It’s Perfectly Normal To Be In Favor Of By Right Schools

In a 2003 interview, novelist Kurt Vonnegut was quoted saying the following:

“It’s perfectly ordinary to be a socialist. It’s perfectly normal to be in favor of fire departments.”

I was forcibly reminded of that statement during meetings in the last few weeks to get public feedback for cross sector task force recommendations; the master facilities plan (MFP); and our city’s school report cards.

(BTW, the cross sector task force is holding one of its last meetings tomorrow, Tuesday April 24. You can call in or show up: 6-8 pm, Savoy Elementary, 2400 Shannon Pl SE; (515) 604-9334, Access Code: 557734. Your last chance to weigh in on the task force recommendations is the survey here, closing today.)

Anyhoo, the reason I was reminded of Vonnegut’s statement was that the personnel running each of the meetings I attended appeared to eschew entirely the notion of our city’s by right public schools as civic institutions and guarantors of the right to education.

(Perhaps for DC education leaders, it’s NOT perfectly normal to be in favor of civic institutions like fire departments or by right public schools?)

Take the meeting I attended for the cross sector task force recommendations. Despite attendees talking about the dire effects of gentrification on the ability of families to raise children in the city and the fact that school budgets are often lacking, the recommendations addressed none of that. When I noted that by right schools are important civic assets like post offices and that their closure negatively affects entire areas of the city for generations, someone noted that even post offices get closed due to lack of use, so what is the problem?

(Hmm: Not sure that communities without schools (or, gees, without post offices) would agree that there is no problem.)

Then there was the master facilities plan (MFP) meeting I attended, also held by the deputy mayor for education’s office, wherein attendees were told about the process of facilities condition assessments and analyzing “demand” (which turns out to be about waitlists, in boundary attendance, and test scores–not any need for a local by right school).

There was also no discussion of how charter schools self-assess our city’s need for them (see Sarah Livingston’s excellent testimony on this at the charter board budget hearing) nor under what public process DCPS takes over failed or closed charters (i.e., Excel).

In fact, it emerged only late in that MFP meeting that not only will the charter board reserve the right to open, close, and grow schools at will (making a mockery of any planning or investment in depopulated DCPS schools), but that the facilities condition assessments for charter schools in privately owned buildings would be paid for with an unknown amount of private money (from the Walton Foundation) and would not be available fully, as with the others—but only in the aggregate.

(The idea is that public money should not be used for any activity involving privately held buildings. Which is an admirable sentiment, but a bright line that didn’t seem an issue when the charter board demanded public funds to reimburse charter schools for testing lead in water and putting filters in those privately owned charter school buildings.)

Perhaps the most curious part of my experience during that MFP feedback session was when one of the AECOM contractors for the MFP kept asking my small group what programs we would like to see in our schools–as opposed to asking, um, what was needed (say, renovations, new bathrooms, better technology, repairs for the still-decaying Stuart-Hobson auditorium walls, etc.) and how the planning process could help address those needs.

(Or simply to ensure that school communities do not find out about a major change in their school’s renovation–you know, like a large chunk being torn down–on another school’s listserve, as happened to the Eliot-Hine community this month.)

What made those questions around programming at my MFP meeting so interesting was the way it seemed we were gathered simply to figure out ways to create new schools and programs and enhance school choice. Indeed, the AECOM contractor appeared genuinely amazed when I noted that absent making the first priority of planning a strong by right system of neighborhood schools, any other planning was secondary, since rights hang in the balance.

And yet, as extraordinary as all of this is to anyone who regards by right schools as vital civic institutions, the feedback session I attended for the ESSA school report cards, managed by the office of the state superintendent of education, or OSSE (yes, the other DC education agency reporting directly to the mayor and responsible for this and this and this, too) seemed to take all of this to a new level.

There, after we were urged to look at mock-ups of report card web pages that contain information pertinent to the reports, it emerged that the content of most of the pages was already, in the word of our OSSE feedback leader, “baked.”

Soooo: why were we the public even involved in this (apparently already concluded) party?

Rearrangement.

That is, the arrangement of the elements on each page of the school report card was up for discussion, as was anything else we might want to have on the report cards–without any promise that it would ever be there.

So we attendees talked a bit about what else we might want to see (teacher retention, demographic data, etc.) and the fact that on each of the pages, the star rating for the schools was placed prominently, at the top. We noted that since the rating measures only a few criteria relative to all that was being reported on the report cards, it seemed unnatural to be placed so prominently.

Unless, of course, the purpose of that placement is to facilitate choice. (Swipe now!)

As a member of the public whose feedback was solicited thusly, I have to say that my sense of normalcy has been seriously challenged.

If it’s indeed–pace, Mr. Vonnegut!–perfectly normal to be in favor of fire departments (and presumably other public institutions), then we might have discussed instead

—Ensuring first that all neighborhood by right schools have the facilities, programming, and staff they need, to support the kids they have; and

—Ensuring that support is equitable regardless of the socioeconomic status of the students attending each school; and

—Ensuring that planning for schools is done with the public at every step, not after the fact nor after important decisions are made; and

–Ensuring by right schools are preserved in every neighborhood, with predictable and supported feeder patterns; and

–Ensuring no new schools are created or existing ones enlarged except when the public directly demands it, in a process driven and overseen by the public–not after the fact nor indirectly through the dubious metric of waitlists; and

–Ensuring the public is involved with re-using closed school facilities–including assessing the city’s need for those buildings first before offering them to charter schools and ensuring that no further offer to a charter school is done automatically if a charter is not initially chosen.

None of which those meetings ever addressed directly.

And none of which requires a change of law; a change of governance; or even spending more money than we currently do!

So why didn’t those charged with running those meetings focus on any of that low-hanging education fruit?

Heh: Apparently “normal” isn’t what is used to be.

So, be sure to weigh in on those report cards–feedback ends officially on May 4.

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