What They Said: Public Education Roundtable

The public roundtable on school governance and oversight this past Monday (March 19) was an important, if belated, milestone. In the wake of DC public school scandals (plural!), and the council’s inability to get the mayor to testify about them, the education committee of the city council decided to hear ideas from the public concerning the path forward for our city’s public schools.

For that purpose, the hearing seemed to work, kinda sorta–if only as a first, tentative step in a strictly chaperoned dance around governance and oversight.

Notwithstanding committee chair David Grosso’s note that Congress regularly issues “threats” when the council tries to regulate DC charter schools (really?) and with plenty of oversight apologias and stepping back from Grosso and Ward 3 council member Mary Cheh (resulting in some witnesses helpfully reminding council members that they actually have authority for school oversight), many parents, advocates, and even students offered excellent observations and ideas.

Those included how mayoral control has removed the public from its schools, with few outlets for meaningful public involvement; how spin and test-heavy accountability have resulted in pressure on teachers and test scores; Eboni-Rose Thompson’s excellent (and unanswered) question of what it means to hold the mayor accountable for schools in the absence of voting; Suzanne Wells asking (to silence) how many public high schools are in DC (answer: 36, while Seattle with a similar population size has slightly more than half that number of public high schools); Martin Welles asking for each DC charter school to be subject to FOIA under its contract with DC (as other states have done); and Mary Filardo asking why city leaders (and the Post editorial board, apparently) are anxious about even looking into how effective mayoral control has been.

Despite those excellent thoughts, the hearing seemed not so much about those ideas as about a moment when city leaders appeared to be willing to actually hear them. Given that a few actual members of the education committee didn’t even bother showing up (hey there, Trayon White and Anita Bonds!), one wonders about the depth of the commitment of the council to take seriously its role as, well, a de facto school board under mayoral control.

Thus, it seemed only fitting that after Ward 7 students from Anne Beers Elementary testified about their school and the city’s lack of investment in it and their feeder middle school (what a surprise: Sousa), one of their parents, Jeanne Contardo, expressed sheer anger. After years of investing in her local school with her own children, without any corresponding investment by the city (or even Chancellor Wilson doing so with his own kids!), Contardo declared she was simply “tired of leaning in to solve a problem that the District seems uninterested in addressing itself.”

That statement set the tone for the 5 hours that followed, none of which should have come as news to anyone paying attention in, oh, the last decade.

There were parents who testified about their school’s annual budget struggles, including Abigail Paulsen, Hardy PTO president, who cried after testifying that the only thing her LSAT could do with its newly released budget is decide whom to fire. (See here, starting at 4:24:07.) Heather Schoell, an Eastern and Eliot-Hine parent, posited that school budgets could be increased by covering just school staffing, with other city agencies covering the cost of social workers and support staff. Another parent cut to the chase and simply appended to her testimony what she said years before to the council, when the PERAA report came out.

And then there were those who just came to warn of the future:

Mary Levy, along with Marla Dean, noted that DCPS high school closures in the near future are likely, absent change. Matthew Frumin asked that if, as some claim, education has been such a success under mayoral control (hey there, Post editorial board!), why has DCPS’s enrollment actually declined in the last ten years as a percentage of the total and every subgroup of students not advanced academically in that period?

(No answer.)

Five hours is a lot of time, so if you have only ten minutes or so, be sure to catch two testimonies that both succinctly get to the spin, the hype, the lack of public voices, and the urgent need for change in our public school governance: the testimony of Ward 7 ANC commissioner Anthony Lorenzo Green (see here at 1:50:23) and the testimony delivered by Dan Davis, in the office of the student advocate (available here).

Ten years into mayoral control, it appears we have a lot to account for.

NB: David Grosso has promised to reconvene this hearing on May 16, at 4 pm—pursuing what he calls a “process” of examining school governance that he expects to be completed in 6 months. Whether we will ever hear in that time directly from the mayor on the schools she supposedly has oversight of remains unknown.

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