Greater Greater Washington

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Flowerpots create a safer pedestrian crossing from Gallaudet to Union Market

Large flowerpots recently appeared on 6th Street NE along a crosswalk connecting Gallaudet University to Union Market. These aren't the work of a rogue gardener; they're a way for the city to narrow the crossing and enhance pedestrian safety.

Images by @GnarlyDorkette on Twitter reposted with permission.

Twitter user @GnarlyDorkette, a Trinidad resident and Gallaudet Deaf interpreter, posted these photos of the new flowerpot.

6th Street is only striped as a two-lane road, but it's a very wide two-lane road, with lanes formerly 22 feet wide. Drivers often used it as a four-lane road, said Sam Zimbabwe of the District Department of Transportation (DDOT).

The road is part of the area that has long been a wholesale food market. There was a lot of truck traffic, but very little pedestrian traffic, and so it wasn't a top priority to change. But now this is a popular destination. Union Market opened two years ago and has become a bustling food destination with 34 carefully-curated vendors. Its success has drawn other businesses as well, like the Dolcezza gelato factory across the street. And a lot more Gallaudet students are walking over.

The university recently modified its gate on 6th Street to allow people with university IDs to pass through 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, Zimbabwe said. All of this led DDOT to install the flowerpots to keep drivers on the two official lanes and encourage them to pass slowly.

What about Florida Avenue?

There's another wide road adjacent to Gallaudet that neighbors say could use some narrowing: Florida Avenue. The roadway there is three lanes each way but narrower elsewhere, and the traffic volume doesn't warrant six lanes. There's a study underway to look at widening the extremely narrow (and non-ADA compliant) sidewalks and adding bike lanes.

Zimbabwe said that study is about to wrap up, after which DDOT will submit proposed changes to the regional Transportation Planning Board for its Constrained Long-Range Plan. Departments of Transportation submit their projects for that plan each December, and Zimbabwe wants to get the Florida changes in this year.

The extra step is necessary, Zimbabwe said, because Florida Avenue is part of the "expanded national highway system" under the recent MAP-21 federal transportation bill, and is a major artery in the regional traffic models. DDOT expects to be able to modify the road, but has to jump through some administrative hoops first.

Between NoMa, Union Market, H Street, and more, the number of shops, restaurants, and other destinations around Gallaudet University has exploded in recent years. This makes it even more important to ensure the streets are safe to cross on foot for everyone of all ages, walking speeds, and hearing abilities.

Should DC limit charter growth? David Catania says no, while Bowser and Schwartz say maybe

Some DC residents see the continued growth of charter schools as a threat to the DC Public School system. Others believe that competition between the sectors will spur DCPS to improve. At a recent mayoral forum, it became clear that Muriel Bowser and Carol Schwartz basically fall on one side of this divide while David Catania is on the other.

Photo of Muriel Bowser and Natalie Hopkinson at last week's forum by the author.

The forum was sponsored by a coalition of organizations that have called for strengthening neighborhood schools and requiring coordinated planning between DCPS and the charter sector, which now serves 44% of DC students.

Charter advocates have argued that the market should determine the school landscape. If parents are voting for charters with their feet, they say, why stop them? Their view is that competition with charters will spur DCPS to improve.

Those who want to limit charter growth respond that charter expansion is undermining DCPS's ability to compete. They say charters attract the more motivated lower-income families, increasingly leaving DCPS with the students who are hardest to educate.

And they point out that in some areas, middle-class families start bailing out of DCPS after 4th grade, scrambling for spots in the subset of charter schools that appeal to a more affluent population. If charter growth is restricted, the argument goes, many of those families will remain in the system and help improve neighborhood schools.

In one recent instance, a science-themed charter school opened across the street from a similarly-focused DCPS school. In addition to competition for students, some argue that this kind of growth results in a wasteful duplication of resources.

Close questioning at the forum

At last week's mayoral forum, which can now be viewed online, moderator Natalie Hopkinson hit hard on these issues when questioning the three candidates in a series of one-on-one conversations.

With each candidate, Hopkinson described her own frustrating experience as a DC parent: her neighborhood elementary school closed twice, there was no middle school that her child could attend by right, and she spent five years on the waiting list for the charter school of her choice.

She also presented the candidates with statistics suggesting that DC now has far more schools than it needs. In 1965, she said, the District had 147,000 students and 196 schools. Today, there are 85,000 students and 213 DCPS and charter school buildings.

