Slouching Into 2023 With DC’s Zero Sum Education Politics

On December 20, the DC council passed a bill (see here and here) authored, edited, promoted, re-presented, and (eventually, thankfully) amended by chairman of the council Phil Mendelson that will re-do how DCPS school budgets are calculated. The bill now includes amendments that advocates fought hard for, as DCPS parent and budget guru Betsy Wolf explains:

“The amendments add back important provisions that the first version of the bill repealed for DCPS schools:

–90% of “at-risk” funds must go to schools

–“At-risk” funds should be supplemental and should not supplant other funding sources.

“The amendments also specify that any future increases in the “at-risk” funding weight should also go to schools.”

But Wolf cautions that “while these changes do not guarantee adequate or equitable school budgets next school year, these amendments keep in place safeguards to ensure “at-risk” money actually follows students to their schools. In addition, while DCPS has never treated the “at-risk” money as fully supplemental, it’s important that we continue to work toward this goal, as opposed to giving up on fiscal equity altogether.”

Setting aside that the second most powerful person in DC city government almost succeeded in taking away “safeguards to ensure at risk money actually follows students to their schools” (!), there seems to be no shortage of folks who wish to give up on fiscal–or frankly any other type of–equity in DC’s publicly funded schools.

For instance, despite broad support on the council, legislation to ensure librarians are in every DCPS school went nowhere, so it’s now dead until re-introduced.

And no matter what budget model there is, the sad litany of DCPS problems likely will not change absent more robust oversight and change of governance.

Consider that at the mandated budget hearing for DCPS on November 16, parents and staff testified about any number of problems, including staff shortages and failing facilities, that are neither new nor singular. (See here for an excellent rundown.)

Then, on November 28, the DC auditor released a report on DGS work orders, which was (like so much in DC’s school governance) both horrifying and predictable. Examining tens of thousands of DGS work orders from January 1, 2020 through December 31, 2021, the report “found that eight DCPS facilities were among the 20 District buildings or locations with the highest number of work orders, and DCPS work orders made up 43% of all D.C. work orders during the audit’s timeframe,” with poor tracking of the orders and long fulfillment times.

In quick response to the report (which came in the wake of many years of testimony and other documentation around such failures in DCPS), the council . . . held a roundtable on December 13.

Yeah.

The obvious thread running through all this is the disconnect of so much of DC school governance from the lived experiences of, well, practically everyone associated with public education except those in the circles of the mayor, council chair, and others supported by (or invested in) either the baleful power of DFER in general or DFER DC in particular.

Consider that the newly elected Ward 3 member of the DC state board of education, Eric Goulet, recently questioned the lived reality in DCPS of widespread and persistent soap shortages–then, after not personally noticing that in a school, implied that there were no issues despite documentation otherwise. Supported heavily by DFER, Goulet sends his children to private school outside DC. Even with his documented misuse of DCPS school logos, Goulet seems to have no concerns whatsoever about promulgating such anti-public stances.

And why should he?

After all, holding yet another roundtable after literally years of people documenting outrageous facility conditions in DCPS and public nonresponsiveness by DGS (just search this blog for DGS if you need any proof of either) is a shining example of anti-public school oversight—all the more so as the DC auditor serves the council, so it’s not like she isn’t a trusted source of information and just made up that (and other!) damning reports about our public schools.

At the same time, the DC council was unable to effect an agreement between DCPS and Duke Ellington School of the Arts, to ensure all the school’s arts programming (and the professional artists who provide it) stay, so students and parents held a rally outside DCPS headquarters in an attempt to, quite literally, save their school.

But as DCPS has proven repeatedly that it can and will fatally hurt its own schools with council assist (Wash Met, anyone?), DCPS’s intransigence with regard to Duke is not likely to go away absent a sea change in oversight or a tidal wave of common sense, neither of which DC’s education governance embraces naturally or willingly.

In all of this, the tried and true practice of council and mayor/chancellor blaming the other for school failures ultimately only ever goes to one end: serving their power and interests.

Consider that as the DCPS budget bill was making its way through amendments and advocacy brought by parents and other advocates (instead of by the council or by the mayor), the chancellor intimated that difficult budget decisions might make closures a real possibility if the budget bill passed in pretty much any form.

So holding schools hostage is cool—for both council and the mayor (by way of the chancellor). But directly addressing issues brought up repeatedly by staff, students, advocates, neighbors, and families—not so cool.

In a similar vein of anti-public action around our schools by those charged with governance and oversight, recall that council chair Phil Mendelson reconvened a hearing on November 3 around DCPS teacher retention, after the chancellor was not at the initial hearing on October 25. At that reconvened hearing, with the chancellor literally the only official present besides Mendelson, the council chair made sure to note that the DC council has held three hearings on teacher retention since 2019 (when Mendelson assumed control of education oversight). Thus, Mendelson showed that he was Serious!™️

But Mendelson neglected to mention that he himself got rid of a crucial oversight tool—the council’s education committee. And he also neglected to mention that since then, there has literally been nothing to slow down high teacher attrition in both sectors.

