Unsaid (With A Purpose): Planning For Our Schools

A few weeks ago, I attended the August meeting of the Ward 6 Public School Parents Organization (W6PSPO). The guest speaker was DCPS planner Claudia Lujan, who presented information on the Eastern high school feeder pattern and recruitment efforts.

(See here for a general overview of Eastern’s feeder pattern–and see here for Eastern’s recruitment planning tool.)

In the last few years, DCPS has created these recruitment planning tools for all its schools, to be shared with, and used by, principals as tools for increasing enrollments.

At least I think that’s their purpose—because there’s nothing to indicate what is a desirable enrollment; growth plans (if any exist); or cause and effect for current enrollment and for recent increases or declines thereof.

Indeed, during the meeting I asked Lujan about a rather steep decline in Eastern’s enrollment since 2014–as shown on a graph in a document she presented. She said she didn’t know why the school’s enrollment had declined.

In reality, enrollment declines (and increases) happen for all sorts of reasons—some of which are purposeful and desired.

OTOH, there’s no way to know from these presentations whether a school’s decline or increase in enrollment is desirable and/or planned—much less even known to planners. The presumption behind the recruitment tool seems to be that enrollment *increases* and/or maintenance of current enrollment are desired. Given that we treat our schools like new models of cars or cell phones being hawked each year, that is not exactly an unreasonable stance. After all, if the very existence of any school entails inevitable competition, then one would want to ensure as many students as possible attend each school every year.

Despite Lujan’s not knowing why Eastern’s enrollment declined (presumably she knows about enrollment at the charter school whose board she sits on), here are a few possible reasons for Eastern’s shrinking population, all of which have happened to the school since 2014:

1. White people continue to opt out of their in boundary schools that have large majorities of non-white students, including Eastern;
2. Renovations and/or grade configuration shifts result in enrollment changes;
3. Changes in boundaries and/or feeder patterns affect enrollment;
4. Creation and expansion of high schools (just in 2018-19: Bard; expanded Banneker; new Latin campus; Sojourner Truth; Girls Global) without commensurate growth in student population results in a drain of students who otherwise might attend.

But none of those things WRT Eastern was discussed at our meeting–nor apparently even made the radar of city planners in creating these data tools.

Rather, it seemed that we were supposed to believe that Eastern’s enrollment decline simply happened–like a storied miracle in the dim light of prehistory. At the same time, we were apparently also expected to believe that the decline informs the present in some way that cannot be articulated with facts or aligned with actual events, but can be met with sincere belief and earnest action by principals.

(Oh, ye cannot know why–but ye can know faith!)

Indeed, as if this were really a religion, staff are urged in the recruitment document to respond to potential or actual decline in enrollment not by discussing any of those four items above–i.e., actual eventsbut by attempting to “consider what attracts students” to “school competitors” and “highlight those programs that your school has in common to [sic] the students in your boundary.”

All of which is pretty rich, given that some schools have been forced to chop programming and staff because of budget cuts. Not to mention that a principal could follow all of this to a letter–and be made a fool for doing so the very next school year, when the school’s budget is chopped without the principal’s knowledge (or true consent).

To be sure, DCPS is hardly alone in this incredible vacuum of official awareness of things that actually happen in and to our schools as a result of official actions by the city.

For instance, the month before, also at a W6PSPO meeting, Jennifer Comey, of the deputy mayor for education’s office, presented a new tool for city school planners called EdScape. She said it was of interest to the DC office of planning, by showing parent demand, school quality and facilities, with the STAR ratings added this fall.

What Comey didn’t say is that the relationship of EdScape to families and schools is quite different than its relationship to city and school planners.

To be sure, there is a disclaimer that EdScape is to be used as a “source of information . . . to determine whether and where new schools, programs, or facility capacity may be needed”—while generously allowing the public to access “the same information available to policy makers for transparency purposes.”

(Yes, democracy is now “transparency purposes.” One wonders what’s next: elections as “choice excursions”? Presumably it’s clearer in the original Russian.)

The EdScape disclaimer also notes that the tool “is not designed for and should not be used by parents and students to determine their school options.”

And for very good reason IMO:

For one, EdScape says nothing about schools of right—literally. Instead, schools are blithely equated with one another. Charters, specialty programming, selective admission schools, comprehensive high schools of right, elementaries with limited pre-school slots: hey, they’re all schools, aren’t they??

Not surprisingly, EdScape also ignores boundaries and feeder patterns in favor of the “neighborhood cluster” data set used in the census, which corresponds to, uh, nothing in our current schools or their governance.

In other words, our city government has spent lots of time (and presumably money) making a tool ostensibly to help plan schools, ostensibly for the public. But the tool ignores education rights entirely as well as whatever DC parents have ever wanted in the last decade or so regarding school planning (i.e., no closures, no budget cuts, more resources, predictable feeder patterns, support for neighborhood schools of right)—all the while the fact that this tool exists, and allows the public to view it, is seen as mission accomplished for involving the public with school planning.

So it is that EdScape will undoubtedly be of great value in helping school creators create and locate more schools that they want—which we know happens in DC without any real involvement of the public paying for them, but always in the name of helping the public. (See here and here and here and here for a few recent primers.)

For me, all this is not far removed from a city agency essentially giving away a public asset in the name of–wait for it!–helping the public.

But while that action regarding Jelleff field is rightfully decried (BTW you can sign the petition here to reverse giving use of that field to a private school), there has been little said about the implications of public agencies actively working to enable private interests and private actions in publicly funded schools.

