Editorial: Mayoral Control Has Failed DCPS

[The following is a guest editorial by public school advocate Peter MacPherson]

During much of human history, state power has resided with just a few people. Sometimes that power was applied fairly, for the common good–though many self-appointed leaders, or those receiving their command as a birthright, have applied power capriciously, to the benefit of a few and with nothing a modern person would recognize as accountability.

Modern representative democracy and the application of the power it offers those chosen by the people is a dramatic improvement. Some form of accountability is now almost a given. But that accountability can still be inadequate, either for structural reasons or because those in oversight roles simply do not perform to the level required.

Ironically, one feature of American representative democracy has been an ongoing embrace of executive power. Many Americans find the consensus-building implicit in legislative bodies and governing boards to be difficult or even impossible to achieve.

Local manifestation of such democratic executive power is DC’s mayor, who has seen a vast increase in power after being given control of DCPS. In 2007, freshly elected mayor Adrian Fenty made the pitch that with DCPS under his control, DC’s municipal schools would operate with greater efficiency, and, curiously, more accountability.

A decade earlier, the control board Congress created to oversee DC finances and help it emerge from a massive fiscal hole took power away from the elected school board and appointed a superintendent with power to make many crucial decisions unilaterally. The job was given to Julius Becton, a retired Bronze- and Silver Star-winning Army lieutenant general who had served as both administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and as a university president.

In spite of his impressive credentials and years of public service, Becton’s brief tenure as superintendent did not transform DCPS. As the Post quoted Becton at the time of his departure: “I am tired, I really am, physically, emotionally, mentally, I’m tired . . . [This] has been the toughest job that I’ve ever had.”

Yet, despite this inauspicious experiment in bypassing the elected school board, seven years later the council accepted Fenty’s argument that the elected school board could not transform a badly struggling system into a good one. The then-council members were willing to embrace a substantial expansion of executive power and the elimination of one of the few elected bodies in the city–a decision not ratified by DC residents. The council voted to dissolve the school board, the mayor signed the legislation, Congress approved, and President George W. Bush placed his imprimatur on the deed.

In those 10 years, has a school system controlled by the mayor and administered by the executive’s chosen instrument, the chancellor, been transformed into a gleaming educational edifice of quality and broad academic achievement?

Not really.

The level of turnover and attrition among DCPS teachers has been far higher than national norms. The same is true of DCPS administrators. DCPS has fewer students than it did 10 years ago. In school year 2006-07, DCPS had 52,645 students and DC charter schools 19,733, with DCPS having almost 73% of students. In the 2017-18 school year, despite growth in the school-age population of the city, DCPS has 47,982 students and DC charters schools 43,340. Alongside the decrease in absolute numbers of students, DCPS’s share of students has declined to a little over half citywide.

Such declines are not evidence of success.

Under mayoral control and like DC’s charter schools, DCPS has judged its progress using statistical measures of student test taking, such as the DC-CAS and PARCC. Sadly, all of DC’s publicly funded schools have shown only modest gains on these tests, while the achievement gap between white and African American students has widened–and while in the wake of a 2012 cheating scandal, it has become clear that many recent DCPS graduates were not, in fact, eligible to graduate.

(There is no independent analysis of what is occurring in DC charter schools regarding meeting standards for graduation.)

In the meantime, DCPS’s pedagogic innovations, like student performance-based teacher evaluations, have been clung to like life preservers in the freezing North Atlantic, with the belief that they alone would save the day.

To be sure, the quality of many DCPS school buildings has improved dramatically since the modernization program began in earnest in 2007, with old buildings modernized or new ones constructed. But the locations of those modernized buildings and the extent of their improvement have clung tightly to lines of race and class. Many, including city auditor Kathy Patterson, have noted that there has been no apparent process to the order in which buildings were modernized or resources devoted to them.

Yet modernizing the city’s portfolio of DCPS school buildings did not require the elimination of the elected school board or the creation of a new executive agency (the Department of General Services) to oversee it. Structures within DCPS could have managed the construction, and, in the years prior to its elimination, the DC Board of Education had created a master facilities plan with greater equity and transparency.

Simply put, mayoral control has failed to transform DCPS for the better.

The same children who succeeded academically before this embrace of executive power–the ones with stable home lives, good nutrition, and economic security–are still doing well. The academic achievement of DC’s poor African American children is still far below that of their white peers. And the DCPS schools they attend, with the exception of high schools, have not been modernized with the same fulsomeness as the ones in which the majority of white children enroll.