Instead, under Mendelson we have had education oversight by the committee of the whole. That functions as the education oversight equivalent of the tragedy of the commons, such that almost every education hearing in the last 3 years has been attended for its duration by only one council member: the chair . . .

–Whose initial DCPS budget bill was almost entirely unworkable;

–Who forged ahead with multiple versions of that bill, while advocates literally begged him to reconsider the ramifications—and while a racial equity analysis noted the legislation not only lacks an impact evaluation, but “maintains the status quo of racial inequity in school budgeting”;

–Who repeats the grotesque public spectacle, several times every year, of a White man berating a Black man for an end that is mostly, if not entirely, political;

–And who works well with the mayor doing nothing specifically to advance DCPS or the status of students and teachers.

To be sure, that’s hardly an exhaustive list of what isn’t exactly benefitting our schools of late. For instance, also in the last few months

–the council chair argued with a school librarian around DC’s commitment to DCPS librarians while killing a bill to ensure their survival;

–some DC schools eligible for McKinney-Vento money didn’t receive it;

–smartboards in DCPS languished;

–a chunk of DCPS property at the old Malcolm X school was set aside for private developers (naturally, with council approval, continuing that body’s anti-public giveaways); and

–during a visit by the first lady of France to Duke Ellington, the chancellor avoided protesting parents by entering through the school’s garage—and not with France’s first lady.

That’s not counting what is happening in our charter sector, which is largely unaccounted for AND unaccountable (despite being granted about the same annual amount of taxpayer funds as DCPS). There, for instance, in just the last few months

–the public is still waiting for the charter board to explain what happened with that $2 million embezzled at KIPP DC (an explanation of which was apparently promised by the charter board back in September);

–I am still (2 months and counting!) waiting for source files that charter LEAs provided the charter board last year listing philanthropic revenue, which used to be reported by the charter board until 2020; and

–child advocates voiced concerns over a bill to expedite background checks for educators, supported largely by ed reform and charter interests while ignoring (huge) loopholes in existing law to protect children.

Not surprisingly, reality itself seems to have a tenuous foothold in our school governance.

For instance, the mayor tried recently to spin current enrollment numbers, when in reality, student populations are declining, and enrollment has plateaued but for a slight increase in middle and high school seats.  

Then there are the whoppers told by charter leaders earlier this week—without consequence.

For instance, at the December 19 charter board meeting, in response to documentation that Mundo Verde did not tell its neighbors about its plans to acquire a facility in their midst, the school’s director characterized the noncommunication as “confusion” and said that the school was forthcoming.

Reality seems a bit different:

Sometime before September 16, Mundo Verde asked the mayor for revenue bonds to help with that property acquisition. At the October 5 bonds (public) hearing, the ANC testified thusly (boldface mine), at the 6 minute, 10 second mark:

To date, the proposal [to acquire the property] has not been formally discussed with the school’s neighbors or within the community. We have discussed it at a few meetings casually, but it was not until I received a call from your office, council member [McDuffie], that we were aware this was happening. As of today [October 5], they [Mundo Verde] have not presented at a single member district meeting or an ANC meeting.”

Yet Mundo Verde’s application to the charter board—created weeks after that October 5 hearing and posted on October 31–declared that “due to having a non-disclosure agreement pertaining to our real estate negotiations with the owner, we have only recently been able to begin a more public process” regarding outreach to the ANC.

So by their own application AND the ANC commissioner’s October 5 public testimony, we know that Mundo Verde presented its plans publicly to the council but not to neighbors—while its leader attributes that lack of communication to neighbors as “confusion”!

A short time later at that same December 19 charter board meeting, there was discussion about the property that Community College Prep (CC Prep) wished to locate at. The school said on its application that “the property was purchased two years ago in anticipation of the need to provide a more convenient and permanent site.”

Yet at the charter board meeting, Monica Ray–the well-connected and politically powerful head of CC Prep–said that the school had entered into a “sales agreement” two years ago. That language echoes a footnote to the December board memo, which states that CC Prep “entered into a sales agreement [for the property] but not closed yet” on the purchase.”

Then, as if aware of the linguistic (and fiscal) chasm such sidestepping of the truth represented, Ray noted that a copy of that sales agreement was submitted to the charter board.

Naturally, the sales agreement is not publicly posted anywhere I could find.

Even with that stretching of truth (AND CC Prep not providing any proof of reaching out to the external community besides an ANC letter, by way of not answering almost entirely the charter board’s application questions on the subject), the charter board approved CC Prep’s plan unanimously.

Happily, on December 21, the DC state board of education turned a (small) light on such anti-public darkness in DC school governance. At its public meeting that day, the board approved a resolution to the DC council asking for additional powers to, among other things, approve school closures, locations, and openings and a board overseeing DCPS.

It remains to be seen what a new council—with the same mayor and council chair—will make of it.

One thought on “Slouching Into 2023 With DC’s Zero Sum Education Politics

  1. Really looking forward to DCPS Performance Oversight Hearings in a few weeks. Meantime, Thanks for all your work to keep readers informed and Best Wishes for the Holidays.

    Like

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