Is this growth sustainable, Hopkinson asked? She presented the competition between DCPS and the charter sector as a "death match" for enrollment and resources that is "getting nastier" as charters increase their share of the student population.

Both candidates agreed with Hopkinson that competition from charters was sometimes harmful to DCPS schools, and they all initially responded that they would be able to get the charter sector to coordinate with DCPS voluntarily.

But when Hopkinson pressed them on what they would do if voluntary measures failed, Bowser and Schwartz said they would seek changes in the law to limit charter growth.

"I'm willing to do whatever it takes to best leverage our public school dollar," Bowser said.

And Schwartz said that she would ask Congress to "tweak" the DC School Reform Act it passed in 1996, which brought charter schools to the District.

Catania, on the other hand, took issue with Hopkinson's premise that the two sectors were engaged in a "death match." Enrollment is growing overall, he said, and there are plenty of schools to go around.

He acknowledged that in some situations it may be unfair to locate a charter next to a DCPS schoolfor example, when the charter is in a newly renovated building and the DCPS school is dilapidated.

But, he added, "I don't believe in putting an artificial hold on charter schools while DCPS struggles to improve itself. I think we need to put DCPS on an equal footing, and DCPS needs to compete."

Catania said that DCPS has missed opportunities to make its schools more attractive, citing its failure to fund a promised STEM program at H.D. Woodson High School in Ward 7 and the lack of a bilingual school east of the Anacostia River.

The limits of a competitive model

Competition with charters has in fact spurred improvements in DCPS, and perhaps Catania is right that DCPS will only continue to improve with competition. But many parents are likely to opt for a charter with an established reputation rather than take a chance on a DCPS school with a troubled history, no matter how many shiny new classrooms and programs it gets.

The candidates' different responses on charter growth reflect a fundamental divergence in DC's education debate over what should be prioritized: individual choice, or what some perceive to be the common good.

Charter schools have provided many students with a better education than they would have gotten otherwise. And charter advocates have a good point when they say it's unfair to limit parents' ability to choose the best possible public education for their children.

But if the charter sector gets much larger, the challenges DCPS faces may become truly crippling. And that's a problem not just for DCPS, but for the students who remain there and the communities they live in.

Some argue that people are responsible for their own choices, including the choice of a worse school. But a choice-based school system can end up penalizing children whose parents or guardians make ill-advised choices or no choice at all. It doesn't seem fair to hold those children responsible for choices they can't make for themselves.

Who can change the law?

Even if we decide we want to limit charter growth, it's not clear how we would do that. Would Congress need to change the law, as Schwartz assumed? Or could the DC Council amend the law itself?

That question could be resolved by a lawsuit currently pending before a DC federal court, another topic raised at the forum. Charter advocates have sued the District over unequal funding, arguing that the Council has no authority to deviate from the Act's central provisions.

If the charter advocates prevail in court, those who want to limit charter growth will be at the mercy of a Congress that may well be unresponsive.

Some area schools spend a lot less on poor kids than others

Schools in the Washington region spend wildly different amounts on students per pupil, and districts vary a lot in how much extra they spend on low-income students. While more spending doesn't guarantee better quality, the discrepancies raise basic questions of fairness.

Screenshot from Metro DC School Spending Explorer. Click for interactive version.

An interactive map from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank based in DC, allows you to find the per-pupil spending amount for any school inside the Beltway. This is the first time spending data for the area has been presented on a school-by-school basis, according to Michael Petrilli, president of the institute.

That's because individual schools within districts don't have their own budgets, Petrilli said on the Kojo Nnamdi Show Thursday. Districts allocate staff and resources to schools depending on factors like the number of students at each school and their needs.

The data is based on expenditures during the 2011-12 fiscal year. It includes both public and private funds, but not spending on capital projects like buildings.

A data summary that accompanies the map shows that average per pupil expenditures in the area range from about $10,000 in Prince George's County to close to $16,000 in DC Public Schools and Alexandria. DC public charter schools spend an average of just over $18,000 per student, the highest in the region.

Spending on low-income students

In a blog post analyzing the data, Petrilli and Matt Richmond focused on which District-area school systems spend the most on low-income students. Arlington County leads the pack, and Prince George's brings up the rear, they found.

Arlington spends over 80% extra on its low-income students, or about $21,000 compared to the $12,000 it spends on its more affluent ones. But Prince George's, which has many more low-income students, spends only about 2% more on them, or a little over $10,000.

