system for addressing school facilities. Henderson envisioned distributing public dollars based on “logical” criteria, not “how loudly your community screams.”
In a process spearheaded by At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, who took over in 2015 as chairman of the Education Committee, the Council held hearings and drafted new legislation—the Planning Actively for Comprehensive Education (PACE) Facilities Act—to bring order, equity, and transparency to the school planning process. Bowser signed it into law at the end of 2016.
Yet in the nearly two years since the PACE Act’s passage, a number of glaring obstacles to comprehensive school facility planning have emerged. The mayor’s office has blown many months of deadlines and worked actively to conceal information about charter facility conditions and costs. Elected officials, reluctant to confront tough politics, have worked to reinterpret or simply ignore the intent of the law that they themselves authorized.
Compounding these issues is the fact that charter schools are not required to share their long-term growth plans with the public. Residents say they worry that when all is said and done, the city will not really be in a place so different from where it was before—thinking through complex issues with incomplete data, having no expectation that DCPS and charter-sector leaders work together, and not even requiring that the data collected be used to guide school planning decisions.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to determine how many schools are needed to educate the District’s 91,000 public school students, and where new schools must go to accommodate student growth in the years ahead. Publicly, at least, city officials agree that they’d like to maintain D.C.’s balance of a choice-based charter system and traditional public schools that students can attend by-right. Even Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, has said he wouldn’t want to see D.C. go all-charter. “The current model, with two public school systems pushing each other to be better and cooperating whenever possible, is proving to be the right mix for the District’s schoolchildren,” he wrote in a 2015 Washington Post opinion piece.
But maintaining this rough balance could require new limits on the charter sector’s autonomy, something charter leaders and the mayor’s office are loath to discuss. “It takes real planning,” says Danica Petroshius, the co-vice president of the Capitol Hill Public Schools Parent Organization. “Which means making decisions and sharing oversight over the two sectors because they are for one system of students.”
The Public Charter School Board currently has complete authority to open and close charters across the city, and typically approves new schools to open before charters have determined where they’ll in fact be located. Pointing to the long waitlists for some of the city’s top-performing charters, leaders say they feel a moral urgency to grow new high-quality schools as fast as they can. “I’m not interested in joint planning as a cover to put some sort of moratorium on charters,” Pearson once told The Post.
The passage of the PACE Act, though, was considered one of the clearest signs that leaders were finally open to making comprehensive, cross-sector decisions about school facilities in D.C.
The 2013 Master Facilities Plan, which included a limited amount of charter school data, articulated the problems D.C. faces when it comes to school planning. “At present, there is little coordination of school facility needs with expenditures across all public schools, for both DCPS and charters” the 2013 report acknowledged. Charter schools were “growing haphazardly” as schools “open wherever they can find space that is both affordable and sufficient for their needs, and many remain in substandard facilities.” DCPS and charter facility data were “inconsistent, inaccessible or both,” and the lack of a comprehensive fact base made it “nearly impossible to make strategic facility investments” and “perpetuates the conflict between DCPS and charter[s].”
Three years later, by 2016, the Council’s Education Committee reported that little had changed. The PACE Act, the Council made clear, would be its attempt to finally take action. The act directed D.C.’s education agencies and the Department of General Services to “conduct an annual survey to update information on the condition of each DCPS and public charter school facility.” The survey results “shall be disaggregated by facility, [and] made publicly available.”
The Council recognized that some charters might be resistant to increased data collection, so the PACE Act also authorized the mayor’s office to fine the Public Charter School Board up to $10,000 annually if charters failed to cooperate.
Several key drafters of the PACE Act tell City Paper there was no ambiguity at the time as to whether the legislation was intended to fill the well documented gaps in school facility data collection. The Council also felt it needed to more clearly understand charter facility conditions, as they’re nearly entirely funded by taxpayers. Unlike DCPS schools, which receive facility funding from the city’s capital budget, charter schools receive a “facilities allowance” for every student they educate, taken from the city’s operating budget. Today that allowance stands at $3,193 per pupil. However, charters are not actually required to spend their facility allowances on their school facilities, nor must they publicly document the conditions of their buildings.
Jump ahead to the summer of last year, though, and signs started to emerge that the process was breaking down.
In July 2017, then-Deputy Mayor for Education Jennifer Niles sent a memo to all local education agencies informing them of the upcoming Master Facilities Plan. While Niles emphasized that participation would make the process more successful, her letter suggested that participation for charter schools housed in “non-District owned facilities” would be voluntary, and that if they do participate, their facility assessments “will not be shared directly with” the mayor or the charter board. In other words, the charters located in 70 privately owned buildings across D.C. would not have to share their facility assessments with policymakers.
