[Ed. Note: On October 26, a subset of DC council members (Phil Mendelson, Janeese Lewis George, Robert White, Brianne Nadeau, Mary Cheh, Brooke Pinto, and Charles Allen) heard hours of testimony on two bills that would change the governance structure of DC’s office of the state superintendent of education (OSSE).
One of the bills in the hearing would make OSSE an independent agency, while the other bill (co-sponsored by Lewis George and Robert White) would ensure its oversight by the elected state board of education (SBOE) and permit DCPS staff to run for elected office. In support of a change in governance, council members cited OSSE’s clear conflict of interest (wherein both it and DCPS now report to the mayor); the fact that many of our Black students are not achieving well; and OSSE’s withheld or undiscovered information about attendance, suspensions, and graduation rates in all DC publicly funded schools.
Public witnesses in support of the legislation noted that OSSE’s current governance shuts out the people most affected by its policies: parents, school staff, and students. In the meantime, true accountability for schools remains impossible when “bad news out of OSSE means loss of votes for the mayor” (per inimitable DCPS parent and ed researcher Betsy Wolf). Those opposing the legislation (mostly charter and ed reform interests) argued that it puts progress at risk, while adding a “burden” to schools and altering the “streamlined decision making” (our deputy mayor for education’s term) that currently exists.
Pointed exchanges occurred with questioning by Ward 4 council member Janeese Lewis George of the hearing’s sole government witness, deputy mayor for education Paul Kihn. In two sessions well worth the view (about 4:57:58 to 5:13:20 and 5:39:35 to 5:51:20 in the video), Lewis George asked Kihn about enrollment, use of federal covid relief funds, loss of Head Start funds, and retention of teachers. After about 5 minutes, a frustrated Kihn said the questions felt like a pop quiz and noted that he was used to responding in writing (!). Lewis George replied that she submitted the questions ahead of time, so not only had Kihn time to prepare answers, but also that this process ensured the answers got on the record verbally.
But beyond the (now) well-known and brutal history of our state education agency’s accountability gaps, the council testimony of Ward 4 lawyer and DCPS parent Robin Appleberry elegantly connected that history to the last 19 months of our pandemic—and to the idea and ideals of DC democracy itself.
Read on–and be sure to weigh in on the legislation before the record closes on November 9.]
By Robin Appleberry
Thank you, council, for holding this important hearing. My name is Robin Appleberry, and I am a parent in Ward 4. I have lived in DC for over 20 years, and my children have attended our neighborhood public schools for over 7 years. Based on my family’s experiences and the core principles of democracy, inclusion, and accountability that I know all of you embrace, I urge you to support the DC State Education Agency Independence Amendment Act, sponsored by Councilmember Lewis George, as well as sensible amendments to realize its goals.
Mr. Chairman, when you disbanded this council’s committee on education almost a year ago, you stated that every member of this council is now responsible for education. I agree. You and others on this council speak often about your commitment to equity in education. I applaud that commitment. And many of you have spoken powerfully about why statehood is critical to democracy and justice for DC. For example, last March Chairman Mendelson testified to Congress on behalf of this entire body that independent, locally elected representation is “the only way to ensure a . . . system that is sensitive to community values” and “the only way to give residents a full, guaranteed and irrevocable voice.” I agree. And those same commitments and principles should compel you to support the moderate and sensible reform proposed by the Lewis George legislation.
At the heart of your many statements to the people of this city and to Congress is the notion of checks and balances, the idea that power is unjust and unsustainable without transparency, accountability, and–perhaps most important–the participation of those directly affected.
But that is exactly what we have with unchecked mayoral control over schools.
Families living the reality of public education in DC have no reliable information and no real voice in the policies that shape our children’s health, safety, growth and well being. And let’s be clear–the majority of these children and families are Black, Latine, recent immigrant or otherwise in communities subject to vast historic and continuing inequity. So when we call for equity but oppose accountability to those most affected, we are performing, not leading.
Reopening during the pandemic is a perfect example: at every decision point in the last 19 months, the mayor has obscured, mischaracterized, withheld, or even refused to collect essential health data; infantilized, disempowered, and discounted the lived experiences of children, families, and educators; and misled the public and this council about the critical factors such as building safety, digital resource distribution, behavioral support services, staffing, and more. The message to me from the mayor, the chancellor, the deputy mayor for education and OSSE throughout the pandemic has been crystal clear: We know better than you what is best for your child. And not only should you trust us to decide that for your family, you should not ask us to explain ourselves, to show that our commitments are met, or even to share the data on which we rely to make decisions.
Experience has made plain that without the accountability and oversight that only a truly independent body can provide, the mayor and those who report to her answer only to this council, which cannot possibly serve as a close and comprehensive check on that consolidated power.
Even when this council identifies a serious gap and musters the collective will to act, its ability to remedy the situation is profoundly limited, by procedure and by bandwidth. We can look at the recent emergency legislation enacted by this council just weeks ago, which did not even manage to ensure that any student living with a medically vulnerable family member can learn virtually until the child can be vaccinated against covid-19. Would anyone here feel comfortable sending a member of their household to spend all day, every day in a building that may or may not have adequate ventilation with hundreds of unvaccinated kids who may or may not be wearing masks properly, and then to come home every night to live with a family member undergoing cancer treatment? If this is not what we would accept for our families, why do we accept it for anyone, and why is emergency city council intervention our only means of addressing these issues?
This is just an example. Whatever your views on reopening–and reasonable minds absolutely can land in different places–I hope we all agree that decisions affecting children and families should be made not for children and families but with us, and with transparency and accountability. Elected representatives with real oversight authority are the only way to provide that. Just as we don’t want congressional representatives from Utah or Florida deciding how we in DC can live, love, and keep each other safe, neither should our schools be run in secrecy by a handful of people who don’t meaningfully answer to the people whose lives they affect.
I want to emphasize that simply making OSSE into an independent agency is not enough–we need elected officials with the resources and authority to engage in meaningful oversight and to hold leaders accountable. We don’t just need someone to document when a DC agency is, for example, failing to fix HVAC systems, reporting buildings as safe when they are not, failing to conduct enough covid tests, or seeking ways to obscure the results of those tests. We need real checks and balances–a body to ensure that policies and practices actually change. An independent OSSE without the oversight and accountability of resourced, elected SBOE officials is not going to get us there.
It’s undeniable that education is at the very core of what this city is and what it can be. Education is not a perk of a robust economy, a luxury for the privileged, or a consumer good for the savvy. It is a human right to which every single child in this city is entitled, and it is the only way–the only way—for us to become a city that thrives. No amount of painted street slogans, hip restaurants, or new condos will save us if we give up on inclusive democracy and excellent, equitable education for all. By any measure, that is not what we have now.
In this moment, when you look at how the children of our entire city are faring under unchecked mayoral control, it is evident that the system is not “sensitive to community values” and we have failed to “give residents a full, guaranteed and irrevocable voice.” How can we ask Congress to respect democracy, when we ourselves do not?
I urge you to take a reasonable and balanced approach to restoring community voice in our schools by adopting the DC State Education Agency Independence Amendment Act, along with targeted amendments to that bill to enhance equity, inclusion, transparency and accountability for all our children and families. Thank you.