DCPS falls somewhere in the middle for the region, spending about 21% extra on low-income students, although its spending floor is the highest of any school district in the region. (The "extra spending" figures are for elementary school students only.)

In the blog post, Petrilli and Richmond single out Montgomery County for particular scorn. Despite Superintendent Joshua Starr's claim to be a warrior for social justice, they say, Montgomery ranks third in the region for extra spending on low-income students. At about 32%, it's below both Arlington County and Fairfax County, which spends about 34% extra.

Low spending in Prince George's County

But, as Petrilli and Richmond point out, the big story here is Prince George's County's low level of spending on its low-income population. They point out that at one Prince George's elementary school, the amount spent per student is about half what DCPS spends at a school less than seven miles away.

Given the relatively low property tax base in Prince George's, Petrilli and Richmond argue that the state of Maryland should be doing more to fund schools there.

Of course, it's not clear what any of this means for educational quality. As the Fordham authors acknowledge, it's hard to establish a direct relationship between spending and educational outcomes. More money doesn't make much difference unless schools know what to do with it.

But it's also true that programs designed to close the achievement gap cost money. So while money may not be sufficient to accomplish that goal, it's almost certainly necessary.

And, as a recent report from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute details, low-income students need a host of services outside the classroom in order to succeed inside it. All of those cost money, too.

It would be useful to put school districts' differing rates of expenditure next to a comparison of student achievement. Are low-income students in Prince George's actually learning less than low-income students in DC or Arlington, for example?

That's hard to say right now, because each state gives its own standardized tests, and they're not really comparable. And the nationwide standardized test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, basically gives results at the state-wide level rather than by school district.

Perhaps after this year we'll at least be able to compare DC and Prince George's County, because both Maryland and DC will be giving the same Common Core-aligned test, known as PARCC. (Virginia will continue giving its own test.)

But whatever the test results show, one thing is clear: It's not fair for a low-income student in Arlington to get the benefit of $21,000 a year in school spending, while one across the river in Prince George's gets half that or less.

Does Ward 3 need a charter middle school, or can Hardy transform itself?

Hardy Middle School, long shunned by families in its Ward 3 neighborhood, is beginning to change, say at least two candidates for the Ward 3 seat on the State Board of Education (SBOE). But another candidate says it's time to start a new charter middle school in the area.

Photo of Hardy Middle School from DCPS website.

Almost 90% of the students at Hardy, in Georgetown, come from outside the school's boundaries. Some of its feeder elementary schools send only 10% of their students to the school, according to Tricia Braun.

Braun has been co-president of the PTA at one of those feeders, Key Elementary, and is currently running for the SBOE from Ward 3. Neighborhood students often leave the DC Public School system after elementary school for charter schools like BASIS and Washington Latin, she said.

But Braun said that, largely thanks to her efforts in convening PTA leaders from Hardy's feeders, the school is beginning to attract more in-boundary students. The key, she said, was to make specific suggestions to bring the school up to the level of Alice Deal, Ward 3's other middle school, which is highly sought after and overcrowded. One suggestion was to offer geometry to 8th graders, as Deal does.

Last year, Braun said, one feeder, Mann Elementary, sent six students to Hardy, a marked increase over previous years when it had only sent one.

Braun's remarks came at a forum for Ward 3 SBOE candidates Tuesday evening moderated by Washington Post education reporter Michael Alison Chandler. All four Ward 3 candidates attended.

One, Ruth Wattenberg, said that based on her experience as a former Deal parent, she thinks Hardy can change. When her older child started at Deal, she said, it wasn't the coveted school it is now. Wattenberg said she helped spark improvements when she chaired Deal's Local School Restructuring Team in 2009-10.

"Deal transformed itself in five years," she said, "and Hardy can too."

She suggested that Hardy adopt the International Baccalaureate Middle Years curriculum, as Deal has done. That school-wide approach, she said, provides a vision for the school. She also recommended dividing the school into teams, which enables teachers to get to know their students better.

But a third candidate, Stephanie Lilley, argued that Ward 3 needs an entirely new middle school. She said she has begun the search for a building where a charter school could open. Ward 3 currently has no charter schools.

After the forum, Lilley revealed that the building she has in mind is the Fillmore Arts Center in Upper Georgetown, which she says is now owned by George Washington University.