Mary Filardo, head of the 21st Century School Fund, sent the mayor a letter in August 2017 raising concerns with Niles’ memo. “Without full disclosure and complete data on the facility condition, design, capacity and growth plans for charter, as well as DCPS schools, it is not possible to efficiently plan for projected child population growth, equitably allocate its public education operating and capital budgets, exercise appropriate oversight of the District’s budget … or engage communities in authentic neighborhood level planning,” Filardo wrote. She also noted that parents would not be able to make fully informed school choices if they lacked information about the safety and condition of each school.
When Niles sent a vague letter back on behalf of the mayor a month later, she didn’t respond to Filardo’s concerns directly. Instead she said that it’s her priority that charters are included in the Master Facilities Plan, and that her team was confident this would happen. “I appreciate that we both feel strongly about the need for comprehensive facility information and planning, and I look forward to further dialogue and feedback,” Niles wrote.
That same month, a group of D.C. education stakeholders convened to discuss implementation of the PACE Act, and why it appeared the mayor’s office seemed to be diverging away from its legislative intent. “It seems incomprehensible that the city would require 10 years of planning for public school buildings involving billions of dollars to be done in the dark,” said Filardo at the time.
Meanwhile, the mayor started missing PACE Act deadlines. The first was Sept. 30, 2017—when the mayor’s office was supposed to have assessed each DCPS school according to criteria that could allow for the objective prioritization of capital funds. That date was set so parents and community members would have ample time to weigh in before the mayor’s budget was finalized.
The next missed deadline was in December 2017, when the mayor’s office was supposed to submit its final Master Facilities Plan. The office first requested an extension for March 2018, but at an oversight hearing in mid- February the public learned the mayor wanted to push the report back even further. “You will have the report next August, August 2018,” said Niles. She said the delay was due to it taking longer than expected to fundraise for charter facility assessments in privately owned buildings.
The plan still hasn’t been released, and the mayor’s office now promises it sometime before the end of 2018—a year late.
At that same February hearing, Grosso, the chair of the Education Committee, said he worried the mayor’s office was delaying the completion of the Master Facilities Plan to bypass public scrutiny on its next budget. Niles denied this, but resigned three days later, after news broke that she assisted DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson in gaming the school lottery.
Two months later, at an April budget oversight hearing, Grosso grilled Niles’ replacement, interim Deputy Mayor for Education Ahnna Smith, on why so many components of the PACE Act were still not being followed, including the requirement to produce a detailed analysis of the modernization needs of each school, along with timelines for new construction, and cost assessments. Grosso said it appeared the mayor was just picking and choosing which items she felt like complying with. Smith said she didn’t have an answer to give him, but would confer later with DCPS and the Department of General Services to find out.
“I’d be more understanding if we didn’t go through a two-year public process writing this law, if the mayor didn’t actually sign it, and support it,” Grosso said at the hearing. “I think it’s disrespectful to the democratic process.”
Internal documents show the city working closely with charter-supportive organizations to keep charter facility data hidden—even from the city itself.
The Master Facilities Plan is built on what are known as “Facility Condition Assessments,” or FCAs. These are detailed evaluations of the capital needs of each school building, conducted by an outside civil engineering firm. These comprehensive school-level reports can easily exceed 200 pages each, and are aimed at determining maintenance requirements and costs for all parts of the building, exterior and interior, over a decade. The mayor’s office budgeted to fund FCAs in all DCPS schools and charters in publicly owned buildings, but at some point the mayor’s office began working with the Walton Family Foundation to fund optional FCAs for charters leasing from privately owned buildings.
Emails produced in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the D.C. Open Government Coalition, and shared with City Paper, show the topic emerging as early as July 2017, though it’s not clear when or how these discussions began.
The emails show the mayor’s office working hand-in-glove with Education Forward DC (an education reform grant-making organization), Ampersand Education (a consulting firm) and the Walton Family Foundation to figure out how to fund the FCAs. They landed on creating a new layer of bureaucracy to separate the data from the public: The Walton Family Foundation would fund Education Forward DC to contract the facility assessments, and Ampersand consultants would act as liaisons between the charters, Education Forward DC, and the contractor.
Most unusual was that the mayor’s office itself was pushing to ensure that the results of the facility conditions assessments would stay permanently out of public view. The Walton Family Foundation and Ed Forward DC confirmed to City Paper that the stipulation to keep the charter FCAs private did not come from them.
FOIA’d emails show that Alex Cross, the facilities officer for the deputy mayor for education, drafted a $750,000 grant application to the Walton Family Foundation to fund these facility assessments. But rather than submitting that application directly himself, he arranged for Education Forward DC to submit it under their name. A February 2018 email from Cross emphasized to an Ampersand Education consultant that when she begins her work on this project, she or Education Forward DC should specifically communicate to charters that the collected facilities data “will not be shared with DME, PCSB, or publicly.”
A document distributed directly to the charter schools reiterated that “none of the school-level data will be shared with the DME, PCSB, OSSE, or any other government agency or made public in any way.” (OSSE is the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.) The document, which City Paper reviewed, clarified that the Walton Family Foundation, Education Forward DC, Ampersand Education, the engineering firm, and the individual charters would retain access to the facility information.
