15 Ways To Stop DC Public Ed Budget Implosions And Improve Our Schools–Tomorrow

As the corona virus devastates billions of people world-wide, budgets everywhere are being similarly devastated–including DC’s proposed public education budgets.

To address expected shortfalls in revenue, here in no particular order are 15 revenue-neutral (and even revenue-enhancing!) ways that DC could tomorrow cut public education expenses; provide greater oversight; and ensure better public involvement in our public schools.

Despite the fact that there appears to be no shortage of folks locally who have worked actively against any and all of these (for a starting list, see here), these times demand that we craft a better, more democratic environment for public education in DC.

So here’s a start.

1. Have a directly elected school board with oversight of all schools receiving public funds.

This would not merely get rid of the entirety of the staff of the charter board as well as staff in the deputy mayor for education’s office (not to mention the deputy mayor for education’s role in our publicly funded schools), but would also ensure that all regulations would be made by ONE place, with ONE body responsible for ALL schools.

As we have seen this month, school closures, distance learning, and teacher guidance require leadership. But such leadership is difficult, expensive, and uncoordinated when DC’s more than SIXTY different school systems determine whatever they determine, however they determine it, whenever they want–all the while the mayor’s officials say there’s nothing they can do about charter schools, which educate nearly half of DC’s public school students.

(Or, to put it more simply: if you get public money to educate kids, you play by the same public rules that everyone else doing that work plays by.)

***Revenue-neutral (but ONLY if #10 below is employed)

2. Modify the authorizing legislation for DC charter schools to change charter governance as above.

No, DC’s charter legislation act was not handed down on stone tablets by a higher power. It was foisted upon us by Congress–and amended many times since by our city council. It’s thus DC’s own law, to change as we wish. If ANY lawyer in DC says otherwise, be sure to put in a word about them at the ABA, since they are mistaking “congressionally enacted” legislation 100% controlled by DC with actual federal law.

***Revenue-neutral (but actually saving money in the long term because it would control unaffordable and unnecessary charter growth)

3. Remove from mayoral control all private vendors, contractors, and private companies profiting from DC’s public education dollars.

These and all such contracts and arrangements should be put under the direct control of the elected school board, which should immediately re-examine the need for each and ensure all are competitive. Among other things, this would include bringing DCPS food production in house (as has often been floated as both a cost-saving measure and a way to ensure better food) as well as stopping all private teacher training companies, whose presence in our publicly funded schools has only increased alongside increasing teacher attrition (i.e., it’s not helping anyone and costing millions annually).

***Saves money

4. Defer and delete private contracting at the office of the state superintendent of education (OSSE).

Such contracting has not only greatly increased under the leadership of current OSSE head Hanseul Kang, but has also ensured that OSSE is as much a grantor of civic largesse as a source of educational leadership.

(Or, to put it more simply: it’s difficult to be a good and democratically responsive education leader if your main focus is granting corporate favors. Case in point: the Ellington “residency fraud” investigation, which resulted in MANY students being denied their educations unlawfully for which OSSE issued no apology. But hey! Nice grants you got there, OSSE!)

***Saves money

5. Stop the wasted hours and lost instruction time of PARCC and just get rid of it.

In its place, use already-used (and paid for!) means of assessment, including RI and surveys. And then use other indicators of quality currently excluded from our evaluations, including offered specials; number of students/social worker; outdoor play areas; accurate and standardized teacher attrition rates.

***Saves money (potentially, even, lots of money)

6. Record who visits lawmakers, the mayor, and their staffs at the Wilson Building, our city hall.

Really, it’s kinda shameful that one even needs to list this here. Simply put, you don’t let anyone visit legislators and decision makers at ANY time in ANY way without explicitly stating for the record who those folks are and why they’re there. Otherwise, you end up blithely (and corruptly–looking at you, Mr. Grosso) equating PTA presidents with spit-up on their shirts (who may be too busy with, I don’t know, their actual jobs to show up to a hearing) with lobbyists paid $200,000 or more a year to visit lawmakers and testify to them many times annually on behalf of well-heeled organizations with millions in the bank.