Graduation requirements, testing, and qualifications

The candidates, who include Phil Thomas, also debated new graduation requirements that the SBOE is currently considering. And both Wattenberg and Braun called for less emphasis on testing and basic skills in reading and math. "A lot of reading is also about what you know," Wattenberg said. "You can't just drill on skills."

Each candidate argued that he or she would bring a unique perspective to the Board. Braun said she is the only candidate with children currently enrolled in DCPS, and argued that her skills as a parent activist and former prosecutor would serve her well.

Thomas, an elementary school PE teacher, said the Board needs another teacher voice. Only one of its current nine members is a teacher.

Lilley, who has served on the boards of two charter schools, presented herself as someone with expertise in school turnarounds and a focus on the gap in achievement between affluent Ward 3 and other areas of the District.

And Wattenberg argued that she had a combination of grassroots experience through parent activism and expertise in education policy, having worked in that field at the national level for 30 years.

Another forum for SBOE candidates, this time for the two candidates running in Ward 6, will take place from 6:30 to 8 pm on Tuesday, October 14, at Eastern High School. I will be the moderator, and a panel of Eastern students will be asking questions.

Correction: The original version of this article listed Hardy as a Ward 3 school. Hardy is actually in Ward 2, all but one of its feeder elementary schools are in Ward 3.

Innovations at Dunbar High School have sparked progress, but there's still a lot of student churn

Last week, Dunbar High School celebrated a dramatic rise in test scores with a pep rally featuring some of its alumni, including Mayor Vincent Gray. Other troubled DC high schools could learn something from Dunbar's experience, but student churn is still a problem.

Mayor Gray at Dunbar. Photo by the author.

Dunbar, located in Truxton Circle near Union Station, was an elite black high school in the era of segregation. More recently it's fallen on hard times, with some alumni proposing earlier this year that it recapture its glory days by becoming a selective school.

But Principal Stephen Jackson seems to be turning the school around. Last year, Dunbar's gains on DC's standardized tests were the largest of any high school in the DC Public School system. Dunbar's proficiency rate on the reading section of the test went up by a whopping 23%, to 41%. That put it third in reading scores for neighborhood high schools, still 30 percentage points below Wilson, but just one point below Eastern.

Dunbar's math proficiency rate also went up, by seven points, to 24%. While that increase may look modest compared to the gain in reading, it's still significant.

Innovations that boosted scores

What's behind the rise in scores? According to a press release, Dunbar has introduced a number of innovations, including weekly "inter-visitations among teachers on best practices." Two recent best-selling books on education have argued that that kind of teacher-to-teacher observation and collaboration is crucial.

Dunbar administrators have also been visiting classrooms "on a daily basis," according to the release. The DCPS teacher evaluation system requires five observations a year, with only some by a school administrator. But more frequent and regular observations by someone who knows the teacher well may be less threatening and more helpful.

Dunbar has also extended the school day for 9th and 10th graders, and students at risk of failing have been attending school on Saturdays.

In addition, the school has divided itself into five "academies," each with a different theme. That, according to Dunbar math teacher David Tansey, has helped create "interconnectedness" between students and teachers.

Ninth Grade Academy

But one innovation has been trumpeted above the rest: Dunbar's Ninth Grade Academy. Ninth grade is a bottleneck year in many DC high schools, because students have to pass algebra and English to advance to 10th grade. Generally, only about 60% make it.

That has led to 9th grade classes that include many older students repeating for the second or third time. Four years ago, Principal Jackson started separating the repeaters from the first-time 9th-graders, putting the repeaters into a "twilight academy" that met after school.

The Dunbar experiment looked promising enough that last year, DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson expanded it to eight other high schools. In addition to isolating the newbie 9th-graders from the sometimes jaundiced repeaters, the Ninth Grade Academy at Dunbar gives them a double dose of math and English. It also requires students to participate in extra-curricular activities and sports.

While it's hard to say how much of Dunbar's rise in scores is attributable to its Ninth Grade Academy, the school is trumpeting another statistic. It says that 98% of its first Ninth Grade Academy cohort, now in 12th grade, is on track to graduate. Considering that DCPS's overall graduation rate is more like 60%, that's an astounding figure.

But according to the Washington Post, almost half of the original 75 students in the cohort36 of themhave left the school. It's not clear how many of them are now on track to graduate. It's also not clear how many other students have joined the class since 9th grade, and where those students stand academically. I put that question and others to school officials but didn't get a response.

