Minding the Minders

Our city’s office of the state superintendent of education (OSSE) has admittedly had a rocky road. The recent report by the National Academies on mayoral control of DC public schools noted how OSSE has been bedeviled by high turnover and insufficient data management—and yet manages to have a staff member for every 217 students (in comparison, the state education agency in Massachusetts has 1 staff member for every 1,677 students).

But what OSSE and other DC public education overseers do–and don’t–remains a point of contention.

The National Academies report from June discussed in detail how the legislation creating mayoral control of schools ensured that OSSE, the (elected) state board of education, and the deputy mayor for education (DME) would expressly oversee all public schools–without also explicitly mentioning how they are to interact with one another.

Moreover, the charter board, appointed by the mayor, is under the control of none of those agencies, although the DME is nominally in charge of all public schools and OSSE.

As a result, DC’s hodgepodge of education minders are uncoordinated with one another and even publicly opaque. For instance, charter board members are often appointed, and approved, without much public notice. In addition, the state board of education—our city’s only directly elected education body since mayoral control–has no ability to enact education policies or even initiate them. The state board can only approve (or not) whatever OSSE suggests for education initiatives and regulations (including, most recently, new graduation requirements).

And yet the need for education oversight in DC at a macro level is deep. OSSE recently commissioned a study that showed testing irregularities in six charter and five DCPS schools.

In the absence of OSSE ensuring such necessary public accountability, who would? The DME would seem a logical choice, as the official who ostensibly has oversight of OSSE and who directly reports to the mayor.

Yet the DME has 16 staff members, compared to OSSE’s 382. Moreover, the DME’s role itself is not well-defined: despite being charged with oversight of both charter and DCPS schools, the DME appears to not have much to do with charters.

The net effect is that the DME exercises some oversight of only about half of DC’s public school students—and none over the rest. (Indeed, earlier this year, at a PTA meeting at my school where she discussed her role, DME Jennifer Niles expressly stated that she has no oversight of charter schools.) Even with something as desired as the task force on charter/DCPS coordination that she herself is creating and leading, DME Niles cannot compel charter participation.

In fact, for the almost half of all public education students in DC who are in charters, only the charter board itself approves, oversees, and closes those schools—all the while charter board members have other jobs to do, because they are appointed to the board by the mayor as a public service, not as full-time professional work. (This has made for interesting public meetings, wherein public commentary has been cut off because there literally is no time left before board members had to go home and get ready for their day jobs.) The National Academies report identified external assessments of the board’s performance—all done by charter advocacy organizations.

This de-centralized and self-referential form of charter oversight is by design, to stimulate innovation and to give freedom to individual schools.

At the same time, it inevitably results in a distinct lack of public sunshine. Although each charter school itself has a board that it is answerable to, there is no individual review by any city agency or the council of each charter’s budget. Even something as basic as improving teacher quality is left up to individual charters, without anyone in a neutral position to assess its effectiveness. And the council itself has oversight of charters only in the form of approving approximately $500 million annually for charters—even when the accounts of charter management organizations are not open to the public.

Thus, in this unsunny and uncoordinated education effort, OSSE as an agency holds great promise. It is not merely a source of DC public education data for all DC students, but also the point agency for any standardized testing. Indeed, this summer, the agency worked on creating reports to help parents understand the new PARCC test results—a much-anticipated effort to not only inform parents about their children’s progress, but also to help inform teachers.

But, as the National Academies report pointedly outlined, there remains the conundrum of who is actually in control of public education in DC—and it is clear right now that this buck is stopping with no one.

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