Board Chair's Remarks at May 2019 Board Meeting

This evening Rick Cruz, Chairman of the DC Public Charter Board, made the following opening remarks at the Board's May monthly meeting:  

 

Before we begin tonight’s meeting, I’d like to offer a few reflections on charter schooling in DC and the decisions before us this evening.

 

While not the only matter on the agenda this evening, the big focus tonight is on the Board’s votes on 11 new charter applications. These applications represent quite literally years of efforts on the part of founding groups and leaders. Several individuals here this evening have stepped down from full-time roles at other schools and organizations to focus 100% on developing innovative approaches to serving the district’s students. And it is important to note that these individuals are parents, teachers, and some are our neighbors. Thank you to all of you for your commitment. I cannot think of a finer example of civic engagement on behalf of our city than the work each of you has done.

 

And, I hope you’ll appreciate the significant investment of PCSB staff and Board time and effort to evaluate the proposals before us. Almost 6000 thousand pages of applications. 25 hours of public hearings and capacity interviews with prospective school leaders. 250+ letters of support from community members, education leaders, experts, and parents. All of this, of course, now a matter of public record which you may find on our web site.

 

I speak for my fellow board members when I say that we appreciate all the feedback we’ve received. And, even when we may disagree, we’re thankful for the vigorous debate.

 

I’d like to take a few moments to address a few particular comments made over the last 30 days…as well as an analysis we received last Wednesday from the Deputy Mayor for Education.

 

To start with, I’d like to be clear that the core belief I hold is that every child deserves an excellent education and that every family deserves access to quality schools, no matter where they live in the District.

 

Several people testifying at our April Board meeting argued that there was in fact little need for new schools.  They cited data about under-enrollment at many schools…they noted a risk that more public charter schools could destabilize existing schools…and they raised the specter of inefficiently spreading taxpayer dollars thinly rather than concentrating monies on fewer schools. 

 

We appreciate them sharing their perspectives.  Capacity utilization is certainly one factor to consider. But the most important consideration for the PCSB is school quality and parent choice.  This was something wholly absent from much of the public testimony we received in opposition to further charter school approvals. And, it was also missing from the DME analysis.

 

It means little to us—and even less to many of DC’s families—to hear that there are thousands of seats available at schools that boast poor academic results.  Again, our objective is to ensure that every family has quality school choices, and, when you look at the landscape through this particular lens, we still have far to go.  Let’s take high schools, for example.

 

The DME analysis speaks of 5,277 unfilled high school seats.  That’s a lot. However, looking through a quality lens, the story’s quite different.  Between public charter schools and DCPS, there are 9,774 three, four, or five-star high school seats, while there are 12,749 public high school students. Meaning that there is a demand for nearly 3,000 more seats in quality schools.

 

Not surprisingly, every one of these three, four, or five-star schools are over-enrolled.  Indeed, public charter high schools that earned 3or more stars have a total waitlist of 1,737 students.  For the sake of the families on these waitlists, we cannot ignore these numbers.  If our common objective is to close the achievement gap and ensure all our children are prepared for a happy and productive life, we simply can’t overlook the quality of those schools because seats are unfilled.  Any consideration of the need for new schools must consider the quality of the schools we already have.

 

Now, I should say that defining a quality bar at 3 stars is inexact. There are pockets of excellence, and good people, at all schools. And, yes, schools should be given the chance to improve.

 

But the argument that public charter schools hurt existing schools—and hurt their ability to improve—is just not one that I accept. The period of DCPS’s most significant improvement happened precisely during the most significant growth in the charter sector. A former DCPS chancellor actually said in Council testimony that competition from charter schools was a spur to improvement.  We’ve seen with our own eyes that schools can improve at any size. 

 

DC PCSB and this Board have long been on record as supporting a strong neighborhood system of schools.  Since our executive director and former board chair published this view in the Washington Post four years ago, charter market share has barely budged and remains below 50%.  I personally take great issue with comments to the effect that all we care about is market share. That is categorically incorrect. Lest anyone forget, we close poor performing schools.

 

Next year there will be no more charter LEAs than there were four years earlier. Furthermore, it might surprise people to know that there will be three new DCPC campuses next year and just one additional public charter school campus.

 

Our growth has been and will continue to be responsible.  However, growth is essential if we intend to meet our mission of offering every family quality, innovative, non-selective admission-free schools in our growing city.

 

And, allow me to spend a few moments on that last fact. The student population in DC…is growing!  According to the Office of Planning, the number of school-age children in the District will rise by 13,500 students from 2020 to 2025. And there are few scenarios in which approvals of new charter schools would come close to exceeding even half of the projected growth in students.

 

I’d like to thank the DME for its initial effort to fulfill one of the action items coming out of the cross-sector taskforce in 2018. PCSB is committed to working together with the DME and DCPS to establish a common view of the education landscape. We’re not quite there yet, however.

 

The DME report and others repeatedly cite figures of overcapacity.  These figures come from the DME’s Master Facility Plan.  I can’t speak to the accuracy of the data for DCPS, but I can do so for public charter schools.  In a nutshell, they overstate the capacity of our schools. 

 

Let me provide just one example of this - Creative Minds Public Charter School.  The Master Facilities Plan shows the capacity for this school as 639 students—that’s based on the size of its building. Given that the school’s enrollment is 460, the Facilities Plan concludes that the school is at just 69 percent of capacity.  But the school is at its enrollment ceiling as set by PCSB and it may not expand without our approval. It’s just inaccurate to say there is excess capacity at this school. 

 

These kinds of discrepancies arise repeatedly in the capacity calculations made in the Master Facilities Plan, to the point where we believe they overstate charter school capacity by several thousand students.  

 

Finally, I want to address some other significant issues we have with the DME analysis.  As the analysis itself notes, it makes no consideration AT ALL of school quality or parent demand, something that renders it virtually useless from a practical perspective.  The data presented also incorporates a number of speculative future growth calculations rather than grounding its analysis in charter approvals that we’ve already made.

 

It erroneously focuses on “small” schools with the implications that these are sub-scale and cannot serve students well when there is no grounding for this. It focuses on enrollment in 2022 when this is only the first year the schools under consideration will open. And it ignores the ability of quality, innovative schools to change the nature of demand, by retaining families in public schools, and as District residents. Indeed, I’ve seen evidence that suggests independent school enrollment in recent years has decreased by nearly 3%, in part due to the increased quality and options available in DC public schools.

 

One final point regarding the DME analysis—and this is a question of fundamental fairness.  I noted earlier that DCPS will be adding several schools next year, yet I’m not aware of a similar analysis—no rubric or evaluation—that speaks to the decisions to open these new DCPS schools, such as the Bard Early College High School, or to expand Banneker High School. Are public charter schools alone in needing to make the case for growth? 

 

So, I hope that provides some context for the considerations and decisions weighed this evening. Decisions that will be made—as they have for years—on the basis of parent demand, school quality and strength of application…not market share.      

 

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