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Valerie Jablow Testimony – Education Committee Hearing on Public Charter School Board Budget – May 4, 2017

 

I am Valerie Jablow, a DCPS parent. I am testifying about the poor public engagement, civic planning, and fiscal responsibility of the charter board. Here, I will outline these problems—with specific solutions in footnote 5 of my testimony you have been handed.

–Applicants for charter schools are required to demonstrate a need that only they themselves determine. There is no disinterested analysis, so that “need” is defined only by charter operator desire–not public interest or desire. This has resulted in duplicative programs locating near, or marketing themselves to, existing schools. And, because our student population has not grown commensurately with growth in school seats (we now have more than 10,000 unfilled seats), existing schools including mine lose enrollment through no fault of their own.[i]

–The charter board website is the main source of publicly available information about our charter schools, but for any given school, there can be five or more different places to get information, none of which is obvious—and not all information is available, especially that from before 2011.[ii]

–Moreover, there is no listing of all notices of concern. Unless you read the agenda of every board meeting, you will not necessarily know what schools have been flagged for what concerns—nor why.

–Public comments are also not posted on the website in their entirety nor in a timely manner. In March, I and others sent in written testimony for both KIPP DC and DC Prep’s most recent applications. None of it has appeared on the charter board website, even though both applications were discussed by the board, and DC Prep’s voted on, at the April board meeting.[iii]

–In the last year alone, three properties in wards 7 and 8 were purchased by or on behalf of three charter organizations—KIPP DC, Rocketship, and DC Prep—to create new campuses. For all, the planning, the purchase (about $8 million total), and the permits were well underway or completed before the charter board or anyone in those neighborhoods saw any application for those schools–much less was asked for input.[iv] This lack of notice is particularly dire now that the charter board notification period for ANCs is down to 30 days from 45.

What all this means is that under current governance,[v] new charter schools are driven not by public demand, but by private desire.

Let me repeat: there is no public demand.

When students can be on 12 wait lists as they are in our lottery, wait lists are not demand. When less than a quarter of all our students participate in the lottery, as they did again this year, wait lists are not demand.[vi] And when real estate is purchased to build a school without neighbors having any clue, much less agreement or desire, that is not public demand.

 

This week and last, hundreds of people, including DC children and parents like me, testified before you about how our public schools right now are going without and need more funding for everything from staff to facilities.

That is public demand.

 

So I have to ask: whose budgets are being cut to create new charter schools every year without public demand, while our existing schools go without?

I can only hope that you, too, will ask that question going forward. Thank you.

[i] Many DCPS elementaries have decimated 5th grades as a result of charter school marketing themselves to their families and the misalignment of middle school grades between DCPS and charter middle schools. This is NOT anecdotal and has severe budget ramifications. See here:

Where Have All the 4th Graders Gone?

 

Duplicative programming was highlighted in the recent application of DC Prep to relocate its current elementary school to a new campus close by DCPS’s Ketcham Elementary. (Available here: http://www.dcpcsb.org/sites/default/files/report/Charter%20Amendment%20Application%20%28Location%20and%20Replication%29–DC%20Prep%20Jan%202017.pdf)

 

On p. 13 of DC Prep’s application, it mentioned that Ketcham serves a similar population and has higher than average PARCC scores. So why start another elementary there if the one currently there is serving students well? Because this application was not about demand, but about real estate: DC Prep’s applied for that new school location on January 13, 2017. But DC Prep had purchased that site—a former Catholic school closed in 2007–in April 2016. By fall 2016, the building was undergoing extensive renovations.

 

Now, a year after that $2 million purchase, with untold thousands in renovation costs, the public component of that school is addressed. How is it possible to believe it would not get approved by the charter board? (The charter board did vote to approve it.)

 

[ii] There are more than 10 websites embedded in the link called “Information and Evaluations,” at the top of the charter board home page (the home page is http://www.dcpcsb.org; the “Information and Evaluations” page is available here: http://www.dcpcsb.org/evaluating-the-schools). Charter applications, however, are at a separate link within the drop down menu when you swipe by “Information and Evaluations” on the home page (http://www.dcpcsb.org/report/charter-applications-archive).

