The Unbearable Lightness of Being [A Public School Family in DC]: Part 2

On February 17, two events happened in DC public education that will have an effect on all public education families for at least the next year: the release of DCPS budgets to individual schools and the first meeting of the deputy mayor for education’s (DME’s) cross sector task force.

There are no publicly available minutes of that 2/17 task force meeting that I could find. But documents given to participants are available on the DME website and include fact sheets for public elementary, middle, and high schools as well as a presentation given to participants (just scroll down at that link above).

According to that presentation, the DME asked the task force to answer three questions:

–What surprised you in the data presented at the meeting?

–What questions do you have about the data that did not get answered?

–What are the myths or perceptions you believe exist about public education?

I’m not a member of the task force, but I certainly was surprised by the way in which the fact sheets are titled “Public Education Supply and Demand for the District of Columbia.” As steward of public education in DC, the DME has apparently turned what some of us think of as a vital civic duty of prime importance, like justice, voting, or representative government, into “supply and demand.” (Perhaps we should expect the next round of PARCC results to be called “annual productivity reports”? Thinking in such a businessy way is apparently a thing among charter proponents as well as the company that makes PARCC.)

Anyway, the data on the DME’s fact sheets goes into detail, by ward and by sector, about public school enrollment, student population, and the capacities of school buildings.

Oddly, however, the DCPS capacity estimates are determined by another agency and, in some cases, appear not to reflect current uses of the buildings in question. Each charter school, however, is allowed to estimate its own space, per current uses.

Chalk me up in the surprised category again.

Unsurprisingly, this led to some questions, like “If you are going to use numbers for capacities that are not rooted in the reality of how all those buildings are currently used (and without information on how the communities want them to be used—much less analyzed in equivalent ways), how are you going to plan realistically for anything city-wide and across sectors?”

and

“Given that those same capacity numbers make DCPS look like it’s sitting on a goldmine of empty space when it may not be, how could any reasonable person avoid concluding that DCPS needs to not be a mean dog in the (educational) manger and free up space for charters, as local charter lobbyists and DC charter leaders have demanded—even when that may be an inaccurate conclusion using the charter schools’ own estimates of their space in those fact sheets?”

Sigh.

A week later, at the cross sector task force focus group I attended at Eastern High School on February 23, the DME and her staff outlined five goals of the task force: to develop information sharing methods; develop a framework for coordinating school openings and closings; promote enrollment stability; identify educational challenges; improve the experience of parents choosing schools.

The following questions were then asked of each participant:

–Which of these goals resonates most with you and why?

–What information needs to be shared with the public and across sectors?

–What educational challenges exist or are exacerbated by a two sector landscape?

–What does success look like for this work?

–What does failure look like for this work?

–Are there any goals that you think are missing or that shouldn’t be included?

–As we begin this work, what are some of the perceptions of each sector (DCPS and charters)?

–Are there recommendations you have on how best to engage the public in this process moving forward?

In the interest of being positive (and a shorter blog post), let’s talk about what success might look like:

Success looks like saving money.

Face it, no one likes to waste money! In this case, that would mean no more duplicative school programming, and no more new schools without commensurate population growth, since both inevitably depopulate existing schools and waste money. Saving money also means no more school closures, which don’t save money and ensure neighborhoods and communities are devastated in their wake. (Oh, and how about all public middle schools aligning their grades, so we don’t have the waste of schools that get depopulated in one grade? It’s not just this blog or WAMU saying this: check out chancellor Kaya Henderson at the council’s DCPS performance oversight hearing on Friday March 4, at minute 34.)

Success looks like closing the ever-present achievement gap.

We know, right now, that poor kids often don’t do well academically in schools with overwhelming poverty. But most kids in DC are poor, and the lottery alone doesn’t ensure diverse schools, so closing DC’s persistent achievement gap starts with funding all existing schools appropriately for the student bodies they have, throughout the school year and from year to year, rather than the ones we wish they had (or that we blame them for not having, attracting, or creating).

Success looks like having by right schools with good facilities within walking distance of every home.

Schools close to home are important to parents: at the DME’s performance oversight hearing before the council last week, the council was told that data show that most DC parents enroll their students in the public schools closest to their homes.

But right now, using the DME’s own fact sheets, there are 61 unrenovated DCPS schools, many of them in wards with the most children and the poorest residents. In addition, many neighborhoods in those wards have lost ALL their by right schools through closures (justified by the cruel metric of low enrollment and poor facility condition).

And yet, kids in areas of DC without a by right school attend charters at higher rates. This is not because charters are superior: it is because they may be the only local school option. (It’s not me saying this: it was a conclusion (page 7) of a study funded by DC on school closures for SY2008-09.)

All of this means that our city is apparently OK with ensuring a large portion of poor kids have no neighborhood, by right schools—and that the by right schools that still exist in those places are likely to languish without renovations for the better part of another decade.

(Or what is otherwise known as the entire secondary school timeframe for a generation of DC school kids.)

Our city has approved this violation of the guarantee of equitable public education—and continues to do so–despite the fact that expulsions, suspensions, and general rights of kids and their families are different in the two sectors. Only one sector provides a guarantee of a seat, a guarantee of treatment, and a guarantee of a basic right to public education (see especially p. 16ff). Which leads to

Success looks like every city official, elected or otherwise, understanding that charter schools are not equivalent to by right schools. (NB: This isn’t a statement against charters—it is a statement of fact, kinda like the sun isn’t the moon or Jupiter, notwithstanding the charms of each.)

Hmm: seems I’ve strayed a bit from most of the DME’s goals.

But, being positive, one can hope the task force will discuss all of this at its next meeting, on March 21, from 6 pm to 8 pm at EducationCounsel (101 Constitution Ave. NW, Suite 900).

Certainly, the DME and task force will have plenty of opportunity to discuss this with individual charter schools, with whom the task force is having quarterly public meetings–as opposed to the apparently zero meetings it is having with individual DCPS schools left to deal with our city’s abiding lack of success in those areas outlined above.

4 thoughts on “The Unbearable Lightness of Being [A Public School Family in DC]: Part 2

  1. The first meeting was clearly not meant to break any new ground. It was an exercise in politeness and diplomacy. People who mostly already know each other introduced themselves. The data presentation was not something that anyone present would have found revelatory. It is impossible to draw any conclusions from the first meeting on how future meetings will unfold. The simple fact is that the data isn’t sufficiently fine-grained to disprove anyone’s preconceived notions about where we should be heading as a two-sector system. I plan to attend all the meetings as a concerned resident / ethnographer, and will drop back by if anything surprises me at a future meeting.

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