(Again, if you want to know who some of these well-remunerated folks and organizations are, see here–and here. Or just consult the Mueller report to see the baleful effects of such anti-democratic action writ larger.)

***Revenue-neutral (immediately–except for the cost of pens and paper or digital sign-ins) but also
***Saves money (in the long term, because the public can finally know who’s calling the shots at the Wilson Building)

7. Ensure every education entity receiving DC taxpayer funds has open meetings.

Now, this is easy to implement. Easy to deal with. No costs (well, except to the folks who want to hide something ;-). And yet, it’s been successfully tabled for years running.

(Wonder why? See #6 above.)

***Revenue-neutral (but possibly saving tons of money in the future since the public would actually be invited to every public ed party–imagine!)

8. Restructure BEGA (DC’s board of ethics and government accountability).

This agency is so plagued in so many ways such that the only way to ensure responsible oversight of its unaccountable (and apparently unreachable) mayoral appointees is by putting it under the auspices of the DC auditor’s office or the attorney general. Simply put, any agency that

–ignores complaints it is legally obliged to respond to;
–ignores evidence since September 2019 that paid staff from a well-funded private firm met directly with lawmakers and staff while not registering as lobbyists (per my unanswered complaint about PAVE); and
–provides no recusal guidelines for a charter board member who works for an organization whose sole purpose is supporting KIPP while taking licensing fees from KIPP schools

is most definitely NOT representing public interest anywhere, especially in our schools, and NOT worth the money we are paying for it.

***Saves money (immediately and in the long term, because it will effectively root out public corruption)

9. Remedy the structural deficit in how maintenance and operations (M&O) are funded in DCPS and illuminate exactly how charter facilities allocations are used.

As DC education advocate Matt Frumin has recently pointed out in testimony to the council (see here and accompanying material here), disparities between DC’s school sectors in how M&O are funded have contributed to an annual deficit in DCPS of hundreds of dollars per student. At the same time, it amounts to overfunding of charters by millions every year. Yet, despite policymakers knowing about this for the better part of a decade, no one has done anything about it.

(Wonder why? See #6 above.)

In this, we also need to know exactly how all charter facilities allocations are used–something that by law our charters are not obliged to disclose and that #2 above could easily fix.

That said, we DO know that DC charter assets grow by a mind-boggling $40-$50 million a year–all completely out of sight (and at the expense) of taxpayers who have made it all possible, but not only know nothing about the gains, but also share exactly none of them.

***Revenue-neutral (if DCPS M&O are funded through excess charter facilities allocations) and, possibly,
***Saves money (if all excess charter facilities allocations are actually reported and excesses returned to DC taxpayers)

10. Make everyone in elected office in DC (and those who aspire to it) use public financing for campaigns, full stop.

If you need any evidence to see how skewed the playing field is for the benefit of a small group of wealthy ed reformers who profit from (and control!) DC public education despite never sending their children to DC’s publicly funded schools, look here. Or here. Or here. Or here.

***Saves money because our public servants will thusly not be working hard to make happy rich and well-connected privatizers who use extraordinary leverage to access DC’s $2 BILLION in annual public education funds

11. Stop creating new schools and increasing seats at existing ones.

We here in DC have TONS of empty seats and empty space that entail fixed costs, the entirety of which is due to several decades of creating new schools and seats without a commensurate increase in students.

(See here and here for a few examples of the waste–and here to see the reason for all of it.)

And yet, charter advocates use such waste as a sign that the city is being profligate in its resources by ensuring that new schools cannot be created!

So let us have a reality check now and just stop it already with the whole “but we need more choices!”

Parents don’t get into the schools they want right now NOT because there aren’t enough choices or seats, but because we are not even remotely supporting the schools we currently have to make them attractive, well-rounded, and supportive for ALL families (sorry, but books piled on a floor are not a library).