Student mobility

Student mobility is a major problem in DC, and Dunbar isn't the only school that suffers from it. At Anacostia High School, for example, students entering midyear were at least 29% of the student body by May of last year, with 22% having exited. At Dunbar, the figures were 18% for midyear entries and 14% for withdrawals.

A report released last year by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education revealed that thousands of students were moving in and out of schools midyear, and a recent report on graduation rates found that 30% of DC students begin and end their high school careers at different schools.

Each switch results in a 10% decrease in the chances of a student graduating on time, according to the report. It's also hugely disruptive for schools to get a constant influx of new students.

Perhaps attrition rates at Dunbar for more recent 9th-grade cohorts have been lower. Tansey, who started teaching in Dunbar's Ninth Grade Academy during its second year of operation, says the first year was a little rocky, and that the number of entering freshmen has grown since then. Last year, he says, it was 120.

Tansey says the Academy helps the school keep track of its entering freshmen. "We can say, these are Dunbar kids," he says. "We've made a commitment to them."

He also says the creation of the Academy has reduced teacher turnover at that level. Before, he says, there was a new team of 9th grade teachers every year. And it's helped with "backward-mapping," enabling teachers to ensure students are prepared for the demands of 10th grade.

While Dunbar clearly still has a long way to go, there was justifiable pride in the cheers of "We Are Dunbar!" that resounded at last week's pep rally. But for those 36 former 9th-graders who have moved elsewhere, and for many other DC students like them, it's not yet clear that cheers are in order.

Make it safe for our kids to walk or bike to school

First week of middle school. First bike ride to school. First near-fatal encounter with the #1 killer of childrencars.

That scary commute was my son's experience when he began the 2014 school year in Arlington County. And it's the same story throughout most US metropolitan areas. Isn't it way past time we grant our children safe passage to school?

Photo by Anne and Tim on Flickr.

Here's a timely opportunity. Today is the annual International Walk and Bike to School Day. Across the country, kids will be encouraged to change their usual routines to walking or biking instead of being chauffeured to school. Yet how can kids take advantage of that choice when we've made the routes between their homes and schools so unsafe? According to a 2014 DOT study, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for children ages 4 through 14.

Since our Arlington County home is 1.3 miles from my son's middle school, walking and biking are obvious transportation options. Biking with him on his first day, I was surprised to find the roads overwhelmed by cars. At the school's intersection, bike lanes fade into nothingness, leaving young bike riders to determine their own routes.

Entrance to Williamsburg Middle School in Arlington. Photo from Google Maps.

The school driveway doesn't even have a stop or yield sign, so cars enter the street without pausing, putting bikers and walkers at risk. The congestion and dangers are such that a police officer and a teacher have to oversee the drop-off. But their backs are to the middle school cyclists coming onto the school property.

Street design and schools' transportation management priorities send strong signals to parents and students that cars trump all other modes of getting around. It's an assumption that contributes to the obesity epidemic among our children and to the overall social and economic health of our communities. Childhood obesity now affects one in three children between 2 and 19 and costs the US an estimated $305 billion each year. Research suggests that kids who walk to school have higher overall physical activity throughout the day and better academic performance.

The fact is, neighborhood and street design that encourages more pedestrian and cycling activity is an indicator of health and relative prosperity. Research has shown that GDP per capita in walkable urban metropolitan areas is 38% higher than the average in the 10 least walkable urban metros. Homes in walkable neighborhoods experienced less than half the average decline in price from the housing peak in the mid-2000s.

And in the Washington region, each point increase in a walkability measure adds $9 per square foot to annual office rents, $7 per square foot to retail rents, over $300 per month to apartment rents, and nearly $82 per square foot to home values.

If we can't convince ourselves to make it safer to walk or bike for children's health and academic performance, can we do it to bolster our economic bottom lines?

There are a number of easy low-cost design fixes that could send strong signals that school systems prioritize safe walking and biking. Given the costs of traffic congestion management to schools during drop-off and pick-up hours, maybe parents who drive students should have to apply for a permit. Or perhaps blocks surrounding the school could designate pedestrian-only zones at the beginning and end of the school day. Designated bike lanes could be painted on the street. At the very least, the school or county could install stop signs at the ends of school driveways.

A measure of a healthy neighborhood and community is how well people ages 8 to 80 can safely navigate their streets, roads, parks, and public areas. On this national day when we celebrate the benefits of walking and biking to school, shouldn't we be planning better ways to demonstrate our concern for our kids' safety?

