April IS the Cruelest Month

Pace T. S. Eliot: in the wake of spring break and council hearings and PARCC, we in DC have what appears to be strange bedfellows and disturbing noises–including rodents and inequity–in regard to our public schools.

At budget hearings this week, for instance, the DC city council heard loud and clear common concerns around DC public education funding for FY18, including

–How the mayor’s proposed 1.5% increase in the uniform per student funding formula (UPSFF) is too little for everyone;

–How modernizations in DCPS are massively shortchanged and inequitable;

–Ditto for staffing at all schools in FY18, mainly because cost increases have outpaced the mayor’s proposed $105 million bump up in overall education funding;

–How at risk dollars are being used to pay for, not supplement, core school functions, including basic supplies for classes; and

–How after school programming is being shortchanged.

None of this is exactly surprising or new in public education in DC.

But what is surprising is the apparent political comity, with council members and a wide variety of people testifying in agreement that the mayor has been extremely not nice to all public schools with that 1.5% UPSFF increase.

Indeed, several local education organizations are pushing for an increase to 3.5%, including the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates, which has a letter-writing campaign, and the DC Education Coalition for Change, which is holding a rally on May 10, starting at 6:30 pm at the Columbia Heights Education Campus.

Despite not being a member of the council’s education committee, Ward 7 council member and former mayor Vincent Gray showed up at the budget hearing for the deputy mayor for education and proceeded to grill her about inadequate education funding. Earlier that day, staffers for Gray’s office had passed out copies of his press release advocating for a 4% increase in the UPSFF, with a yellow box in the upper right corner, saying “Urgent! Councilmember Gray asks that you mention your support for the 4% increase to the UPSFF in your testimony today.”

The mayor’s proposed tax cuts have also come in for their share of criticism. Referring to a possible $40 million annual savings by not authorizing proposed tax cuts for estates worth up to $5.5 million and not cutting proposed business income taxes, council education committee chair David Grosso noted that the UPSFF could be raised to 3.5%–leaving about $15 million in change.

But as miserly as the proposed 1.5% UPSFF increase may be, it didn’t happen in a vacuum.

Like our mayor, our new president wants to cut taxes on the wealthiest among us—and has plenty of support for it. And even though school reform advocate Catharine Bellinger, of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), noted at the recent Ward 6 ed. council (CHPSPO) meeting her organization’s opposition to the new federal education secretary’s stance on using public funds for private school vouchers, school reform advocates appear OK with charter schools using public funds out of the public eye—something that Betsy DeVos herself advocates.

And that’s not even mentioning the happy comity across party lines in endorsing test-score-heavy accountability.

(Sigh: I am still waiting for a response on my FOIA about who advised our state superintendent of education to have such a test-heavy emphasis, though I will be sure to let everyone know what the Chesapeake Bay Foundation had to say on this subject—once I hear it myself, of course.)

It’s one thing in a rich city like ours to say that no one should go without—especially kids, dozens of whom turned out to testify to the council this week about just how shafted their DCPS schools are this budget cycle.

But it’s quite another thing to shortchange those kids when there are rodents running through their classrooms (as at least one parent testified) as well as students’ families being targeted by immigration authorities (who now have been emboldened to profile all immigrants as potential criminals).

Years ago, defending the pace and scope of DCPS renovations, which prioritized schools with wealthier student bodies, former DCPS chancellor Michelle Rhee noted that someone’s school had to be renovated last.

And it’s really true: someone always has to be last.

So why is it, in a rich city like ours, that in education at least, it seems like the same people, time and again, who are last?

The answer to this is like the silence that greeted me yesterday when I asked during my testimony whether DC has a black budget, such that we have hours of discussions about a 1.5% or 3.5% increase in the UPSFF, while there is not one second of fiscal concern uttered when the charter board is set to approve next month new schools and we have more than 10,000 empty public school seats already.

To be sure, Betsy DeVos wasn’t there to answer my question–but some people we voted for were. And they said nothing.

Perhaps adding to the unique nature of April in DC, our DC public schools have PARCC now. I do not know if my DCPS middle school is emblematic of the rest, but I can attest that PARCC has been torture for everyone there, whether with confused and upended schedules, nonworking computers, weeks of test prep, and, during the actual testing, stolid hours of noninstruction and waiting for guidance and a computer because nothing is as it was and one can only wait—and wait some more—for joy or fun or laughter or the happiness of just being a kid or teaching kids.

A waste land, indeed.

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