That statement above was uttered on March 19 by DCPS chancellor Lewis Ferebee, at a meeting of Ward 6’s Public School Parent Organization (W6PSPO). It was, literally, the last thing the chancellor said as he was leaving the room–and it was in response to a question by a parent, who asked whether DCPS would be closing schools in Ward 6.
To get to why a parent would ask that question (pity that no one had time to ask about the other seven wards), let’s go back to the start of that meeting, with our chancellor seated next to a parent, education researcher Betsy Wolf. While the chancellor looked at a paper copy of Wolf’s excellent presentation, she used it to outline (amazingly, in 5 minutes!) how DCPS regularly shorts schools with large proportions of poor and at risk students.
For instance, here is one of her illustrations:
Copyright Betsy Wolf, 2019
Wolf went on to note that there are proven things DCPS could do right now to mitigate this funding inequity:
Copyright Betsy Wolf, 2019
Copyright Betsy Wolf, 2019
It was a damningly effective presentation just a few feet in front of the one person in the entire city who could change it all tomorrow.
Yet, instead of addressing any of Wolf’s points, here’s what our chancellor did in less than 5 minutes immediately after Wolf finished:
–Said that there are enrollment challenges at schools with the most at risk kids;
–Asked how we can invest in those schools;
–Noted that the council was “noble” in trying to address this inequity with “stabilization” funds;
–Mentioned that $21 million has been invested in schools with declining enrollments since 2015;
–Said the $21 million came directly from central office and that “this is not a sustainable practice”; and
–Noted that schools with growing enrollments (mentioning Ward 3 particularly) may not get what they need because of schools with low enrollments.
So it was that in the wake of a devastating presentation of how his own agency has repeatedly enforced inequity that is borne disproportionately by the poorest students in our city, our chancellor said our city could not afford a $5 million annual investment (out of a $1 BILLION annual budget) in schools with declining enrollments and poor kids and that the schools with the wealthiest kids in the wealthiest area of the city (Ward 3) would lose out if his agency were to allow schools with poor kids and declining enrollments to continue their existence.
(Yes: This actually happened. I wish I were making this up.)
Worse, we didn’t even know then that the $21 million figure Ferebee bandied about was a talking point. A week later, at a SHAPPE meeting, Ferebee’s boss, deputy mayor for education (DME) Paul Kihn, reportedly said that it was a “hard choice” to spend $20 million of stabilization money on schools with low enrollments.
Recall that at a SHAPPE meeting a few months before, DCPS’s Melissa Kim noted that closures may be coming.
So now we know:
–There will likely be upcoming DCPS closures (but not in Ward 6!) and
–The closures will be framed by DCPS and the DME as addressing the problem of crowded schools in Ward 3, which are crowded in part because of out of bounds enrollment (which makes those schools more diverse, so all good) while
–It will also be framed as a problem of schools with poor children and low enrollments taking away resources from other schools–to the tune of $5 million a year.
This accounting can most charitably be described as interesting–especially as Wolf’s presentation put the lie to Ferebee’s contention that schools with low enrollments are shorting other schools of anything.
(In fact, after more than 8 hours of public testimony last Friday, during the DCPS budget hearing, we now know that our city leaders have shorted schools all on their very own. For any doubters out there, consider starting here. And be sure to go here, too. And note that stabilization monies are granted to any school with a budget shortfall–not just those with low enrollments, so that $20 million Kihn mentioned in *stabilization* monies may in fact be a red herring.)
Yet, as awful as the notion of both chancellor and DME turning their backs on schools with low enrollments and poor children, the pretext underlying their statements is, if possible, even worse. That is, in talking about the “hard choice” of supporting low enrollment schools, both leaders disregard the public that provides the funds and actually invests in those schools with their own children.
Take a metric often used to denote how a community invests in its schools: in boundary participation.
During a council hearing last fall on a new Shaw middle school, DME Paul Kihn discredited a Shaw middle school by of right, noting that in boundary participation, based on current in boundary participation rates, would never be high enough to warrant creating the school.
In doing so, Kihn ignored many things, including population growth and current enrollments of schools immediately around Shaw. (Check this out, created by the group Save Shaw MS using DCPS data.)
Perhaps most amazingly, Kihn also ignored his own office’s data showing in boundary percentages–as if that statistic is meaningless. That is, in some schools, despite a low in boundary participation rate, there is a high in boundary percentage in enrollment. Those schools may not capture a lot of their in bounds students, but their enrollment nonetheless may be comprised largely of in bounds families who have chosen those schools.
The prioritizing of in boundary participation over in boundary percentage suggests that for these decision makers, the people actually investing in their in bounds schools are worth little, if anything, in decision making about those schools’ continued existence. In addition, both Ferebee’s and Kihn’s recent statements suggest that our city can afford neighborhood schools of right only where in boundary participation is relatively high–which in DC is mainly in the wealthiest area of the city, Ward 3.
