Testimony Before the Council of the District of Columbia Committee of the Whole

Mar 9, 2021

Good morning, Chairperson Mendelson and members of the Council. My name is Shannon Hodge and I am the Founding Executive Director of the DC Charter School Alliance, the local non-profit that advocates on behalf of public charter schools to ensure that all students in the District receive the great public education they deserve. Thank you for the opportunity to share thoughts on the performance of DC’s education agencies.

As we reflect on the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 global pandemic, we first applaud the efforts of our teachers, staff, leaders, families, and students. We hear and know how exhausted they are and want to elevate the need for attention to and investment in social-emotional well-being across the entire educational community.

Throughout today’s hearing, you’re likely to hear about what has gone wrong in the last year, about how the COVID-19 global pandemic has upended the educational landscape, about how the City’s education and public health officials are still figuring out how to make schooling work in the midst of a public health emergency, and about how schools are trying to meet the diverse and occasionally divergent needs of their students, families, teachers, and staff. These are all crucial conversations to have. For today, though, I’d like to focus on what schools and students need from the District of Columbia’s agencies and officials to triumph over—not merely recover from—the COVID-19 global pandemic.

Bold and Targeted Financial Supports

First, schools and students need the City to be bold in its commitment to recovery and targeted in its support of the most vulnerable students. Every day, news headlines reveal that the people most negatively affected by COVID-19 are the same historically disenfranchised and underresourced communities who most need support and innovation from the City to simply survive. To truly support these communities educationally, the City’s investments must be both bold and targeted. Practically, that means:

  • Ensuring that the 45,000 students attending charter schools have equitable access to recovery and relief funds directed to the District;
  • A Fiscal Year 2022 budget that demonstrates a commitment to “adequate” funding, through a 4% increase in the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula foundation level; 
  • A 3.1% increase in the facilities allotment to ensure that charter schools continue to secure and maintain school buildings;
  • An increase in the at-risk weight to .37 to direct needed funds to students most in need of targeted interventions and support;
  • $6.4M in additional funding for the Department of Behavioral Health’s school-based mental health program to enable 80 additional schools to address mental health needs; and
  • An increase in the English learner weight to .61 as a way to indirectly support undocumented students often excluded from receiving other financial supports due to lack of documentation.

Now, more than ever, the District of Columbia’s most underresourced and vulnerable students need bold, targeted investments.

Better Coordination and Communication with City Agencies

What schools and students need is not only budgetary, however. Students and schools need better coordination and communication between city agencies and school leaders, which the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education can facilitate. From the early days of the pandemic, charter school leaders struggled to receive critical information, weigh in on strategies and decisions, and have enough notice to update their plans and engage their communities. The 45,000 students attending DC’s charter schools and their families deserve and expect more. While we have seen improvement in this area over the past year, particularly from Deputy Mayor for Education (DME) Paul Kihn, school leaders still learn about programmatic changes at the eleventh hour, often with little engagement and little to no opportunity to adjust their plans.

The City benefits from more and better engagement with charter school leaders. For example, in November charter school leaders collected their lessons learned from providing in-person learning and support opportunities from the beginning of this school year and publicly identified what was needed to safely and successfully educate students in school buildings during the pandemic. And today, charter school leaders are sharing that public health guidelines make it difficult—if not impossible—to provide quality in-person learning environments for substantially more students. We have compiled their recommendations for updated guidance and will discuss them in more detail in next week’s DC Health performance oversight hearing.

We have also gathered charter school leaders specific recommendations for how other DC agencies can support the city’s students and schools during and after the pandemic:

  • The Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) should expand its summer offerings for students to help re-engage students, provide options for families, and alleviate pressure on already exhausted teachers and school staff.
  • The Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) should:
    • Provide internet access for adult students and students who are undocumented;
    • Better communicate with families, especially about how they can directly contact OCTO’s Internet for All program;
    • Provide better internet quality, speed, and connectivity, because households with multiple children and working parents suffer most from poor internet quality;
    • Provide help desk support in other languages;
    • Develop a citywide technical support system; 
    • Clarify whether OCTO or the City will reimburse schools for hotspots and data connectivity they’ve purchased directly; and
    • Articulate a plan for how OCTO will continue to support internet access next school year.
  • The DC Department of Transportation (DDOT) should:
    • Coordinate with the Kids Ride Free Program on a COVID safety campaign to encourage mask wearing, social distancing, and other coronavirus mitigation strategies on public transportation; and
    • Work with schools to improve its communications around projects that are located near schools. 
  • The Department of General Services (DGS) should regularly update charter schools on projects that affect the functioning of their schools and have a point of contact for school leaders.  

Teachers, staff, and leaders are working tirelessly to ensure students receive the most robust education possible. To be successful, they need better and more communication and coordination with city agencies, including ones not listed above. The DME can support this by convening school leaders and agency representatives regularly and by ensuring that each school has a point of contact at city agencies whose work intersects with those of our schools.

Rethink Accountability

If we are to truly address the equity issues that the pandemics of the last year have exposed and exacerbated, we need the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) and the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board (DC PCSB) to re-envision and rethink how they hold schools accountable. We are and have been aware of the problems with and inadequacies of our  current accountability systems. For all the devastation that the last year has brought, it has given us the opportunity and the imperative to rethink accountability through a lens of equity.

For school leaders, whom OSSE and DC PCSB must engage early, often, and meaningfully, this means designing accountability frameworks that effectively balance proficiency and growth and that better reflect academic growth, especially for high-school  and non-traditional students. This also means developing better ways to measure adult student progress because the current accountability frameworks do not accurately capture the distinctiveness of these programs.

The Road Ahead

The innovations and flexibilities that are the hallmark of charter schools have enabled them to adapt over the last year. However, charter leaders have not lost sight of the work that existed before we ever heard about COVID-19, and they understand how much work is required to triumph over it. To do so, however, they need bold and targeted investments, better coordination and collaboration, and accountability frameworks that put equity and growth at the forefront.

Thank you for your time and attention to this matter, and I welcome your questions.