City Paper asked the Deputy Mayor for Education’s office why it did not submit the grant to the Walton Family Foundation itself, as it was Cross—a city employee—who drafted much of it. City Paper also asked if prior to Education Forward DC submitting the grant, the mayor’s office otherwise attempted to secure funding to contract the assessments themselves.
The deputy mayor’s office did not directly answer these questions. “The Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education and this administration have worked hard to reach unprecedented levels of transparency and accountability throughout the 2018 Master Facilities Plan process,” said then-Deputy Mayor for Education Ahnna Smith in an emailed response. “For the first time in the District’s history, the Master Facilities Plan will be informed by facility information on both DCPS and DC public charter schools, as a result of work by this administration.”
Maura Marino, the CEO of Education Forward DC, the group that received the Walton grant, told City Paper that this arrangement may have been decided on to help maximize participation from charter schools that otherwise might resist facility inspections. She said that some charters in privately owned facilities could have landlords who oppose the idea of contractors coming in to assess their buildings. This way, if contractors did come in, the assessments would only be shared as part of an aggregated, anonymized summary. Marino also noted that complications can sometimes arise when private groups donate directly to government, and that foundations often prefer to avoid those risks by channeling funds through nonprofit intermediaries.
“I think we all have an interest in the Master Facilities Plan being as inclusive as possible,” said Marino. “In general our goal should be more information and the best information.”
Nevertheless, unlike DCPS schools and charters in publicly owned buildings, charters in privately owned facilities will not be submitting detailed building assessments for the Master Facilities Plan. City Paper has learned that of the 70 non-District owned facilities that house charter schools, 49 have opted for facility conditions assessments, though the public is barred from knowing which buildings those are, and which charter schools lease from them.
As an alternative to FCAs, charters were invited to fill out brief surveys with seven questions related to their anticipated facility needs over the next decade, and a separate 17-question survey on facility conditions. (The Public Charter School Board drafted the survey, with feedback from the mayor’s office and the Department of General Services, according to PCSB spokesperson Tomeika Bowden.)
The questions were general. One question asks: “Does your facility have known potential asbestos hazards?” and the answer choices are “Yes” or “No”—with the option to include additional comments. Another question invites respondents to briefly describe “the most likely renovations you would undertake” in the next 10 years.
In addition to data disparities, charter schools do not have to share their long-term growth plans with the public, despite the impact charter enrollment has on DCPS enrollment. Many parents have been asking how strategic planning can really work without this type of information.
City Paper asked the Public Charter School Board how it envisions using the results of the Master Facilities Plan in its charter approval process and was told, “we’re in the process of determining that.” The charter sector is not required to use the MFP data to guide the opening, closing, and siting of its schools.
City Paper went back to David Grosso to ask how the city could comprehensively plan for the future if school-level data for dozens of charters are not shared with the government and public.
In a statement that seems to contradict the language of his own committee’s 2016 report, Grosso said the PACE Act does not require the FCAs be made public, though he “believes it is the best interest of the families and schools to share information on the state of facilities so that everyone can make fully informed decisions.” He said it would be “up to the Deputy Mayor for Education” to incentivize charter schools to participate in the MFP.
And then, in what appears an even further walk-back from the Council’s 2016 position, Grosso said, “in the end, the PACE Act was designed to provide government with a useful tool to plan for the modernization and improvement of facilities in which it can invest capital dollars.” Because charter school facility allowances come out of operating budgets, not capital budgets, Grosso’s statement implied that knowing the conditions of charter schools is less essential.
Somewhere along the way, the mayor’s office and the Council quietly decided that the PACE Act, passed to improve citywide planning and data collection, would now have significant caveats, carve-outs, and exceptions.
“Things are much more complicated than people are honest about,” says Eboni-Rose Thompson, the chair of the Ward 7 Education Council, who attended both the April and August MFP public engagement sessions. “We have students living in areas that literally couldn’t fit into their neighborhood schools if they wanted to go.”
“There’s a huge flaw if DCPS is trying to do long-term planning around population and enrollment targets, but not in conjunction with the charter sector which affects DCPS enrollment,” says Petroshius, of Capitol Hill Public Schools Parent Organization. “If charter growth is essentially unlimited then the Master Facilities Plan is essentially meaningless.”
These cross-sector issues have been debated for at least the past five years. In 2013, D.C. resident Virginia Spatz was quoted in The Washington Post as saying, “Maybe we need an entire school system full of charters. But we need to have that after public conversation, not by accident.”
Valerie Jablow, a DCPS parent who writes about school issues on her blog education dc, says she worries that a future where all students are entitled to attend public schools near their home is falling further down the priority list for D.C. leadership.
“Without a commitment to a by-right system of municipally-run schools in every neighborhood as a foundational principle of public education planning and governance,” said Jablow, “leaders will never be able to ensure that the right to education in D.C. is guaranteed and secured equitably for all everywhere.”