Charter schools sue for more funding, and the result could be a setback for home rule

A group of charter schools claims the DC government spends about $2,000 less per student on the charter sector than on DC Public Schools each year, in violation of federal law. Opponents say that requiring strict equality in funding between the sectors makes no sense.

Photo of judge with scale from Shutterstock.

But if a federal court buys the charters' legal argument, its decision could have far-reaching implications not only for education in DC but also for the issue of home rule in general.

The DC Association of Chartered Public Schools, which represents 39 charter schools, filed a complaint in federal court in July along with two individual charters, Eagle Academy and Washington Latin. The schools say the District has shortchanged the charter sector by more than $770 million over the past eight years.

The group is not seeking to recover that amount, but it does want the court to order DC to fund the two sectors equally in the future. The group claims the DC School Reform Act, which was enacted by Congress in 1996, required the DC Council to create a per-pupil funding formula that is the same for both DCPS and charters, and not to supplement that amount with any additional funds for DCPS.

"Nobody really wants to sue," says Robert Cane, executive director of a charter advocacy organization called FOCUS. But, he says, the charter community has been trying to negotiate with DC on the funding issue for many years, without success.

Last week, the DC Office of the Attorney General (OAG) asked the court to throw out the lawsuit, arguing that even if the funding is unequalsomething DC isn't concedingthe DC Council had the right to amend the federal statute under the Home Rule Act.

Legal issues and home rule

Everyone agrees that under the Home Rule Act, passed in 1973, Congress delegated legislative control to the DC Council over local matters like education. All legislation in these areas passed by the Council goes to Congress for a 30-day review period, but if Congress doesn't act, the legislation goes into effect.

But the charters argue that when Congress passed the School Reform Act 23 years later, it was reclaiming the legislative authority over DC granted to it by the US Constitution. That means, they say, that the DC Council has no authority to change fundamental provisions of the Act. The District says this argument is a "novel" one that has no basis in the law. The charter group will file its response to DC's legal arguments in November.

Some observers argue that the charter group's interpretation of the law would be unworkable. Under their view, says Matt Frumin, a DC education activist, "in order for the District to make any significant modifications to education, we would need to have a law passed by two houses of Congress and signed by the President."

Cane counters that congressional action is only needed for "substantive changes that violate the letter of the law or the intent of Congress," not for "technical fixes." But Frumin responds that that the School Reform Act doesn't make that distinction. Nor, he says, is it clear who would decide what is "substantive" and what is merely "technical."

Different sectors have different costs

Aside from the legal issues, some say there are policy reasons to treat charters and DCPS differently. A DC-commissioned study released last year found that it was impossible to compare costs in the two sectors accurately. Each charter school has its own accounting system, and DCPS has yet a different one.

While the study acknowledged that DCPS gets more funding per pupil, it also concluded that DCPS's per pupil costs are much higher. Not only does DCPS, unlike the charter sector, need to pay union wages, it also has to maintain a lot of unused space because it's required to serve all grade levels in every neighborhood. The study estimated that DCPS needs only about 70% of the space it's currently maintaining.

DCPS schools also include facilities like pools and auditoriums that serve other community purposes. And DCPS buildings also tend to be older than those used by charters and more expensive to maintain.

Given the sectors' different cost structures, Frumin argues that charter advocates "are saying either give DCPS less than it needs to succeed, or give charters more, in the name of mathematical parity." Instead, he says, schools should be funded on the basis of what they actually need to educate children well.

Robert Cane of FOCUS responds that DCPS hasn't been forthcoming about its true operational expenses, and that the numbers the school system puts out have varied wildly. "This is all made up after the fact," he says.

Cane acknowledges that the per-pupil allotment for charters in DC is generous compared to what charters get in many other jurisdictions, but he says that's not the issue.

"It's very expensive to educate these kids," he says. "We have more poor and minority kids than DCPS has. If we have more of these kids, why should we have less money?"

The implications of the lawsuit

But the federal district court isn't considering these policy questions. It's only concerned with the law. If the court sides with the charter group and requires strict equality in funding, the result will be either that DCPS funding goes down or charter funding goes up.

If DCPS loses funding, it will have an even tougher time competing with the charter sector. If charter funding goes above its current relatively generous level, even more charter operators may be drawn to the District, and the charter sector's share of students could grow well above the 44% it stands at now.

