As noted in a May 26 Washington Post article, Paul Kihn, Washington, D.C.’s deputy mayor for education (DME), wrote a memo to the D.C. Public Charter School Board (DC PCSB) ahead of its May 20th vote on new charter applications. The DME’s memo, formally known as the School System Capacity Assessment, expressed concerns about adding new charter campuses, saying they “are competing for a relatively limited number of high school aged students.” Of the eleven new applications, DC PCSB approved five operators, four of which are led by people of color.
In response to deputy mayor Kihn’s memo, several DC education leaders of color came together to provide a thoughtful response to the concerns he raised. Their collective response, focused on quality, equity of access, and cross-sector collaboration in a city where the majority of children in the public schools—traditional and charter—look like them, their families, the families that they call their own, and the families that they are called to serve is noted below.
Additional reading: Rick Cruz, chairman of the DC PCSB, opening remarks at the board’s May meeting.
Dear Deputy Mayor Kihn:
We are D.C. education leaders of color and advocates for a high-quality public education for every student, in every neighborhood.
We are also supporters of a cross-sector strategy to realize this goal because we know that every family, from every background, wants one thing for their child: a great school.
We have heard over-and-over again from a diversity of parents, communities and community leaders—from east to west of the river and east to west of the park—that the only thing that should matter is equitable access to a strong public system of schools that prepares every child for lifelong success. Generations of residents have long been advocating for more and better school options since Bolling v. Sharpe desegregated D.C.’s schools 65 years ago.
This vision is also something that we all know our city has yet to achieve. With the work we still have left to do and our children’s futures in mind, we were disappointed in the release of the School System Capacity Assessment and its limited analysis of applications under consideration by the D.C. Public Charter School Board (PCSB).
The analysis accurately recognizes that all of our city’s public schools are connected; to have a healthy system of schools, each school, in both our traditional and charter sectors, must be high-quality and competitive. A diverse array of early childhood, elementary, middle, high and adult programs within D.C.’s borders must be united in the shared goal of serving all of D.C.’s students well—both the students that are in our school system now and the student body that we project in the coming years.
At the same time, we must consider the history and future of each student and each school. Only then can we accurately understand and support equitable access to choices for all families that meet each child’s individual needs. We know that our city has stark—and growing—dividing lines of race and income that you see in our outcomes and in our geography. Today, according to OSSE’s STAR framework, we have no five-star schools East of the Anacostia River and only seven four-star schools. We have entire schools East of the River where no student scored a 4 or a 5 on the PARCC assessment, used to not only determine if a child is on grade level but to grant a child access to DCPS’s selective—and sought-after—high schools.
Those inequities of access are not just about academics. We have two dual language programs east of the Anacostia River and 21 west of the river. We have seven STEM programs east of the river and 12 west of the river. We have four career and technical education programs east of the river and 10 west of the river. Parents and communities are asking for a diversity of school models because they want to find the best choice for each of their children and they know that a one-size fits all approach to education has never worked, since children are unique.
You noted in your letter to the PCSB that your analysis focused solely on capacity and utilization and did not account for what you acknowledge as critical factors including “quality and parent demand.” We disagree with this approach. Our takeaway from the assessment: D.C. families primarily account for quality when they choose a school for their student. In your data about high school capacity, for instance, you identified 5,277 unfilled seats across the city’s DCPS and charter high schools. Filtering for quality, as a family might when evaluating school options, reveals instead a shortage of nearly 3,000 seats—the difference between the city’s 12,749 public high school students and the 9,774-seat capacity of high schools receiving three-, four- or five-STAR ratings. This, along with the waiting lists at D.C.’s highest-performing schools, says loudly to us that there is both family demand and moral imperative to create more high school opportunities across the city and particularly in neighborhoods assigned to one- and two-star schools.
D.C. leaders’ political courage has fostered significant improvement in our city’s education system over the last decade. That improvement, in turn, has attracted and retained families in D.C.’s public schools. D.C.’s student-age population overall has grown, and the share of those students going outside of the public system to private options has shrunk. Right now, the growth bubble is mostly in our elementary and early childhood programs. As these children age, the opportunity to retain their families in the District and its schools is very real—but only if they can access a mix of quality middle and high school options like they encountered for the early grades. We urge you, Mayor Bowser, the D.C. Council, the State Board of Education, the State Superintendent, the DCPS Chancellor, and the Public Charter School Board to implement and uphold policies that encourage the replication of successful schools and the re-imagining of what school has traditionally been in our city.
Finally, we share your concern about under-used DCPS buildings, but reach a different conclusion. Currently, public charter schools are paying more than $20 million annually to private landlords because this administration has let city buildings suitable for schools sit vacant and/or given them to developers. The city has also resisted co-location at DCPS campuses that could help fill empty classrooms and make these spaces available to in-demand programs. As the 2018 Master Facilities Plan calls for, these types of win-win solutions for both sectors would have a double benefit: retaining families in D.C.’s public schools by supporting them in making their own school choices, and providing revenue that our under-enrolled schools can apply toward improvements to better serve our students.
In partnership, we would like to request a meeting with you and your team at the Deputy Mayor for Education to find cross-sector solutions that support every child in every Ward and community. We are all committed to creating equitable school planning policies that prioritize quality and the voices, concerns, and needs of our students, our families, and our communities. We look forward to meeting with you and your team soon, as we build a system of great schools in our city together.
Lydia Kearney Carlis
Maya Martin Cadogan
Lenora Robinson Mills