Testimony Before the Council of the District of Columbia Committee of the Whole at the Public Oversight Roundtable on Re-Opening District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) and District of Columbia Public Charter Schools (DCPCS) for School Year 2021-2022

Jul 23, 2021

Good morning, Chairman Mendelson and members of the Committee. 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. 

On behalf of the DC Charter School community, I’m grateful to the Council for providing equitable stabilization funding for the schools most affected by the pandemic in the budget, and for recognizing the importance of stable, predictable facilities funding for charter schools. I also applaud you and your staff’s commitment to collaboration and problem-solving so that every child, regardless of where they choose to go to school, has the opportunity to thrive. 

As we work to recover from one of the most disruptive and devastating years in the lives of our students and families, we look forward to continuing to work with you and Mayor Bowser to make sure that all DC students have access to the very best resources and opportunities. 

With each passing day, we’re getting closer and closer to reopening our doors to students for the next school. And while our school leaders have been diligently preparing to welcome students back, uncertainties still remain. The last year has been traumatizing for students. They’ve been apart from their friends and social lives. A growing threat of violence in many of our communities has left many students fearful. And for many families, particularly in the hardest-hit parts of our city, the pandemic has created or exacerbated instabilities in finances, employment, housing, and food. 

School leaders need to be able to address these issues and ensure they can provide for the needs of their students. These uncertainties are difficult to plan for. But while we’re confident school leaders will find ways to best support the needs of their students this upcoming school year, they shouldn’t have to worry about the city creating additional barriers for them to navigate to draw attention away from their students. 

I’m here today to discuss three challenges charter school leaders are facing as we prepare to welcome back to school the more than 44,000 students who attend public charter schools: 1) The timing of receiving promised funding to assist with reopening costs; 2) OSSE’s last-minute decision not to make ESSER-III equivalent funding available to some charter schools; and 3) the lack of clear communication with city agencies about changing public health guidance that will affect school operations. 

Timing of Funding to Assist with Reopening Costs 

As schools continue making preparations to welcome students in-person, buildings must be safe and well-maintained. Managing facilities is costly, and the need to reconfigure existing space or lease extra space to follow distancing guidelines for students and staff is a significant investment. 

This year, schools have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to ensure buildings can support in-person learning next school year. 

Mayor Bower announced on May 27 in a press release that the budget would place “$10M in additional grants to charter schools to assist with reopening fully in-person for School Year 2021-2022.” Yet, as of this morning, July 22, our school leaders have heard nothing from OSSE, which is administering the program, about the grant application process, how quickly the application will be processed, or when the funds will actually be dispersed to assist with reopening costs. 

It took nearly five months from the announcement of the last grant program OSSE administered to support and prioritize returning charter school students to buildings to begin reimbursements for funds already expended by schools. A similar timeline for new funds that are supposed to assist with re-opening fully in-person is unreasonable and insufficient. 

Our school leaders have gone above and beyond to meet the needs of their students. They’ve asked their teachers and staff to work harder than they’ve ever worked before to open schools earlier to make up for loss of in person instruction. In fact, the majority of our schools have chosen to change their calendars to start their school years early. For most, that means schools will be welcoming students back on August 16 – less than a month from now. 

At this rate, the school year will have begun for thousands of charter school students before leaders know how much funding, if any, they will receive from the grant program. That delay was, at best, manageable last school year when in-person schooling was limited. It is inadequate for the upcoming school year. 

ESSER-III Equivalent Funding Decision and Timing 

A second, troubling example of a major last-minute decision made by OSSE is dramatically challenging some school leaders’ ability to provide a high-quality educational environment for children and adult learners. After being led to believe by OSSE for months that non-Title I eligible schools would receive ESSER-III equivalent funding and after receiving equivalent funding in two previous rounds, OSSE notified school leaders on June 22 that they would only receive $550 per student – a fraction of what these schools expected and were planning for. 

This last-minute decision affecting school budgets is unreasonable and leaves many schools counting on that funding in a bind. This is especially troubling since OSSE abruptly notified school leaders of the decision with just over a month before school leaders must submit their budgets for District of Columbia Public Charter School Board (DC PCSB) review on July 28. 

The decision itself is troubling because the demographics of many non-Title-I schools, which includes all early childhood and adult schools, are similar to Title I schools, and those schools are equally focused on a bold and just recovery for our students, many of whom are in communities hit hardest by the pandemic. But beyond the decision itself is the unacceptable timing of it. This announcement was made after many schools had already budgeted for ESSER III equivalent funds after being told they should anticipate more than both their ESSER-I and ESSER-II allocation amounts. Budget predictability is key, and this decision undermines that principle. 

The Complexity Implementing Changing Public Health Guidance 

With the return of most students, teachers, and staff into physical classrooms, there are a number of complex challenges facing school leaders in implementing changing public health guidance and honoring the personal health decisions of staff and teachers when it comes to vaccination. And, as we move into colder months, the common cold and the symptoms associated with it are likely to return, leaving the potential that a large number of teachers and staff will need to quarantine—not because they have COVID-19, but because health guidance on whether teachers and staff must quarantine when exhibiting symptoms isn’t as clear as it should be. 

The constant revision of plans is complex, and school leaders are in the difficult position of having to make these decisions without clear guidance from the city. What they need is clear, accurate, and timely communication with city agencies about changing public health guidance and other programmatic changes that will affect their operations. 

All too often school leaders receive important information with limited detail at the same time as the broader public. School leaders are not given appropriate early insights into these announcements, preventing them from adjusting their plans and being responsive and attentive to the needs of their communities. A simple adjustment of better coordination and communication would enable school leaders to adjust their operating plans and reinforce new health guidance within their school communities. 

Moving Forward 

DC has always been a place where innovation and excellence in public education have thrived. Charter schools are nimble, innovative, and responsive at their core and that has enabled them to adapt over the last year. But to ensure that schools have what they need for a safe return to school buildings and a full recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, we simply need better collaboration and communication with city agencies and leaders. We’re confident that working together and engaging with charter school leaders will benefit the City and the communities our schools serve. 

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