Inside Job (DC Edu Research And Governance Edition)

Last month, the DC public learned the identities of members of a task force that the DC council committee of the whole (COW) had assembled almost a year earlier, in spring 2020, to look at learning loss in the pandemic and advise COW about it.

Pictured below, the eight task force members have about 11 years total of classroom teaching, from what I could discern from their online resumes (see here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here).

While it’s unclear to me whether council members other than COW director (council chair Phil Mendelson) knew about this task force assembled on their behalf, it is certain that most DC taxpayers do not know the process by which this task force came into being, how often they met, with whom, and what was discussed.

To be sure, one might have a fairly good guess at that last bit, given that the task force members, almost to a person, have ties to ed reform, school choice, and charter proliferation, with many working for organizations that have received private foundation money (Walton, Gates) that has fueled the same.

The only public hint that the task force existed at all was dropped back in December, when a COW report said this on p. 7 (boldface mine):

“The Committee [COW] has also worked to understand the learning loss students have experienced during the pandemic and what strategies the District should pursue to mitigate it. Recognizing that the pandemic is an unprecedented situation and that alleviating substantial learning loss would require innovative, yet proven methods, the Committee assembled a taskforce of public education experts and researchers in May 2020. For the past six months, the Committee has met regularly with the taskforce and gained a deeper understanding of the learning loss that is occurring in the District. The taskforce has also identified strategies that have been used to ease the learning loss that occurs annually over summer break and ways to adapt those strategies to the current situation. The Committee has used this information to guide its oversight of DCPS and public charter schools’ mitigation efforts. Moreover, recommendations from this taskforce helped guide the Committee’s budget priorities for the fiscal year 2021 budget.”

The idea of the council meeting with this (non-teacher) task force to worry over learning loss (and its BFF, re-opening schools), while at the same time limiting public voices at hearings on re-opening in December and January (not to mention entirely eliminating the education committee), is pretty rich.

But it gets even richer when you consider the following:

–Only a bit more than half of the DCPS slots allocated for in person learning were claimed days before it was slated to begin, which suggests less-than-enthusiastic buy-in for in person learning.

–The office of the state superintendent of education (OSSE) is determined to move ahead with PARCC testing, despite the fact that it’s not likely schools will make the 95% participation OSSE requires before imposing penalties—and that testing conditions will be, uh, variable.

–OSSE has asked for a waiver from its STAR rating, which despite not being changed from its last date (2019) is nonetheless displayed prominently on DC’s school ratings pages.

The irony with that last piece is that applications for seats of choice are waaaaay down this school year, with nearly every ward and every grade seeing huge drops in applications through the lottery.

Despite that reality (outlined at the January meeting of OSSE’s common lottery board), the board touted the success of its annual Ed Fest, which this year featured 1,473 virtual participants (out of more than 90,000 students in DC’s publicly funded schools—but hey, who’s counting?)

Although the deputy mayor for education helpfully elucidated at the meeting that re-enrollment is up this year, decision makers clearly were less concerned about enrollment than about selling—and frankly saving—the idea of choice.

While the lottery board’s discussion may appear as so much fiddling while Rome burns (i.e., ignoring the continued lack of digital tech to make distance learning succeed, lack of vaccines for students and in person school staff, etc.), saving school choice in DC is not an idle concern.

This is because DC has invested tremendous amounts of money and energy every year in school choice as articulated by ed reform acolytes. It is a frankly lucrative system here: ed reform organizations and the schools of choice they support benefit materially, while DC elected officials are lavishly gifted with their campaign donations.

Of course, the costs to taxpayers are never accounted for.

In fact, despite school proliferation that has caused DC to have tens of thousands of empty seats, heartbreaking school closures, and redundant programs, and investment in a school rating system that has consigned schools serving the largest percentages of at risk students to low ratings and underenrollment, school choice and ed reform comprise nearly the entire engine driving DC education policy and decision making.

Given that landscape, it’s no surprise that COW’s task force on learning loss lacked front-line teachers, who actually know learning loss. It would have been frankly shocking if it included anyone except folks like those mentioned above, whose day jobs revolve around research and policies that enable ed reform and choice.

To be fair, there have been official squeaks about some of ed reform’s less savory consequences.

For instance, the common lottery board’s discussion of citywide planning at its October meeting opened with this stark illustration of school churn in DC:

The narration of this chart by My School DC director Cat Peretti seemed to be acknowledgement, however indirect, that schools open and close a lot in DC, with obvious ill effects on families and the public in general.

But there was literally no role articulated at that October meeting for anyone from the public sphere in that churn, which is of course centered on the desires of school operators at every stage.

Instead, board members worried over My School DC maintaining “neutrality” and keeping data on enrollment and applications private, out of fear of “chilling effects.”

Tell me: who is being chilled?

Such language wasn’t limited to that October meeting:

The January lottery board meeting closed to the public early, so members could discuss “legal advice” concerning DCPS’s early childhood campus at the Military Road school. Recall that this building was formerly DC-owned, but now is once again DC-owned after the city bought it back from a DC charter school, thus hitting the DC edu-trifecta of private profit at public expense, churn, AND decision making out of the public eye. (Whew!)

In truth, if My School DC and the common lottery board are really about supporting students and families, they would make the lottery into an enrollment system–especially now, given the pandemic and the commensurately increased need for stability for families and schools.

But what My School DC and the lottery board are primarily about is service to seats of choice and the people and institutions offering them.

