When Public Officials Go Private: Urban Institute & Research Collaborative Edition

Since summer 2017, the Urban Institute has secretly worked with DC education leaders on a plan to be an independent education research entity working on behalf of the mayor and generating research about DC’s publicly funded schools. The public was first informed about this during a July 13, 2018, council hearing.

According to testimony during the hearing, the Urban Institute wrote up an outline of its role as an independent education research entity and circulated it to DCPS, the office of the deputy mayor for education (DME), the charter board, and the office of the state superintendent of education (OSSE), while repeatedly meeting with officials from those agencies. The Urban Institute also shopped the proposal to individual council members.

The kicker? The hearing at which this was all revealed was not about the Urban Institute.

Rather, it was a joint hearing of the city council committee of the whole and the education committee on legislation to create an independent education research collaborative in the DC auditor’s office. The collaborative was proposed to counteract the political influence of the mayor and her appointees on education data and how it is used and reported, given the many education data misrepresentations of late.

(For a primer, start here.)

The proposed legislation would house the collaborative in the auditor’s office. Since the auditor is appointed by the council, but independent of it, the idea would be that the collaborative would itself be independent of political influence.

Yet, except for its mention at this hearing—and, specifically, Ward 3 council member Mary Cheh’s repeated questions about it–Urban’s proposal would likely never have been made public until it was a fait accompli.

For all any of us little people know, that may have been entirely the point.

Urban’s plan–contained in five single-spaced pages still not publicly available–proposes annual funding of $2.5 million (from whom remains an open question). Holding up the document during the hearing, Cheh responded with incredulity to repeated claims by OSSE head Hanseul Kang and acting DME Ahnna Smith that all they did was have some nice little meetings with Urban on the subject, nothing was finalized—oh, and the whole thing was Urban’s idea, anyway, and the process undertaken by people who are no longer employed by the DC government (former DME Jennie Niles and former DCPS chancellor Antwan Wilson).

Perhaps a blessing in disguise, no DCPS representative was at the hearing.

(Yes, DCPS may be the school sector educating the most kids in DC, and the only one conferring education rights–but details!)

Over the course of more than 5 hours, Cheh’s questions became more urgent, asking whether other research entities were considered (no) and whether the word would go out for other entities to bid on the potential work (no).

Cheh ended by repeatedly asking Kang one question: “Is it your intention to create a separate research practice partnership?”

(BTW, Cheh got no answer. But if you want a great example of DC nonspeak, listen to Kang’s responses starting at 4:44:10 in the hearing video, available here.)

What makes DC public education officials working in secret with a private group to access and manipulate public school data privately even more galling is that the July 13 hearing was supposed to be about a publicly funded independent agency using public education data not only to make it more publicly accessible, but also to use it to inform the public!

Indeed, the hearing began with earnest public witnesses, who testified about the lack of education data right now (and stonewalling on data by DC education agencies) and the urgent need for clear and easily accessible data, including the demographics of students in poverty and teacher turnover. Several public witnesses also testified about the importance of having the collaborative consist of stakeholders, including parents and teachers and other educators. (The legislation calls for the collaborative to have a 16-member advisory board, only a quarter of whom would be appointed by the mayor.)

Public witnesses also noted that any nonprofit like the Urban Institute, engaged by any city entity to do this work, will inherently be led by the desires of the city officials hiring it.

But several other public witnesses–from groups with potential business with the city as education research entities–expressed concern with the independence of a research collaborative housed in another government agency, especially one that conducts audits of city agencies. Council member David Grosso echoed such concerns by noting that if the entity is not independent, agencies won’t cooperate–and neither would he.

[Confidential to David Grosso: If ed. reform interests give you and your council colleagues lots more money than I and other DCPS parents, does that mean you yourself are not independent?]

One witness, DCPS parent Danica Petroshius, simply asked who the city will invest in for this purpose: government agencies or public stakeholders? Open government advocate Fritz Mulhauser took it one step further and asked what value are we the public getting for the massive investment we have made in OSSE as an education data collector.

If that hearing was any indication, the answer to Mulhauser’s question would appear to be very little.

After all, the 5+ hour hearing mostly consisted of testimony from government witnesses (and none from DCPS!) who seemed to be, at best, lukewarm about the idea of an education research collaborative in the auditor’s office. Indeed, one of those government witnesses, acting DME Ahnna Smith, was openly hostile to the idea, saying that the collaborative would “inherently politicize the research agenda.”

Smith’s incredible statement came nearly 4 hours after a DCPS teacher testified about how education data in DC has been weaponized against teachers.

By that point, even council chair Phil Mendelson had had enough. Noting that the mayor controls OSSE, the DME’s office, and DCPS, and appoints members of the charter board, Mendelson asked Smith how that control of education data is not political, but having a research entity housed in the auditor’s office was political.

(He didn‘t get a good answer.)

Then there’s the little issue of money:

With $500,000 of annual public funding, the public research collaborative would collect city education data and generate research from it. That research would inform the work of the city agencies in charge of our public schools, including OSSE (>$150 million annual budget); DCPS (>$900 million annual budget); and the charter school board and schools (>$700 million annual budget).

So why would education leaders in charge of nearly $2 BILLION in public money annually spend more than 5 hours publicly worrying about (and then denouncing!) an entity whose budget amounts to a mere fraction of 1% of their budgets?

Gees, maybe We The People are a scary bunch–because who else could those government witnesses fear so much?

It’s not like the city council has ever truly threatened the executive branch or the mayor regarding schools. For instance, the council recently rubberstamped the >$30 million DCPS food contract without uttering one syllable about it, despite the contract’s deep shortcomings. And David Grosso never looked back after being, um, massaged by the mayor into not holding a hearing about who knew what and when regarding former chancellor Wilson’s skipping of the lottery.

During the July 13 hearing, in fact, council chair Mendelson openly pushed back against DCPS teacher Laura Fuchs, when the latter testified that several groups at the hearing had a business interest in the public research collaborative not taking shape so that their groups could be the research entity instead.

(By my count, when Fuchs testified 3 of the 18 witnesses (17%) had a business interest in being the city’s research entity. By the end of the hearing, 5 out of 23 public witnesses (22%) had a business interest in being the city’s research entity. Ironically, Fuchs’ point was later underscored in the hearing by acting DME Smith, who noted that they had heard from many research firms at the hearing that could potentially act as independent research entities–including the Urban Institute.)

In the end, the hearing was not about private versus public research entities—or even the collaborative itself.

Rather, the many hours of clear unhappiness expressed by public officials in charge of our schools was about a deep discomfort with the idea of the public being in charge of, well, anything regarding its own schools.

This point was made powerfully by at large council member Robert White, who near the end of the hearing asked acting DME Ahnna Smith whether she thought it fair that an employee up for promotion suddenly is told that the rules had changed and instead of being eligible for promotion, the employee was now in violation of the rules of employment.

White was, of course, referring to the mayor’s recent veto of emergency legislation to ensure that students who had been told they were eligible to graduate in June would be allowed to do so–even if technically in violation of the attendance policy that the students had never been correctly informed of in the first place.

Defending the mayor’s veto, Smith’s answer—as logically correct as it was cruel–underscored the remove that our education officials in that hearing room, officially testifying on behalf of our schools, are at every single day from the people IN our schools.

See the exchange here.

After all these hours of our public education officials denouncing the public’s role in its own schools, ask yourself who bears the price of official policies and actions that don’t include stakeholders as foundational.

Because there is a price–and the people actually IN our schools pay it every single day.

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