All of this is deeply problematic not merely for democracy and equity, but also for budgeting. Nowhere is the adequacy of current investments in so-called low enrollment schools accounted for–much less the association of that investment with enrollments or acknowledgement of the budgetary inequities suffered disproportionately by schools educating our poorest kids. There’s also no accounting of the need for neighborhood schools close by, with some neighborhoods now lacking any school of right because of prior closures. And there’s no accounting of the people who have already invested in those schools; the creation of charter schools around them that deplete enrollments; or the fact that our school closures have not saved money. Not to mention that Wolf’s budget presentation made clear that schools with high in boundary participation are not being shorted budgetarily as much as schools with low in boundary participation that have poor students–some of which Ferebee intimated we could not afford to support, despite the council’s “noble” attempt to do so.
(Weirdly, the statements of Ferebee and Kihn also go against the capitalist tenets that so many education reformers like them embrace. In that world, we parents are called customers and are urged to avail ourselves of choice in a “marketplace” of schools. But here, the leaders of our DCPS “marketplace” are ignoring the customers they already have, all the while presuming future “customers” cannot exist–even when population data and demand for local schools of right suggest differently.)
To see how this edu-budget sophistry plays out in terms of schools with so-called low enrollments, I have put below the top five DCPS schools with boundaries and low utilization rates (i.e., small enrollments relative to their permanent building space), using the DME’s data from 2017 available here:
Eliot-Hine MS: 28% capacity
Coolidge HS: 31% capacity
Kramer MS: 32% capacity
Johnson MS: 35% capacity
Browne EC: 37% capacity
Now, look at the enrollments of these schools in a different manner:
Eliot-Hine: 13% in boundary participation; 28% in boundary percentage; 67% at risk
Coolidge: 16% in boundary participation; 56% in boundary percentage; 71% at risk
Kramer: 11% in boundary participation; 73% in boundary percentage; 88% at risk
Johnson: 19% in boundary participation; 59% in boundary percentage; 84% at risk
Browne: 19% in boundary participation; 59% in boundary percentage; 75% at risk
So it is that except for Eliot-Hine, all of these schools have relatively high in boundary percentages–and very high at risk percentages.
Interestingly, the average in boundary percentage of the top in boundary participation schools (i.e., schools with >70% in boundary participation) is comparable to that of these low in boundary participation schools, at 68%. But most high in boundary participation schools are west of Rock Creek Park and, along with other schools there, have some of the city’s highest test scores and lowest at risk percentages.
Here are the stats for the next five schools with low utilization rates in the DME’s database:
Hart: 20% in boundary participation; 75% in boundary percentage; 80% at risk
Sousa: 19% in boundary participation; 68% in boundary percentage; 74% at risk
Bunker Hill: 12% in boundary participation; 68% in boundary percentage; 48% at risk
Brookland: 21% in boundary participation; 63% in boundary percentage; 55% at risk
Malcolm X: 19% in boundary participation; 44% in boundary percentage; 91% at risk
What further makes the statements of the chancellor and DME about supporting so-called low enrollment schools particularly unbelievable is that DCPS relies for its budgeting on a staffing model. So individual DCPS school budgets are always already a function of enrollment and programming.
Take Ross Elementary: At less than 200 students, it is truly a school with a low enrollment. But at 97% utilization, its enrollment is as high as it can possibly be. At the same time, it has the highest per pupil costs across DCPS every year. This is possible at such a school with only a 6% at risk population because it needs everything that any school needs–but because it also has relatively few students, it needs a lot more per pupil funding to cover those fixed costs.
Now, some beancounter could use this to argue that Ross should be closed–but that misses the point of the utter bankruptcy of our chancellor’s and DME’s statements that we cannot afford to keep schools with low enrollments and poor students open. We have afforded, and can continue to afford, Ross. It provides a neighborhood school for kids in that neighborhood, with a 65% in boundary percentage.
But we now are told that we can not afford schools with similarly low enrollments with a similarly high in boundary percentage if those schools are populated mainly by poor kids?
Or maybe the point is that the regular shorting of schools with large proportions of at risk students, as Betsy Wolf has showed, is just part of a bigger plan, which is for DCPS to divest of all of them except for those with at least 400 students?
By linking schools of right with large proportions of poor students and low enrollments to the specious argument that $5 million annually to support them is unaffordable out of a $1 billion annual budget, our DME and chancellor have signaled that going forward, they are prioritizing in boundary participation, test scores, and wealthier students. They talk as if this is just about numbers–but the implications of what they say are inevitably about not prioritizing education rights in poor neighborhoods. The question now seems not whether there will be closures (or the socioeconomic status of the children affected by them), but where and how many.
Champion for DCPS, indeed.