In that role, the lottery board and My School DC are not just keepers of public information not shared fulsomely (or at all) with the public, but the board members themselves through their respective government agencies (i.e., the deputy mayor, DCPS, the charter board) control the very market of schools that the lottery and OSSE’s school ratings serve.

It’s a marvelous bait and switch:

A truly free marketplace requires an understanding of all data available among all players. As in: a truly free marketplace would have provided this March 2, 2020 letter on Friendship’s proposed takeover of an Achievement Prep campus freely and openly to all comers—instead of being wrested into the public sphere by a FOIA request in the wake of the Achievement Prep closure.

And a truly free marketplace would have provided this exhibit of Friendship’s (now-disputed) lottery on the charter board website, as it’s part of Friendship’s charter—rather than being wrested out into the open by another FOIA request.

[Confidential note to the charter board: If you claim that all charter agreements are on your website, then put them there—not just select parts, like Friendship’s agreement, which appears to be missing every one of its exhibits. And when those of us who want those agreements are forced to FOIA them, because you have not actually provided them publicly, please do not mention the “burden” those FOIA requests place on your agency. YOU have a choice in this matter; none of the rest of us do, which actually means the burden is the public’s, not yours.]

Sadly, everyone in DC public school governance–the folks at My School DC, the common lottery board, its parent agency OSSE, DCPS, the charter board, the deputy mayor for education (DME), and now even the DC Council–seems cool with those omissions and marketplace distortions as long as they can control and manipulate them into what they want and what they can defend as fair!

And now, in 2021, we have a new organization to undergird all of that lovely insider knowledge and brinksmanship: the Urban Institute, the newly selected leader of DC’s research practice partnership (RPP) on DC public education.

As you may recall, the idea of the RPP was generated as a counterweight to the political influence of the mayor and her deputies on DC education data and how it is used (and abused) and reported (or not)–as in, a counterweight to all the public dissing recounted above.

But during a 2018 hearing on legislation to form an RPP, the public discovered that Urban had been meeting secretly with DC education leaders (i.e., DCPS, the DME’s office, the charter board, and OSSE) to formulate a plan in which Urban would be the head of such a partnership.


But what some elsewhere might call a scandal was largely ignored here, the legislation passed, and a panel was formed to vet RPP applicants, one of which was (naturally) Urban.

Yet, in a teensy little coda to the mayor’s recent happy announcement of Urban’s selection, OSSE appended a minority report–which is well worth a read.

Submitted by the only person of the 6-member panel to vote against Urban, the minority report outlines a frightening host of issues associated with the selection of Urban, including its sources of funding and potential for conflict of interest (including one of its partners having funding from DC charters). Oh, and there’s also this little tidbit:

“Urban and its partners presented examples of research that do not meet the accepted academic standards of high-quality RPP research.”

So here we are:

–The head of education for Urban (which was paid more than $100,000 in 2020 by DC taxpayers, according to the DC contracts database–let me know if you can figure out for what) was on the council task force for learning loss (without, apparently, any experience as a teacher) and will now be the force behind DC’s RPP for public education.

–The council task force also featured the head of one of Urban’s research partners in the RPP, EmpowerK12, which the minority report identified as having issues with quality control and transparency in its DC education research.

–Some of the other partner organizations on the RPP with Urban include groups that have, in addition to supporting ed reform efforts (and receiving ed reform money), have also supported DC candidates who have embraced ed reform and school choice (i.e., Bellwether Education Partners, DC Policy Center, RaiseDC).

–Also on the council taskforce was former deputy mayor for education Jennifer Niles, who before being forced to resign (for aiding the former DCPS chancellor in getting around the lottery) participated in the secret planning with Urban in 2017. (A time period also notable for the almost $20,000 the head of EmpowerK12 donated to Democrats for Education Reform–but I digress.)

–And while most of the organizations represented on the council task force have received Walton foundation money, in support of school choice and ed reform, one of them has been and continues to be supported by right-wing education luminaries such as Betsy DeVos.

–And, at the same time, the good folks at OSSE and My School DC and the common lottery board remain concerned over the privacy and supremacy of private organizations and their private goals, which have been transmuted into public desire by the magic of a distorted marketplace that the involved agencies and organizations together manipulate out of public sight.

While one may naturally wonder what constitutes a disqualifying factor for DC ed leaders in selecting folks to advise them, run our ed agencies, OR provide research on our schools (since sketchy research methods; fiscal conflicts of interest; cheating the lottery; working in secret; embracing right-wing causes; distorting public desire; and/or upending public involvement in publicly funded schools seem more like prerequisites than barriers), a possible check on such imbalances is the RPP’s 21-member advisory committee, which is to advise the RPP on its research agenda.

Well, a check in theory.

The legislation outlines that the advisory committee will include a representative of the council (appointed by the chair); a DME rep. (appointed by the DME); an OSSE rep. (appointed by the superintendent); a DCPS rep. (appointed by the chancellor); a charter board rep. (appointed by the executive director); a charter school head or teacher elected by charter schools in a TBD process overseen by the charter board; a rep. from the Washington Teachers’ Union; a rep. of the Council of School Officers; and a state board of education rep. appointed by the board’s president.

The other 12 members will be “parents, representatives from education-related nonprofit organizations, current teachers and current principals from both education sectors, and other education stakeholders.” Six will be appointed by the mayor, with the other 6 appointed by the council chair.

All of which is to say one thing:

Good luck with that committee, Elizabeth Davis—you will need it.

3 thoughts on “Inside Job (DC Edu Research And Governance Edition)

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