The Generosity Of OSSE

At the March 6 council hearing for the renomination of Hanseul Kang as the head of our office of the state superintendent of education (OSSE), I had the odd distinction of being the only one of 13 public witnesses to testify against the renomination.

Given what has transpired at OSSE during Kang’s tenure—a major graduation accountability scandal that her agency apparently missed; Kang’s refusal to have an independent investigation of the schools that educate nearly half our students; a test-heavy school rating system gamed by ed reform advocates and that advantages schools with wealthier students; and a residency scandal that appeared to have been made far worse because of Kang’s agency–you would think there would have been more than just one person to say any of this.

Sigh.

Part of the problem may be that OSSE is, well, a generous city agency.

For instance, looking the other day in DC’s awarded contracts database, I found 252 contracts listed for OSSE, for a total of $526 million from January 2012 until the present. But until the spring of 2015, when Kang began her work at OSSE, the total contracts (about 50) were for about $35 million.

Thus, between January 2012 and spring 2015 in the database, OSSE had about 17 contracts per year. By contrast, from spring 2015 through the present, there are about 200 OSSE contracts in the database, representing about 4 years of contracts. That works out to about 50 contracts per year under Kang’s tenure–for a total of nearly half a billion dollars.

This is not to say that this snapshot from our city’s contracts database represents all of OSSE’s outflow (it doesn’t count grants, for instance, which in OSSE’s case come from both DC government funds and the federal government)–but it does provide a window into the fact that the agency has engaged a lot of private, outside, help under Kang’s leadership.

Take one recent helper: FourPoint Education Partners, an organization that was hired by OSSE for a 1-year, $900,000 contract that will end this month, to assist with turnarounds of ten DC publicly funded schools with low test scores. More than $600K of the money granted was used for 10 individuals, each of whom would go to each of the 10 schools to coach the schools’ leaders.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with trying to help schools whose students struggle. But it appears in this case that OSSE assumed that the low test scores were a result of poor school leadership–and that the saving grace would be a company whose two main leaders together have less than 5 years of teaching experience in public schools (see here and here). Weirdly, the company is based in a Bethesda, MD, house, which apparently belongs to one of those leaders–with two other leaders seemingly based out of their own houses in suburban Arlington, VA, and California (see letterhead from the company’s prior incarnation here).

To be fair, I cannot single this contract or company out–there were plenty more contracts I found in that database, awarded by OSSE under Kang’s tenure to similarly small, private organizations for a variety of similarly soft, advisory services. (You know, sort of like TenSquare.)

But it is worth putting this munificence of OSSE into perspective:

The $900,000 for this one OSSE contract could buy at least nine staff members for those schools. And given how DCPS regularly shorts schools with poor students (see researcher and DCPS parent Betsy Wolf’s excellent analysis here), and how its current turnaround plan for schools with low test scores allots a mere $75,000/school, the question becomes what value DC is getting from this and other similar contracts promoted (and increased) under Kang’s tenure, which essentially prioritizes giving public money to private groups over giving it directly to the public schools themselves.

Thus, to put the role of OSSE as a provider of funds into perspective, I have endeavored to outline below, in the order in which they appeared, people with possible fiscal connections to OSSE who testified in support of Kang at that renomination hearing. As only two council members showed up for the hearing, both of whom were chairing it (Phil Mendelson and David Grosso), it would seem that Kang is all but assured of being voted in for another 4-year term (and who knows how many more contracts).

Scott Pearson: As executive director of DC’s charter board, Pearson directly benefits with increasing numbers of charter schools and their increasing enrollment, since the charter board assesses annual fees of charter schools dependent on their revenue (this year, 0.9% of budgeted revenue), which itself is based in large part on enrollment. Because OSSE is a source of grants as well as other funds to our charter schools, Pearson and his agency, largely funded by those fees, is indirectly a beneficiary of OSSE and its largesse.

Yesim Sayin Taylor: Founder and executive director of the DC Policy Center, Taylor is an economist whose organization has worked with OSSE on out of school time issues. That said, I couldn’t find this contract or who was employed on it from the policy center, which has recently been funded mainly by contributions from the Federal City Council and the Walton Foundation.