Worse, the creation of new schools, and the inevitable proliferation and waste involved, ensures that existing schools have to embark on recruitment plans and/or principals think about what “attracts” students to other schools–even when that attraction may simply be fewer poor students and/or more involved parents, neither of which should have anything to do with education.

Now, as a parent, I certainly want my principal to be on top of everything at my school. And as a parent, I am most interested to know that my school is well-supported and in a strong position going forward.

Yet, both EdScape and these DCPS documents are clearly undergirded by a belief system that school creation and the choice of school operators–not fundamental education rights or the voice of the public–are the bellwether for public school planning. Indeed, these documents require that my principal—in addition to being a good administrator and educator–also must come up with a strategy to offset the (disastrous and anti-public) consequences of that belief system, which few (if any) principals, teachers, students, or parents had anything to do with creating in the first place.

In the meantime, all of that–those ruinous policies, their consequences, and the writing out entirely of education rights–remain unsaid, unexamined, and unaddressed by the people paid with our tax dollars to create these documents.


Interestingly, the DC Policy Center has a new study that seems well-suited to this landscape of privatized interests bolstered by publicly funded actors. The study shows a disconnect between enrollment growth and neighborhood change in DC.

On one level, this is timely, inasmuch as DC’s population has not only been growing, but changing. Yet, the study found, “changes in [school] enrollment, population, and housing are not aligned with each other at a neighborhood level,” such that “school locations are neither a leading nor a lagging indicator of broader neighborhood change.”

The study doesn’t make any conclusions as to why this is so—except to suggest that school choice may be a factor as well as the “uneven distribution of new schools.”

Thus, this study may very well be the intellectual underpinning of the EdScape tool, wherein ed leaders seek to address such “uneven distribution” a la Robert Moses and are given a green light for doing whatever they want, however they want, since there is no alignment of enrollment, population, and housing in DC, while the public’s role in school planning is limited to viewing data from afar (for “transparency purposes”) and maybe being asked what attracts them to not choose their neighborhood school.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this study, like the DCPS recruitment tool and EdScape, seems to say a lot in what it doesn’t say.

Take this statement (italics mine):

“The increase in the number of schools in neighborhoods did not necessarily lead to more students in these neighborhoods. . . . This shows that enrollment growth is likely to be driven by higher demand or filling to capacity at particular schools instead of growth in the nearby population.”

The stuff I put in italics above seems authoritative–and eminently reasonable. After all, people in DC have embraced school choice–so why should zip code be destiny? Demand and enrollment growth: like peanut butter and jelly!

The problem is that the statement above in italics is only one possible conclusion shown by the increase of schools in neighborhoods without a commensurate increase of students living, or attending schools, in those same neighborhoods.

Consider this italicized statement, for example:

“The increase in the number of schools in neighborhoods did not necessarily lead to more students in these neighborhoods. This shows that enrollment growth may be driven as much by historic patterns of neighborhood students opting out of neighborhood schools as it is by non-neighborhood students opting in.”

Or this italicized statement:

“The increase in the number of schools in neighborhoods did not necessarily lead to more students in these neighborhoods. This shows that increases in the number of schools in an area are not necessarily what students or their families there have demanded or currently want.

Both of those italicized statements are true and equally possible conclusions in light of the first sentence–so why were they not mentioned?

Funnily enough, the study’s author also notes that the “disconnect between changes in housing values and changes in enrollment is critical as it shows it is possible for District residents to decouple their housing decisions from their decisions about where to send their children to school.”

That decoupling is, of course, exciting to school creators, who want freedom to locate where they want and can, whenever they want and can. And it is also exciting to those who have witnessed how housing segregation leads to school segregation.

But conveniently nowhere in this study does it discuss how that decoupling actually works in DC: the extra commuting time, effort, and expense of school choice, which inevitably favors those with means; the dread of chance through the lottery and closures; and the location of historically underinvested schools in the poorest areas of DC. Nor does it mention that communities with those under-resourced schools struggle immensely with all of that, as familial desperation and chance transmute (like water to wine!) into sparkling choice. After all, if any school can be your school, why, just choose something better already–and may your luck prevail!

So it is that public problems that demand robust public solutions from public officials are rendered into private dilemmas with admirably private (if wholly contingent) solutions that conveniently get elected officials off the hook in fixing anything.

And that’s not even acknowledging that such private solutions–aka school proliferation and choice–have managed in DC to increase segregation and not make a dent in either achievement gaps or in better resourcing.

And that’s not even getting into what is also unmentioned: the decades-long aftereffects of school closures, where entire neighborhoods lack any school of right and children are forced to commute just to secure education rights; the idea that all schools are the same, so no harm, no foul for creating new ones and shutting down old ones with gusto; and the economic consequences of all of that (i.e., apparently all facilities expenditures for new charter schools come from magic ponies, not DC taxpayers or the DC budget).

So while we here in DC have plenty of evidence to show the ruinous effects of city policies to underinvest in schools attended by poor children (closures, broken budgets, fewer resources, underenrollment) as well as the disastrous fiscal and social consequences of school proliferation (underenrollment again) and the ignoring of public desire in all of that (well, except inasmuch as private operators and interested parties tell us it’s the public desire that they continue to proliferate), these documents, created with much time, money, and effort, manage to ignore all of that.

And–watch for the trick!–this ignoring happens in ways that not only purport to involve the public (“transparency purposes”!), but also purport to use resources wisely, all the while enabling government actors and private interests to create and close schools without public involvement, desire, or knowledge and without a true accounting of cost.

Funny how much can be unsaid.

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