There's a whole new world under that rock.
Scott Pearson has served as Executive Director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board — the body that oversees the District’s charter schools — since 2012.
Today, after nearly eight years in the post, he announced that he plans to leave the board at the end of the school year.
Under Pearson, the number of charter schools in the District doubled. But questions about that growth, and the schools’ transparency, persist.
So why leave now? Scott Pearson joins Kojo to explain what’s behind his decision.
Produced by Monna Kashfi and Margaret Barthel
- Scott Pearson Executive Director, D.C. Public Charter School Board; @dcpcsb
KOJO NNAMDIYou tuned into the Kojo Nnamdi Show at WAMU 88.5, welcome, later in the broadcast concerns over the rising rates of youth suicide and a look at local volunteer emergency services.
KOJO NNAMDIBut first, in 2012 Scott Pearson became the Executive Director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board. That's the oversight authority for local charter schools. Back then there were fewer than 60 public charter schools in the District. That number has doubled during Pearson's tenure with the board. Now about half of D.C. students attend a charter school. Scott Pearson presided over that growth and the often polarizing questions about accountability and oversight that came with it. Moments ago he announced plans to leave his position at the charter board, and now he joins us to explain what's behind that decision. Scott Pearson, thank you so much for joining us.
SCOTT PEARSONThank you Kojo. I'm happy to be here.
NNAMDIYou've been heading up the charter school board for nearly eight years. Why step down now?
PEARSONWell Kojo, I told our staff today that after eight and a half years at the end of the school year I am ready to move on. And I truly loved this job. I will say it's the best job I've ever had. You know, in Washington, D.C. there are now a 122 public charter schools run by 62 different nonprofits. And each one of them has a leader. And as a group these school leaders are the most extraordinary people you can imagine. And they have truly inspired me. As have the teachers and parents and families. And seeing so much energy and talent working on behalf of kids in the city has uplifted me every day. But I have always lived my professional life in chapters. And this has been the longest one yet. Change is good for me. But I also think it will be healthy for the Public Charter School Board to have the fresh perspective of new leadership.
NNAMDIYou mean there's no scandal, no infighting, no disgruntlement that's causing you to step down at this point?
PEARSONNone at all. None at all. This is actually a decision I reached a couple of years ago, when my youngest son graduated from high school. And just thought, what's the right arc for my life, and decided that school year 1920 would be my final school year as Executive Director of the Public Charter School Board.
NNAMDIWell, no scandal, there's no story here. Goodbye Scott. No, over the course of your involvement with the board the charter sector has grown by leaps and bounds. About half of all D.C. public school students attend the charter school. And some people in charter schools point to the competition and interplay between traditional public schools and charter schools as a tide that lifts all boats. But there are also concerns that DCPS could suffer from reduced enrollments as charter schools take over more of the share of students. Is splitting the student population about 50/50 with DCPS the optimal balance in your view between the two systems or are you hoping that charters will continue to expand to serve more of the students?
PEARSONI think it is the optimal balance. And while we've added a number of schools the population in the city has also grown. So our share of the students in the time I've been here hasn't changed all that much. But I'll tell you why I think it's the optimal balance, because it has achieved extraordinary results for the families of the District of Columbia. You know, the federal government does an assessment of educational outcomes called the NAEP every two years. And they've tested both DCPS and D.C. charters, as well as every state in the country and every large school district in the country. And since 2011 the D.C. public charter sector has grown by more than every other state in the country and every other school district in the country with one exception.
PEARSONThere's only one school district that has improved faster than we have. And that is D.C. public schools. So we have this extraordinary situation in Washington, D.C. where the two fastest improving school systems in the country are right here. It's DCPS and the D.C. public charters. And I think we have a lot to be proud of for that. And that has happened, because we're both working on behalf of students and we do have this roughly even mix between our two school systems.
NNAMDIBut one of the big questions about D.C. charter school oversight is whether or not these schools should be subject to public information and open meeting laws. The laws that govern the traditional public schools, charters and other jurisdictions have to respond to public information requests and to open their meetings to the public as does the charter board. The D.C. Council is currently considering a bill that would require individual charter schools to comply with some of these transparency measures. You have expressed some concerns about the bill. Don't you think that the charter sector should be more transparent? And why does this bill not have your support?