Moreover, exactly no parent or family in DC has ever said that we do NOT need well-supported, well-rounded schools that guarantee education rights in every neighborhood!

And yet that is EXACTLY what we are denied with every new school and expansion, which siphon off public funds from existing schools and force closures due to enrollment loss.

***Saves a ton of money (and preserves education rights)

12. Stop closing schools.

This is a result completely of not following the dictates of #11 above. And it doesn’t save money. It never has–and it never will, because of fixed costs.

Instead, it results only in heartbreaking civic neglect, devastated families, and ruined neighborhoods–not to mention destroyed education rights.

Now, for all the folks who insist that, in our “marketplace” of public education, closures are merely a result of robust school choice as well as hard decisions regarding school performance (looking at you, charter board!), you may want to re-read the recent report of the DC auditor, which shows how school choice in DC is mainly about segregating one’s children from poor people. This in turn results in highly inequitable resourcing.

So gotta ask: Is insisting on a system that wastes public resources and emphasizes segregation rather than education equity and rights everywhere really the hill you want to die on?

(Oh, in case you think the auditor got it wrong, you may want to read this.)

***Saves money (and the soul of public education)

13. Have means testing for revenue bonds for charters.

Yes, technically DC’s revenue bonds don’t accrue to DC’s bottom line. But when charter schools are granted revenue bonds, and then display what in any rational universe would be called risky fiscal behavior, DC WILL inevitably be left on the hook for implosions, as our charter schools are funded mainly (if not exclusively) by DC’s taxpayer funds.

***Saves money

14. Stop property tax exemptions for non-school charter entities as a matter of course.

Thankfully, the IG’s office is looking into property tax exemptions. But the reality is that we just lost out on $11 million in property taxes for, among other things, a non-school charter entity owning a property that might have private housing in addition to hosting charter schools. Simply put, if the University of Georgia can pay nearly $100K in property taxes every year for one building in my neighborhood, so can non-school charter entities for their lucrative charter real estate.

***Saves money

15. Stop putting the kibosh on the public knowing what our public servants are up to.

In a pandemic that could result in hundreds of thousands dead in our country, the first thought that leaps to the minds of our elected representatives should NOT be “Hey! Let’s ensure responses to FOIA requests are even slower than they already are!”

And yet, guess what our DC council just did? Yeah.

And guess what else the DC council just did?

Some time in February or March, the council stopped allowing the public to share clips of hearing videos. Before, it was possible to use the “embed” and “share” functions of council videos to create a URL of only a portion of a hearing, to be shared with others.

But according to a staffer in the council’s IT office, this change forbidding such sharing was for “security” purposes, so that hearing videos cannot be “manipulated.”

Interestingly, the public could never manipulate DC council hearing videos. As in, ever.

Now, by not allowing the public to share clips of hearing videos, the council has simply ensured that frankly horrible examples of school governance cannot be as easily known. (See here and here for two that I happened to transcribe–which as far as I know hasn’t violated any “security” anywhere.)

Not to get too weird about this, but it’s like the council wants to HIDE something.

One thus wonders if the council wanted to hide the council chair literally speaking over a plain citizen in February for daring to suggest that plain citizens don’t wield the same power at the Wilson Building as, say, KIPP (which in 2017 had $306 million in assets, $123 million in revenues, with seven administrators paid on average more than $200,000 each and currently with at least two staffers whose paid duties include government affairs–you know, like your typical DC household or PTA).

Or maybe the council wanted to hide the education committee co-chair cutting off another public witness at that same February hearing by saying “Nope, you’ve already said enough,” as the witness talked (politely, I may add) about openness in DC public education governance.

(BTW, those exchanges took place at the council’s performance oversight hearing for the deputy mayor for education and charter board on February 12, 2020, which you can see on the video here (the first exchange starts at about 1:45:12 and the second starts at about 2:12:44). Neither is very long, and both are well worth listening to.)

***Saves money–because true accountability starts when citizens are informed about everything their public servants do in their names and with their money.

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