Beyond that, the charter group's interpretation of the law of home rule would significantly limit DC's autonomy. If the courts accept the charters' argument, any time Congress passes legislation specifically directed at the District, DC authorities will lose their ability to change that law and then interpret congressional silence as acquiescence.

DC's charter sector has some legitimate grievances, especially when it comes to the difficulty of finding suitable space for schools. And no doubt charters here could find good uses for additional funds.

But it's far from clear they need more money to do a good job of educating their students. DC's charter sector was recently declared the best in the nation by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. And most charters here have a comfortable financial cushion, with the sector as a whole listing $283 million in assets at the end of fiscal year 2013.

Given those circumstances, it's difficult to see why they would choose to jeopardize DC's hard-won legislative autonomy in a bid for more funding.

Education activists urge DC mayoral candidates to commit to improving neighborhood schools

A coalition of DC education activists says we should strengthen the system of neighborhood by-right schools, and require coordinated planning between District of Columbia Public Schools and DC's public charter sector.

The coalition has released six principles it hopes will provide a basis for discussion during the current election season. Over 60 DC residents have signed the statement, and the group's press release says they include supporters "of each of the major candidates for Mayor."

In addition, the signatories include representatives of education councils in several wards, parents and teachers, ANC commissioners, and several former members of the advisory committee that drew up the new school boundary plan.

A coalition spokesperson, Evelyn Boyd Simmons, says the group hopes that one or more of the mayoral candidates will incorporate the entire set of principles into his or her platform.

Some principles touch on areas of broad agreement, such as "Focus resources on students and communities with the greatest need." Others, however, may encounter opposition from some in the charter school community.

The first principle calls for ensuring that "all families have access to high-quality DCPS schools in their neighborhoods," arguing that the demand for matter-of-right neighborhood schools became clear during the recent debate over school boundaries.

"While residents want the ability to select alternatives," the group's statement says, "they do not want to be at the mercy of a lottery for access to a school that can fully meet the needs of their children and community."

Charter school growth

The coalition appears to endorse the view that the growth of the charter sector, which now educates nearly half of all DC public school students, threatens to undermine efforts to strengthen the DCPS system.

The signatories urge the DC government to "require coordinated planning" between DCPS and the Public Charter School Board to "build a core system of stable DCPS neighborhood schools with a complementary set of alternative options." Such planning, the statement says, should cover "proposed modernizations, expansions, closing, and openings of any school."

Some charter advocates have resisted anything other than voluntary cooperation between the sectors. Of the 65 signatories to the principles that are currently listed on the group's website, only three list affiliations with charter schools: two are charter parents, and one is a board member at a charter school for adult immigrants, Carlos Rosario.

Boyd Simmons said she hopes more charter school parents and leaders will sign on in the future. She also said that many parents don't see the two sectors as that separate, because they move back and forth between them or have one child in each.

At the same time, she acknowledged that the conversation with the charter sector about the issue may be "dicey." But, she added, "that doesn't obviate the fact that it needs to be addressed."

Of the three leading mayoral candidates, Carol Schwartz has been clearest in endorsing the idea that charter school growth and location should be limited. In her education platform, she criticized the recent opening of a science-focused charter school across the street from a similarly themed DCPS school.

Muriel Bowser has made increased collaboration between the two sectors one of the planks of her platform, but she stopped short of saying restrictions should be imposed on charters. Instead, she said she would "empower the Deputy Mayor for Education to make recommendations about improving collaboration" between DCPS and charters.

David Catania made no mention of charter growth or cross-sector collaboration in his lengthy education platform.

The six principles include calls to improve the transparency of the DCPS and charter school budgets and to use measures beyond proficiency rates on standardized tests to assess student growth. The signatories also want to ensure that families and community members are able to participate in decisions affecting education.

No stand on school boundaries

One thing the principles don't take a stand on is the new school boundary plan, which has attempted to address overcrowding in some schools and under-enrollment in others. While a poll showed a majority of DC residents support the new plan, some who have been zoned out of more desirable school catchment areas have fiercely opposed it. Both Bowser and Catania have said they would not implement the plan as it stands now.

Boyd Simmons and Matt Frumin, another member of the coalition, said the boundary issue was simply not a focus of the group's discussions, which started over a year ago, before the advisory committee on boundaries was even formed.

Both were also members of that committee, and they said that one frequent criticism of the committee's work was that it didn't address the issue of school quality. That, they said, is the focus of the principles the coalition has put forward.