 

 

These web pages contain a lot of critical information—but there is no place to access all of this information for each school in one place. Moreover, to find actual charter agreements, you have to go to yet another web link: first, click on the link at the top of the charter board home page called “For School Leaders.” Then scroll down to “Charter Agreements and Amendments.” Then search for the school you are seeking.

 

Even then, only the latest agreement is available–sometimes subsumed in 5-, 10-, or 15-year reviews. I also discovered that in at least one case (Washington Latin), what is available for its review (the 10-year charter review, from 2015-16) appears to be only an appendix, which consists of the school’s annual report for school year 2013-14 –not the charter board’s actual review. (I got to that from the home page, hitting the top pulldown choice of “information and evaluations,” then going down that page (http://www.dcpcsb.org/evaluating-the-schools) to “charter reviews and renewals” and searching for Washington Latin.) I mentioned this specific issue with regard to Latin’s information in January to charter board staff—it remains unchanged as of 5/3/17.

 

Such atomizing of public information means it is effectively unavailable to parents exercising school choice. Moreover, when I asked charter board staff how to get information from before 2011, I was told to FOIA it.

 

How are parents supposed to exercise meaningful school choice if they have to FOIA basic information?

 

[iii] I sent my testimony via email on March 20, 2017, to the charter board public comment email, to Scott Pearson, to members of the council’s education committee as well as to some committee and council staff and a few state board members. The testimony was addressed to the council education committee as well as the charter board. None of the emails bounced. The only acknowledgement I received was from Scott Pearson, who emailed a “thanks” shortly after I sent it in. Since then, I have inquired with charter board staff as to why my testimony has not been posted and have not gotten an answer why. The 21st Century School Fund and Washington Lawyers’ Committee also submitted written testimony for the same applications that also doesn’t appear anywhere publicly on the charter board website. It is unclear to me whether any of this written testimony was shared with the applicants or board members.
[iv] See the following for more information:

Rocketship: https://educationdc.net/2016/12/18/a-holiday-gift-like-this-may-be-happening-in-your-dc-neighborhood-right-now/

KIPP DC and DC Prep: https://educationdc.net/2017/02/26/happening-right-now-proposals-for-five-new-dc-schools-and-almost-4000-new-school-seats/

 

 

 

[v] Here are some ways in which charter school governance can be immediately improved by the charter board, the council, and mayor, without incurring undue cost or burden:

 

–All public comments given to the charter board about matters under consideration by the board should be made widely publicly available within a week of submission, posted in a place clearly marked on the website. All deadlines for such comments need to be clear and generous (i.e., more than a month).

 

–All applications for new schools; replications; expansions; campuses; locations; and enrollment ceiling increases must have an unbiased analysis for need, siting, and size that takes into account existing schools; resources; and student enrollments as well as the master facilities plan. This analysis should be part of the master facilities plan anyway.

 

–Complete overhaul of the charter board website, so that there is a clear delineation of all documents EVER relating to all charter schools, from soup to nuts, in ONE place for each school.

 

–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 to the public. Thus, it cannot meet at night only; it must have public meetings more than once a month; and it must publish all comments it receives regarding its business at hand—and even beyond that.

 

If we really intend this to be a healthy system of public governance for a school system that educates nearly half our public school students, the following also needs to happen:

 

—The charter board should be elected and not allowed to receive campaign donations from anything other than a publicly financed campaign. The term limit of a charter board member should be no more than 3-4 years.

 

—Charter board staff and members should not be allowed to make donations to politicians in DC or receive donations from anyone.

 

—All charter board hearings and meetings need to be clearly delineated on the website. Publishing an agenda less than 48 hours before a meeting is not enough, especially as the agenda itself doesn’t always explain what action the board will take (saying it’s a “vote” isn’t specific enough—as in the recent case of KIPP DC, which had asked for a vote postponement: was the board voting on the application or its postponement?).

 

[vi] There are about 90,000 students in DC’s public schools. About 22,000 participated in the lottery this year. See the press release here: https://dme.dc.gov/release/my-school-dc-releases-results-common-lottery-system

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