Moreover, DCPS schools with low enrollments are overwhelmingly attended by poor African American children and–because local school funding in DC is driven by enrollment–these students are getting a much thinner educational experience. Six of the 13 DCPS middle schools are operating at well below 50% capacity. Two of them, McKinley Middle and Brookland, are just 3 years old. And many faces of DCPS middle grades underenrollment are hidden. These students attend education campuses, which usually enroll students from pre-K3 to the 8th grade. These education campuses often have even fewer in the middle grades than traditional DCPS middle schools. Because their student numbers are so small, their academic offerings are reduced as well.

The reason mayoral control of DCPS has failed is implicit in its nature.

This governance model allows those running DCPS to act both quickly and unilaterally. In the end, there could be little surprise that former Mayor Adrian Fenty chose Michelle Rhee as chancellor. He installed someone who was indifferent to what a large swath of stakeholders felt, operating like a zealot and atomizing the old order as she went. In her drive to close schools, Rhee was clearly indifferent to the input of affected communities and the negative effects of those closures, which continue to the present day.

Fenty made it clear that the point of mayoral control was to allow the chancellor to run the schools with a minimum of political interference, save what came from him. And the city council obliged.

The longer mayoral control of DCPS has been in place, the stronger DC’s charter schools have become, both financially and politically, with both the mayor and council increasingly beholden to charter schools and their wealthy supporters.

As a result, the current situation resembles nothing as much as the mayor being the chief executive officer of two competing airlines. No one would suggest such a scenario is workable or desirable–yet that is the reality with mayoral control of DCPS and limited legislative and executive oversight of DC’s charter schools. By trying to play both sides, DC politicians have facilitated the growth of DC charter schools, while allowing DCPS to fail to meet the needs of many current students and lose enrollment.

From the beginning, the council seemed determined to not be the de facto school board. For the most of the first five years of mayoral control, oversight of schools fell to the committee of the whole, led by the council chairman. Both former council chairs Vincent Gray and Kwame Brown oversaw the schools with a very light touch. Operating budgets submitted for council review were extremely opaque, even as sums being given to DCPS were the largest ever appropriated.

Over time, the overall opacity of DCPS operations resulted in the reestablishment of the council’s education committee by council chair Phil Mendelson. The first head of the newly resurrected committee was at large council member David Catania. During his brief tenure, oversight ratcheted up dramatically. After Catania’s loss to Muriel Bowser in the 2014 mayoral election, the education committee chairmanship was turned over to at large council member David Grosso. His oversight style has been far more deferential and minimalist than Catania’s.

The council itself has shown that mayoral control cannot be made to work.

When two mayors presented their choices for chancellor, the council never raised important concerns, like the fact that neither Michelle Rhee nor Kaya Henderson had ever served as a school principal nor held any senior administrative position in a school before coming to DCPS. Their management experience was very limited, and the organizations they led before coming to DCPS were far smaller. And all the chancellors who have led DCPS over the past decade were selected without fidelity to even the limited forms of accountability and public involvement that are part of the 2007 Public Education Reform Amendment Act.

But Mayor Muriel Bowser herself is the most significant reason to believe that mayoral control in DC cannot be successfully retooled.

For political reasons, Bowser very much needs the recent education scandals (for the record: Ballou graduation and attendance; Ellington residency fraud; Chancellor Wilson’s waitlist skipping) to be perceived as the outgrowth of bad acts by a few individuals. She has not taken any ownership over the culture that has developed within DCPS during the past 10 years that led, most recently, to school leaders manipulating graduation statistics. During her recent state of the city speech, Bowser did not sound a single note of contrition about what has happened during her tenure. She merely acknowledged the scandals and pledged unspecified changes.

There is also the mystery surrounding the resignation of Antwan Wilson as chancellor. The former chancellor insists the mayor knew of the transfer of his daughter from the Duke Ellington School for the Arts to Wilson High School before the news was widely reported. Muriel Bowser made both Chancellor Wilson and former deputy mayor for education Jennifer Niles casualties of that transfer decision, which violated rules Wilson himself put in place.

Here is the crucial question:

If the mayor did know, then why is the behavior of those two public officials more egregious than her own?

DCPS’s main oversight body, the city council’s education committee, has been unwilling to demand an answer to that crucial question.

Such failed stewardship of DCPS coupled with significant concerns about honesty mean, at the very least, Mayor Bowser should no longer be running DCPS. Yet, without a primary opponent and without the council forcing her to testify, Bowser will have no political reckoning for what has taken place on her watch.

Worse, a decade’s worth of mayoral control has clearly demonstrated the mayoral governance model of DCPS to be a failed one.

Ideally, DC residents should be given the opportunity to directly vote on the form of school system governance they desire. Putting the public back in public education is the only way to ensure its success.

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