D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education Exerts Pressure to Cap Number of Charter Schools

Mark Lerner is an education writer and school choice advocate, he wrote this piece for his Parents Have School Choice, Kids Win Blog

To say this has not been the best Charter School Week in the nation’s capital would be a substantial understatement. Teachers at Mundo Verde Bilingual PCS voted on Wednesday to be represented by a union that would like to see charter schools disappear, and on the same day, D.C.’s Deputy Mayor for Education released a memorandum that essentially calls for a cap on the number of new charters approved by the DC Public Charter School Board.

The document by Paul Kihn comes on the eve of decisions by the PCSB regarding how many of the 11 applications for new charters will be approved this coming Monday evening. He is particularly concerned that four high schools could be added to those that already exist:

“From a facility and capacity standpoint, the DME raises concerns about adding up to four new 9th-12th grade high schools to an already significant number of high schools that are operating with relatively small enrollments, have available empty seats, and are competing for a relatively limited number of high-school aged students. In addition, some of the existing LEAs would like to replicate, expand within their current buildings, or expand after finding new facilities, which would already increase the supply of high school seats even more. Currently, there are 37 public high schools serving almost 19,000 high school students. Of that amount, 19 high schools are public charters serving approximately 8,100 students. Thirteen of the 19 public charter high schools serve just high school grades (9-12 grades) while another six also include middle grades. For DCPS, 16 high schools serve grades 9th-12th while another two DCPS schools serve grades 6th to 12th.”

But it’s not just the prospect of additional high schools that has Mr. Kihn worried. He has the same feelings about increasing the mix of middle schools:

“The picture is similar for public middle schools, although the population growth has begun sooner than the high school-aged population. There are 37 schools serving predominantly middle school grades enrolling approximately 12,000 students. Of those, 23 are public charter schools serving almost 6,300 students. The grade configurations of the middle school public charters vary with nine schools serving 5th-8th grade, another seven charter schools serving 4th-8th grades, and six serving 6th-8th grades. This also does not take into account the PK-8th schools that exist or the 6th-12th grade schools that offer middle grades as well. DCPS offers 13 6th-8th grade middle schools and one 4th-8th grade middle school. The majority of the middle schools also have relatively small enrollments. The DME’s Adequacy Study estimated that small middle schools – estimated at 300 students – would have challenges meeting fixed costs compared to middle schools enrolling at least 600 students. As of SY18-19, 11 public charter middle schools enroll 300 middle school students or fewer and another 10 public charter middle schools have up to only 375 students. For DCPS middle schools, six enroll 300 or fewer students and another four enroll 375 or fewer students. The new applicants are also requesting relatively low enrollment ceilings, between 180 and 320 students. “

The charter board was in no mood to let this information get out unchallenged. The very next day, on Twitter, it exclaimed, “@DMEforDC‘s report is flawed in many ways, which we’ll discuss at Monday’s board meeting. Most significantly the analysis ignores the question of school quality, here’s why we DC needs more quality schools.” Then in a blog post on the organization’s website it wrote:

“Despite concerns about ‘under-utilization’ by the DC Deputy Mayor of Education, families are choosing public charter schools for their students. This year, 59% of public charter schools had longer waitlists than they did last year, and roughly 67% of applicants on waitlists are waiting for a seat at a top-ranking public charter school. Quality matters to families. This is why we want to ensure that there are excellent options available throughout the city.

Currently, public charter schools offer the only 4 STAR schools in Wards 7 and 8, across seven different schools that educate grades PK3-12. Outside of Ward 3, 23.6% of DCPS students in schools with STAR scores attend a 4 or 5 STAR school, compared to 32.5% of public charter school students. As the graph below shows, there is a need to provide more quality middle school seats for families residing in Wards 5, 7, and 8, in particular.”

The PCSB continued:

“For families seeking quality high schools, the situation is far worse. Wilson High School is the only non-selective DCPS high school in the city that earned a 4 STAR rating, compared to the 12 citywide, open admission public charter high schools. Families are choosing to send their students to a 3 STAR or higher school; see the graph below. Additionally, based on the My School DC lottery results, every public charter high school (except for the alternative programs) has a waitlist. While we debate under-utilization, families continue to wait for a seat at a top-ranking school to become available. Based on My School DC data, more than half of the public charter high school applicants applying to a high school live in Wards 7 and 8. The graph below shows there is a need for more quality high school programs.”

Mr. Kihn is obviously petrified that if these charters open families will flock away from DCPS to their new classrooms.

You probably already know my reaction to this quandary. In response to what is a clear effort by the Deputy Mayor for Education, and therefore the Mayor, to pressure the PCSB not to approve more schools, and therefore to limit parental choice, I think it should allow all 11 to begin operating.

In addition, once these new entities are given the go-ahead, by law a requirement must be added that the Deputy Mayor of Education provides them with adequate facilities.

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