What They Said: DCPS Chancellor Nomination

During the final public hearing/roundtable of the council for chancellor nominee Lewis Ferebee on February 12, so many public witnesses testified about what they hoped for (or disliked about) DCPS itself that after almost 3 hours of public testimony, with almost 2 hours yet to go, education committee chair David Grosso noted petulantly that it was a hearing for the candidate, not the school system, and testimony should be tailored as such.

Both Grosso and council chairman Phil Mendelson took that to heart, having visited Indianapolis where Ferebee was head of the public schools. Both then spent the first part of their time with the nominee (during a hearing that stretched for more than 9 hours total) asking him about test scores drops and widening achievement gaps at Indianapolis public schools under his watch as well as violence at a high school (and the incredibly violent response of adults to it) and Ferebee’s apparent desire to privatize the public schools there.

Ferebee’s responses were, uh, interesting.

In some cases, he asked who Grosso or Mendelson had spoken to in Indianapolis, implying that they had the wrong information. In one case, Ferebee said that a group Grosso spoke to in Indianapolis had a “political agenda” and implied that they were not to be trusted as a result. When asked by at large council member Elissa Silverman what his role would be if a charter school located in a neighborhood with an underenrolled DCPS school, Ferebee answered that if DCPS is doing its job, that shouldn’t be an issue–then went on to say he didn’t understand the question. Not long after, she asked him if racial segregation was a problem in DCPS–and again, he said he didn’t understand the question.

As a DCPS parent, I was simply astounded–but really should not have been.

For instance, Grosso started his questioning by asking about Ferebee’s closeness with charter schools, saying “I believe in DC having a strong, thriving by right system in the city. And I’m wondering, do you?” Ferebee answered thusly:

“Yes. Ensuring that our students have a by right choice option is first and foremost a priority.”

OK, can anyone tell me what a “by right choice option” is? Either you have schools of right–or you don’t. Either you support schools of right–or you don’t. Rights are not a “choice option,” like an array of toilet paper brands at the grocery store. Rights are rights.

To be sure, this is not a linguistic criticism–it goes to the heart of the responses that Ferebee gave overall. That is, in the face of some tough, but plain, questions, he said he did not understand, which itself was puzzling. Then, when faced with criticism, albeit indirectly, for his actions, he implied that the information was inaccurate and the reporters suspect. At times, it felt as if he was not answering questions as much as skillfully selecting from an array of answer choice options. (Cue the promo: “Just like answers–only better!”)

None of which is disqualifying, of course, no matter how unsettling it is for the idea of truth or political independence in public education. Still, as one public witness noted, if confirmed Ferebee could find himself on the losing end of several lawsuits related to his tenure in Indianapolis–and that reality could be very detrimental to DCPS.

The lackluster vote the other day to advance Ferebee’s nomination out of the education committee–3-2–suggests that all of this wasn’t lost on the council, either.

So, before the council moves ahead to vote formally on Ferebee’s nomination (if they vote at all), read the wise words below of several public witnesses who testified that day before the chancellor nominee took his place at the mic. (Come to think of it, now that we have our school budgets, maybe the widespread shortchanging of our schools of right with the most vulnerable students is just part of the plan?)

Allyson Criner Brown, Teaching for Change (full testimony available here):

“I am among the advocates who would argue that even more concerning than the prospect of future rounds of school closures is the continued under-resourcing of DCPS schools that – for years–have needed and deserved so much more. Too many of our schools are held to high standards without the adequate resources to address the opportunity gaps that come from racial and economic inequality. Even our schools serving higher income populations have laundry lists of needs–building and maintenance issues, technology gaps, language access, incomplete modernizations, lack of funds for enrichment programs, gaps in staffing . . . the list goes on. We have to move DC public schools in a direction to where neither parents nor the school feel the need to raise tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars (in some cases, millions) to ensure that their children have access to a high quality education.”

Ivan Frishberg, DCPS parent (starts at about 2:27 in the video of the hearing):

“I love DCPS. I love the idea of it. I am passionately committed to a system of neighborhood public schools. I worked really hard to make it a success. To make our school a success. But also to make the whole system a success. I feel really good about the progress that we have made on a number of fronts. But it’s just too damn hard. Too often, what makes it hard is DCPS itself. Not at the school level, but at the organizational and cultural level and at headquarters. The experience with Jefferson [Middle School] is that we have had incredible school leadership . . . significant increases in test scores . . . enrollment meeting projections . . . but it is just too hard to make the progress. . . . As you know, multiple years of the mayor’s budget delaying modernization. We begged, we pleaded both with the mayor’s office, with the deputy mayor, at this table, with the council, and what DGS and DCPS did is they fixed the cupola and put in a nice 3-foot-high fence . . . that nobody asked for. You all funded stabilization money. DCPS did not spend that money. It got pulled back. We had a foundation offer the school a basketball court. The city government said no. Nothing we could do to change that opinion. The foundation got frustrated and walked away from the district. We did research on enrollment, because that was a key issue both in modernization and in school funding. Our numbers from working with the feeders were consistently better than DCPS’s numbers. We couldn’t and we still don’t get really good analysis from DCPS on how they come up with the numbers that they come up with. And that’s still an issue as we go through modernization where ultimately we’re building a 540-person school, and I think everybody understands it will end up being a lot bigger. . . . We have had a lot of success, but it has been hard: really too too hard. And a lot of that has been because of . . . DCPS and the leadership from the deputy mayor’s office.”

Signe Nelson, ESL teacher, Whittier EC (testimony available here):

“My real concern here is privatization of public education. Funding for education is the first or second line item in every state budget, including the District of Columbia. And that’s a lot of money. We have charter schools in this city thanks to Congress, through the District of Columbia School Reform Act of 1995, not because our citizens EVER voted to use Washington, D.C. as a laboratory for a charter school experiment. Charter expansion got a big boost during the Rhee-Henderson years with the closure of over 40 neighborhood schools of right. At the same time, DCPS has turned key functions over to outside contractors who are closely allied with the charter world and funded by pro-charter philanthropists. And we are under relentless attack by privatization interests masquerading as democratic, grass-roots activism, also funded by charter expansion interests. It should not really come as a surprise that the expansion of the charter sector to nearly 50% of enrollment, and the ill-conceived “reforms” of the last 12 years in DCPS, have led to little appreciable improvement in the educational outcomes and experiences for the overwhelming majority of our children in both sectors. On the deepest level, I think this is all about the money.

“And what I am seeing here right now disturbs me, and it should disturb you. The mayor hires (and the Council confirms) a deputy mayor, whose premier expertise is charter conversion. The mayor backs charter advocates in the SBOE elections. Now she offers us a chancellor, who as superintendent of Indianapolis schools rather than investing the effort to strengthen public schools turns them over to private operators. It looks to me like the plan is to continue to privatize at the expense of public education, by setting the foxes to guard the hen house. It’s the same strategy the president uses for weakening federal departments and agencies by placing them in the hands of individuals who are hostile to their missions. Whose plan is this? Who is making educational policy behind the scenes in Washington, DC? . . . [The council must] defend against unelected private interests making educational policy to suit their agenda.”

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