FOCUS DC News Wire 11/6/2014

Friends of Choice in Urban Schools (FOCUS) is now the DC Charter School Alliance!

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  • Greater transparency needed at D.C. Charter Board [Excel Academy PCS, Options PCS, Friendship PCS and Community Academy PCS mentioned]
  • For many, Bowser as mayor means stability for the schools
  • D.C. State Board of Education has three new members [DC Scholars PCS mentioned]
  • California school superintendent battle highlights Democratic education divisions

Greater transparency needed at D.C. Charter Board [Excel Academy PCS, Options PCS, Friendship PCS and Community Academy PCS mentioned]
The Examiner
By Mark Lerner
November 6, 2014

At Monday night's special meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board the leadership of Excel Academy PCS testified regarding recent problems at the school that included enrolling students in the past who were not District residents and significant turnover of management staff. No reason was given for the presence of this charter on the agenda and no context was offered as an introduction to their appearance.

Then yesterday the Washington Post's Michael Alison Chandler revealed that the Office of the State Superintendent of Education is investigating Excel for residency violations around enrollment. A financial settlement over this matter has already been reached with Lela Johnson, an employee of the school living in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, who sent her daughter to Excel without paying tuition. Commenting on the settlement Scott Pearson, the executive director of the PCSB, stated, as quoted by the Post reporter, "the settlement agreement with Johnson was 'the first formal determination . . . after a whole summer of discussions about residency issues at the school.'”

For the public the first time they heard about the issues at Excel was at the charter board meeting and in yesterday's news story. This is by far not the first time followers of this school system have been caught off guard. The resignation of Herb Tillary from the charter board was apparently a secret until it was written about here. We learned that Rick Cruz was nominated to join the board at the time of his confirmation by the D.C. Council. The media also let others know about board member Babara Nophlin's consulting agreement with Friendship PCS and that Mr. Pearson had referred the matter over to the D.C. Board of Ethics and Government for a compliance ruling. The serious financial improprieties surrounding Options PCS and Dorothy I. Height Community Academy PCS were initially brought to light by journalists.

The charter board has done much in recent years to open up their operations to others. The supporting documentation provided as back-up to meeting agendas is a great source of information, although many times it becomes available too close to the date of the session. In addition, starting in 2014 the proceeding of the PCSB can be watched online. However, there needs to be a determined effort and mechanism for communicating potential problems with schools, especially when those concerns have been referred to government agencies. Taking these steps will be just one more way that the local movement can be strengthened.

For many, Bowser as mayor means stability for the schools
The Washington Post
By Michael Alison Chandler
November 5, 2014

Many District residents viewed Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s defeat four years ago as a referendum on his schools chancellor, Michelle A. Rhee, and her disruptive style.

On Wednesday, some saw the victory of D.C. Council member Muriel E. Bowser (D-Ward 4) in the mayor’s race partly as a vote of confidence in Rhee’s successor, Kaya Henderson, whom Bowser has vowed to keep.

“We have seen some improvements, and people want to continue that,” said Stephanie Maltz, an education advocate in Ward 2 who campaigned for Bowser. In a school system that has been rocked by change over the years, “people want stability,” she said.

Bowser will take the helm of the city — and the city’s schools — at an opportune time, when revenue and enrollment are growing and overall academic performance is ticking upward.

But prospects for thousands of D.C. children remain bleak. Many struggle with basic literacy and math abilities and drop out of school. The achievement gap is growing in some areas as more children of educated families enroll in the city’s schools. And while families are being offered higher-quality options by the rising number of charter schools, pressing questions have emerged about how to coordinate facilities and programs.

The city’s mayor has an unusually high degree of control over the schools and influence on how to tackle the challenges.

In addition to naming the chancellor, the mayor nominates members of the Public Charter School Board. Outgoing Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) also named a deputy mayor for education, Abigail Smith, a position Bowser can keep or discard.

No local school board oversees the school system’s budget and operations. Instead, a State Board of Education mainly sets policies about graduation requirements and academic standards.

During her campaign, Bowser put much of her focus on improving middle schools citywide. She offered a “Deal for All” approach, offering to increase the kinds of programs and resources featured at Alice Deal, the city’s most sought-after middle school, which is in Ward 3.

Parents are eager for this kind of investment in middle grades.

“It would be great to have more Deals in other wards,” said Richard Nugent, a former parent at Deal Middle School.

But he said that creating schools that mirror Deal will be difficult because of vast disparities in financial resources and the academic foundations that children bring to middle school, and because of differences in parental involvement.

“It’s not going to be done in the next two or four years,” he said. “But it’s important to make a start.”

A point of confusion for parents is the city’s new school-boundaries plan, which took effect at the start of the school year in August. Gray instituted new attendance zones across the District and a host of related student-assignment policies that D.C. Public Schools has begun to implement.

Bowser opposed the move early on. And at a news conference Wednesday, she said there is nothing related to the boundaries “that can’t be undone or tweaked” after she takes office.

Her stance will be welcome to parents unhappy with the changes. But Beth Bacon, a parent of two on Capitol Hill, said undoing the changes would be “rash.”

“This was a very long process, and a lot of people participated,” Bacon said.