PEARSONWell, transparency is extremely important, because public charter schools are public schools. And we have done so much at the charter board in the last eight years to make schools more transparent. If you go on our website you will find nearly 100,000 pages of information about our schools. So it has not been a debate about transparency. It's been about how best to achieve that and still allow our schools the operational freedoms to succeed the way they have. You know, when I started here in 2012 I outlined three priorities. The first was quality that our schools have to be great. The second is that public charter schools need to live up to the word public, which means that they're open to everyone, they're not pushing students out. They're transparent in their operations. They're living up to our expectations of ensuring students health and safety. And the last --
NNAMDIBut how are they doing that if they're not responding to FOIA requests?
PEARSONWell, we at the public charter school board respond to FOIA requests. And we collect vast amounts of information from our schools that we, most of which we make available on our website without FOIA. And --
NNAMDIAnd why shouldn't schools themselves respond to FOIA requests?
PEARSONWell, because the FOIA requests are extremely burdensome. They take an enormous amount of time and energy, which is energy and funds that could be spent on students. And what we have seen is that when we ask for examples of what sort of information would you want to get from schools, it's either information that we already have and provide to the public, or it's information that would not actually be available through FOIA. So you could submit the request, the school would spend dozens or even hundreds of hours going through their e-mails and their files. But at the end of the day, because it's student protected information or for other reasons that are exempted in FOIA it wouldn't be available.
PEARSONSo our concern is, is that the specific way that the bill is drafted in the City Council is that it would put a lot of burden on schools, and it wouldn't actually produce much in the way increased transparency.
NNAMDIBut if I'm a parent of a child in such a charter school doesn't that send me the message the less you know about this school's operations the better?
PEARSONI would say to that parent, spend a little bit of time on our website and you will know more about that school than you could have ever imagined, including, you know, we go and visit schools with our staff. And we do detailed write-ups of what we see classroom by classroom. And that's all on our website for people to read.
NNAMDIThe Public Charter School Board plays an important oversight function for existing charter schools in monitoring the progress of the schools, identifying issues like disproportionate discipline and other challenges. Sometimes you've even had to close down schools. What have been some of the most challenging oversight decisions that the board has faced during your tenure?
PEARSONWell, closing schools is always the most challenging thing, because you know that you're going to be displacing families, and you hear directly from the families and the students and the staff of the schools that you're closing. But we have firmly believed that if a school is not serving students well, that keeping it open year after year will not be the right outcome for the community. What we have done though is we have worked to provide families with soft landings. So for example, we have arranged for other schools to come in and take over those schools. So the adults in the building change, but the students can continue attending school at the same location or we've closed schools through phase-outs where they have to, they can't admit any new students.
PEARSONBut the students, who are already at the school can continue until they matriculate out of the school, and so more than half of the closures that we have had to make in the last eight years have actually avoided displacing students. And I'm really proud of that.
NNAMDIWhat is your proudest achievement as Executive Director of the Board? And where you do think you might have fallen short?
PEARSONI would say my proudest achievement is the way that we have stepped up our partnering across the city. We've been a better partner with DCPS. We've been a better partner with city agencies. And probably the crowning achievement of that partnership has been the creation of the common lottery, my school D.C. that allows families to apply to charter schools and to DCPS schools all through a single website, a single lottery that makes sure that people have the best shot of getting into their schools.
NNAMDIWhat's still left to be done?
PEARSONWell, we, as I mentioned at the outset, we have shown tremendous growth, not only growth in our achievement, but also in progress in narrowing the achievement gap between our black students and our white students. But that progress has been frustratingly slow for me. Despite growing faster than every other state, we still have so far to go to make sure that all of our students have an equal shot at going to college, and succeeding in college, and succeeding in a high paying job, and a family sustaining career.
NNAMDISo what's next for you?
PEARSONWell, I'm going to take a very relaxing summer, and then I will figure that out. What I do know is that I'm committed to this city. I'm committed to this work. I'm committed to the families of the District of Columbia. And so I will be looking for a way that I can keep trying to make a contribution, and make a difference.
NNAMDISo you step down at the end of May next year, is that correct?
PEARSONCorrect, May 2020.
NNAMDIScott Pearson is the Executive Director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board. As you just heard, he steps down at the end of May next year. Thank you very much for joining us and good luck.
PEARSONThank you Kojo.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, concerns over the rising rates of youth suicide, and later on a look at local volunteer emergency services. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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