Irene Holtzman: Holtzman is executive director of FOCUS, which lobbies for charter schools. FOCUS has received SOAR (Scholarships for Opportunity and Results) grants from OSSE in the following amounts for the following fiscal years:

2017: $205K

2016: $178K

2015: $165K

2014: $485K

2012: $250K

(NB: SOAR grants are funded by the federal government and distributed by OSSE to DC charter schools and selected nonprofits assisting charter schools. All SOAR grant awardees are determined by OSSE. Unfortunately, on OSSE’s webpage dedicated to SOAR grants, it has no awardees listed for 2013 and only facilities grants for school awardees for 2016. I got information about fiscal year 2017 awardees from OSSE’s responses to council questions, available here.)

FOCUS has the additional distinction of being called on to provide talking points to charter schools that wish to lobby DC elected officials. For instance, in a 2017 email, charter board executive director Scott Pearson directed DC charter schools to contact FOCUS for help lobbying against the suspensions bill that recently passed into law.

(Kinda makes you wonder what’s being, uh, suggested right now by our charter regulators to the schools they regulate regarding recent proposed school transparency legislation.)

Patience Peabody: A former employee of OSSE, Peabody now works at the Flamboyan Foundation, an education reform organization working in DCPS and DC charter schools that has received the following in SOAR grants from OSSE in the following fiscal years:

2017: $171K

2016: $181K

2015: $219K

2014: $498K

Richard Pohlman: A former OSSE employee, Pohlman was selected by OSSE to be on the ESSA task force. He is the outgoing executive director of Thurgood Marshall charter school, which has received SOAR grants from OSSE in the following fiscal years:

2017: $92K + $264K in facilities money

2015: $357K

2014: $400K

2012: up to $150K + $77K in facilities money

Marullus Williams: Head of private tech business Limbic Systems, Williams co-chairs the executive advisory board for the DC Career Academy Network (DC CAN), which OSSE runs, selecting high schools that will receive OSSE funds to set up career academies. He is also one of the founders of the new DC charter school Digital Pioneers, which eventually will have a high school component that could benefit from DC CAN.

Alan Tuck: A senior advisor for OSSE and DC CAN, he is also connected to NAF (formerly, the National Academy Foundation), which connects schools with academic and business leaders and that, in DC, does an assessment of schools with DC CAN funds to determine whether they become official NAF academies.

Tuck is also part of a group called Bridgespan, which has had interest in ed reform in both Denver and Indianapolis. If those cities ring a bell, it’s because both chancellors Wilson and Ferebee were school leaders in Denver and Indy, respectively.

In fact, Tuck’s relationship with ed reform follows a line directly tied to DC:

One of Tuck’s Bridgespan colleagues is Margaret Boasberg, whose brother, Thomas, recently retired as the charter-friendly Denver superintendent of public schools, and whose other brother, James, was the judge who ruled against the plaintiffs in the 2013 DCPS school closure lawsuit. (You know, the lawsuit that said the closures disproportionately affected poor black kids–which they did. But it was ruled all good because no one intended that effect. Yay!) The Boasberg siblings grew up in DC and attended private schools. Bridgespan was apparently a spin-off of powerful private consulting firm Bain & Company, which has employed Tuck, Scott Pearson, and Margaret Boasberg’s husband, Chris Bierly (see here and here for Bierly’s work on education).

(Gosh, maybe it’s just me, but does it seem like a lot of wealthy, white people with ties to private schools are making money from privatizing public schools in places they don’t live in and/or send their children to public schools in? Or can this really happen if no one intends it?)

Joyanna Smith: In her testimony, DC’s former ombudsman for education downplayed her former role relative to her current one, as regional director of Rocketship charter schools, which received $98K in a SOAR grant in fiscal year 2017.

The other four witnesses testifying for Kang did not appear to have any direct fiscal relationship to OSSE:

–Melinda Gray: Banneker high school parent who spoke positively of OSSE’s summer enrichment program, which funds 250 DC students annually (including her child), to attend college programs in the summer.

–Karen Williams: Ward 7 state board of education rep, who spoke approvingly of Kang and DC’s ESSA plan. Despite the fact that all OSSE policies have to go through the state board, the board itself cannot initiate policy without OSSE and the agency can act against the board’s wishes.

–Donna Anthony: A former OSSE employee and now executive vice president at HSC, a local child healthcare company, she sits on a DCPS advisory committee for Head Start. HSC is the home of other former DCPS employees, like Nathaniel Beers–and probably has many DCPS students and likely shares business with OSSE–but I found no direct OSSE connection.

–Thomas Ratliff, Teamsters Local 639, which represents OSSE employees.

Short: we’d all do well to mind intentions! Oh, and to remember that no exoneration is really exoneration.

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