When Bowser becomes mayor in January, her main opponent in the general election, D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), will step down after 17 years on the council, including a productive run as chairman of the education committee.

“It’s a big loss,” said Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children’s Law Center, who worked with Catania to develop a trio of special-education measures. Sandalow said Catania made a difference for children “with different learning styles and from all backgrounds.”

D.C. State Board of Education has three new members [DC Scholars PCS mentioned]
The Washington Post
By Michael Alison Chandler
November 5, 2014

The D.C. State Board of Education has three new members that will start in January.

In Ward 3, Ruth Wattenberg will take the seat vacated by Laura Slover. Wattenberg, an education policy consultant, won with just over 7,100 votes.

“I can’t wait to get to work,” Wattenberg said Wednesday morning, while carrying in yard signs from the lawn. She said the issue that resonated most with voters during the campaign was “massive over-testing.”

“Now I want to get in there and respond to the extreme over-testing and find a way that restores some balance to arts and science and history,” she said.

Tricia Braun, a PTA president at Key Elementary, had a strong campaign and garnered nearly 6,000 votes. Stephanie Blessey Lilley, a board member at D.C. Scholars Public Charter School, earned 3,859, and Phil Thomas, a physical educator, got 1,799 votes.

The Ward 1 race was closer. Laura Wilson Phelan, chief operating officer at an education-related nonprofit, won with 5,674 votes and will take Patrick Mara’s seat.

“THANK YOU to everyone who contributed. I am deeply grateful for your support and hope to serve Ward 1 kids well!” she tweeted Wednesday morning.

David Do, a graduate student in urban planning, trailed with 5,002 votes, and civil rights advocate Scott Simpson came in third with 2,398.

E. Gail Anderson Holness garnered 2,093 votes and Lillian Perdomo had 1,609 votes.

In Ward 6, Joe Weedon, executive director of an education-related nonprofit, won handily with 11,088 votes. Mark Naydan, a teacher in Prince George’s County, had 6,387 votes.

Mark Jones ran unopposed for another term in Ward 5. He’s president of the State Board of Education.

The board has less power than it used to since the D.C. Council established mayoral control over the schools in 2007. Its main function is to set policies around graduation requirements and academic standards. It no longer plays a role in decisions about school system facilities, operations and budget. But many of the candidates also see the position as one of key advocacy for school issues in their part of the city.

California school superintendent battle highlights Democratic education divisions
The Washington Post
By Lyndsey Layton
November 5, 2014

In a white-hot battle in California that is considered a proxy fight for deep national divisions in the Democratic Party over education, Tom Torlakson was narrowly reelected as the state’s schools superintendent, beating back Marshall Tuck by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent.

The $30 million down-ballot contest generated three times as much spending as the race for governor, with money pouring in from around the country. Torlakson received heavy support from teachers unions while Tuck had the backing of billionaire philanthropists such as former New York mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I), the heirs of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, and Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs.

“We knew it wouldn’t be easy,” Torlakson said in a statement. “They were strong, but we were stronger. They were tough, but we were tougher. After all, we’re teachers — we did our homework.”

Many observers viewed the contest as a test of the power of organized labor in California, and it was one of the few election bright spots nationwide for teachers unions, whose candidates lost in bruising contests in Colorado, Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Wisconsin and elsewhere.

The two national teachers’ unions spent a record-setting amount on state and local races, with few victories as a result.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, blamed the losses on the GOP’s ability to nationalize many state races. Local issues such as education were overshadowed by voter dissatisfaction with President Obama, she said Wednesday morning.

“The Republicans successfully made it a referendum on the president,” said Weingarten, whose union spent about $20 million this election cycle. “In the few places where you had issues like education and you had a good candidate who could get through the torrent of negative ads, we were able to win.”

In Pennsylvania, the union backed Democrat Tom Wolf, who was able to unseat Gov. Tom Corbett (R). Corbett was a major target of the teachers unions after he made deep cuts to education and battled the unions over the Philadelphia school system.

In California, the top schools job has relatively little power; the superintendent largely carries out education policy set by the governor and his appointed state Board of Education. It is a nonpartisan post; both Torlakson and Tuck are Democrats.

Torlakson, 65, is a former high school biology teacher who became active in union politics. After his teaching career, he spent more than a decade serving in the state legislature, winning seats in the assembly and the state Senate.

Tuck, 41, had never run for elective office. He is a former president of Green Dot Public Schools, a chain of Los Angeles charter schools. He also is a former chief executive of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a nonprofit school-turnaround group that operates more than a dozen public schools in that city. Before his work in education, Tuck was an executive at a software company and worked for two years in mergers and acquisitions at Salomon Brothers.

Their differences symbolized the tensions within the Democratic Party about the best way to educate the nation’s children. Torlakson pushed for more investment in public schools, does not believe student test scores should be used to judge teachers, and said charter schools need more oversight. Tuck supports expansion of public charter schools, argued for more accountability for teachers and said California’s teacher tenure laws are an obstacle to improving schools.

The stark contrast between the two was crystallized in their reaction to the landmark Vergara case, in which a state judge in June struck down California’s teacher tenure laws as unconstitutional and damaging to students. Tuck celebrated the ruling; Torlakson moved to appeal it.

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