"It's more about whatever it takes to move the whole public education system forward in a positive direction," Boyd Simmons said.

We have good data about DC's low graduation rate, but little idea how to increase it

Given current trends, 40% of DC's 9th-graders won't graduate from high school on time. A new report gives us a lot of data about what lies behind that figure. Now the question is how policy-makers can use that data to improve the situation.

Photo of high school student from Shutterstock.

The report, released last week by a public-private partnership called Raise DC, reveals that a student's characteristics in 8th grade have a lot to do with her chances of graduating on time. But some high schools do better than others at getting high-risk kids back on track. At this point, it's still not clear how they do it, or even which high schools they are.

Eighth-graders who have special education status or limited English skills are more likely to drop out of high school, according to the report. The same is true for those who are over-age, have a lot of absences, score low on standardized tests, or fail math or English. And students who have been involved with the foster care or juvenile justice systems are also at high risk.

While it's good to have all of this quantified, few will be surprised by these findings. The real question is what changes will emerge in response to them.

Raise DC, the partnership that announced the report, launched last year in an effort to bring rationality and a spirit of collaboration to DC's social service sector. The idea is that government agencies and nonprofits will work together to help improve outcomes for DC's children and youth.

The first phase of the joint effort focuses on collecting data. In addition to last week's report on graduation rates, which was done by a consulting firm under the supervision of the Deputy Mayor for Education, Raise DC put out a baseline report card over a year ago.

One of the baseline figures was the percentage of students who graduate from high school in four years: 61%. The goal is to raise that figure to 75% by 2017.

The graduation rate study tracked about 18,000 students who were first-time 9th-graders between 2006 and 2009. The students attended either DCPS schools or one of four public charter schools: Perry Street Prep, KIPP, Maya Angelou, and Cesar Chavez.

While the report ranked high schools on how well they improved students' chances of graduating on time, it didn't attach school names to the results, and DC officials wouldn't release them. But school leaders received data for their own schools, and a working session on Friday gave them a chance to begin formulating strategies to address their school's weaknesses.

Here are some questions they and other policy-makers might want to consider:

How early should we start focusing on kids who look like they're at risk of dropping out?

The report targets danger signs in 8th grade, but other school districts have begun looking for them even earlier. Montgomery County, for example, is now looking for red flags as early as first grade.

While no one wants to stigmatize young children, the sooner schools start focusing on problems with attendance, behavior, and coursework (the ABC's of early warning signs), the less difficult it will be to address them.

How can we help schools that have a lot of high-risk students?

High schools that do the most to help high-risk students graduate have very few of them, according to the report. One conclusion might be that you should spread those students around, so that no school has a high concentration of them.

But that's unlikely to happen. Of the 16 schools that did best in improving students' chances of on-time graduation, only two were neighborhood high schools. The others were selective DC Public Schools or charters, with generally low numbers of high-risk students. You can't just assign high-risk students to such schools.

In fact, it's far more likely that high-risk students will be concentrated in a few schools: the report found that 50% of the students who fall off-track right away in high school attend just seven different schools.

But there's one school, identified in the report only as "School 7," that seems to do well despite the fact that 29% of its students are high-risk. It's a traditional public school with a 59% graduation rate. That may not sound impressive, but it's 20 percentage points higher than predicted, given the school's student body. It would be nice to know what is enabling that school to achieve those results.

What can we do to reduce the number of students who switch schools?

Every time a student switches from one high school to another, the report says, his chances of graduating on time sink by 10 percentage points. And 30% of DC students switch schools at least once during their high school years.

One likely factor contributing to DC's high student mobility is a lack of affordable housing, which can cause low-income students to move frequently or even become homeless. A study released last year revealed that thousands of students exit and enter DC public schools midyear.

This is a problem not just for those students, but also for the DCPS schools that have to take them in. The disruptive effects of that kind of student churn recently led New York City to exempt two struggling high schools from the obligation to admit students mid-year.

The bottom line is that increasing DC's graduation rate, like other efforts directed at closing the achievement gap, is going to require more than just classroom reform. Schools can do a lot, but government agencies and non-profits will also need to address housing problems, mental health issues, and a host of other poverty-related ills.

In theory, Raise DC should make it easier to put in place the kinds of cross-sector strategies that are necessary. But it's still too soon to tell if that theory will translate into practice.

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