Oversight Oversights

On March 3, on the heels of a 10+ hour hearing for all DC education agencies on March 1 (during which public witnesses testified), the DC Council invited the leaders of those agencies to another mega education performance oversight hearing. (For a cheat sheet on locating testimony and other oversight information, see the note marked with asterisks below.)

While it is difficult to suss out one or even several common themes from a hearing covering 7 agencies over more than 9 hours, one thing is clear: Even as the DC Council has a lot of admirable qualities and roles, being a school board isn’t one of them.

For one thing, only a subset of the council was present at the 3/3 hearing, consisting mainly of Phil Mendelson, Zachary Parker, Janeese Lewis George, Christina Henderson, and Matt Frumin, with brief appearances by Robert White and Charles Allen.

For another, what wasn’t said in all those hours was perhaps more important than what was said—and the council appeared unprepared for that as well as the pushback it received on logical concerns raised by council members.

Consider that the head of the office of the state superintendent of education (OSSE) and the deputy mayor for education (DME) referenced repeatedly a “comeback” in their testimony and written responses. But neither Dr. Grant (who began at the 5 hour, 22 minute mark, for about 2 hours) nor Paul Kihn (who began at the 7 hour, 37 minute mark, for about an hour) referenced in the hearing any number of things central to that “comeback”—even while those things were in their written responses to council questions.

For example:

–Enrollment in postsecondary education by the class of 2022 is half that of the class of 2021 and class of 2020 (here is the link to OSSE’s reply to question 45B).

–The percentage of DCPS and charter students completing a postsecondary degree within 6 years of enrollment went from 32.7% in FY20 to 17.6% in FY22 (p. 52 of OSSE’s written responses here).

–Despite both the DME and the head of OSSE repeatedly touting high-impact tutoring (HIT) during the hearing, with more than $32M invested (p. 59 of OSSE’s written response), separate slides provided by OSSE (see here) indicate we will know the effectiveness of that investment only by fall 2024–at the earliest.

–The DME referenced in written testimony “investing in strong neighborhood schools, by developing new programs to attract students, redesigning high schools with accompanying investments, and stabilizing schools until enrollment grows”—but did not mention in the hearing that one of those redesigned high schools, Anacostia, is finding both its enrollment dwindling and its budget being slashed as a result. And prior ministrations to redesign Anacostia by the private, billionaire-funded XQ also went without mention.

Then there were any number of things contained in written responses that were simply stunning, but never commented on.

For example:

–Starting on p. 279, OSSE’s written response to council questions makes clear that, after more than a decade of noncompliance with the Healthy Schools Act, noncompliance is the norm, not the exception.

–For a question about settlements and litigation, DCPS provided an answer starting on p. 107 of its written responses. The charter board was asked the same question, but not of its schools—so there can be no comparison. And because the charter board responded to that same question that it has no current litigation or settlements, it seems like the charter sector is doing better than DCPS when in reality, neither we nor the council (nor apparently the charter board) know anything about charter school litigation or settlements. At least OSSE’s written responses, on p. 22ff, show litigation around special education.

–Similarly, in its response to question #28, about impediments that agencies face, DCPS made clear that it opposes the student fair access to school act, which regulates suspensions and other school discipline measures. But the charter board said nothing about that law in its written responses, because for that agency, the student fair access act has no effect whatsoever. But if DC charter schools object, who would know? And if someone sues a charter school over it, who would know? More importantly: does anyone care?

–A similar disconnect occurred in both OSSE’s written and hearing responses around what that agency is doing to help homeless or disabled students. The answer in some form was always about supporting LEAs, such that all OSSE’s efforts are secondary AND fractured across 60-some LEAs, all of which have different ways of dealing with the most vulnerable among us. At the 6 hour, 16 minute mark of the video, at large council member Christina Henderson appeared to worry a bit about this, noting that because individualized education plans (IEPs) are done by LEAs without OSSE, there’s a randomness as well as an access issue that could result in a lawsuit.

Why, yes, Council Member Henderson! Fractured services, no coordination, complete randomness in terms of education services and provision are bad for kids!

Unfortunately, all of that is the plan, because DC’s current education governance is pure, unadulterated Reaganism:

That is, there can be no centrality of purpose or cause in the process of providing education but just a bunch of people making do (in this case, with the aid of $2+ BILLION from you and me annually), with no connections or even a college try at making them, all the while actively turning away from the entire idea of government in service to the people who fund it to the idea of government in service to private entities and the folks at its top.

Take OSSE’s chart, on p. 231 of its written responses, showing how many students by ward ride OSSE buses for disabled students. The majority of bus riders live in the poorest wards of the city.

So it is that OSSE’s own data shows exactly what public witnesses outlined on 3/1/23, which is that screw-ups on those buses directly affect the most vulnerable students in our city, in areas where transit needs are the deepest.

But OSSE refused to explicitly make that connection, even as there are almost 20 pages in the agency’s own written responses showing the extent of problems.

Instead, the head of OSSE bleated at the 3/3 hearing that there is an “oversubscription” of its buses for disabled students! (Yes, really: see it yourself at the 5 hour, 40 minute, 50 second mark of the video.)

So much of the March 3 hearing went like this, that reality itself could be approached only by playing an oversight version of whack-a-mole.

For instance, both Robert White and Zachary Parker asked Chancellor Ferebee about teacher vacancies, with the former being told that there are currently 167 vacancies (see the 2 hour, 37 minute mark of the video). But little mention was made of teacher retention by any government witness despite the fact that mere days after the 3/3 hearing, OSSE released this chart, showing that recent teacher turnover and retention is horrible in DCPS—and even worse in DC charters.

Then there was the fact that utterly no one mentioned in any form (spoken word, written responses, tweets, semaphore) the embezzled $2 million from KIPP—despite an apparent promise half a YEAR ago that there would be some outline of what happened.

(Aww, what’s a few million between friends?)

Perhaps the largest disconnect from reality occurred in discussions of school planning.

For this, it is worth recounting the conversations that Zachary Parker, Christina Henderson, and Matt Frumin had for the hour in which the head of the charter board, Michelle Walker-Davis, testified (starting at the 4 hour, 20 minute mark). Fascinatingly, Chancellor Ferebee testified for more than 4 hours at that same hearing; one would never know that each sector they lead receives about $1 billion of taxpayer funds annually and that each has about the same number of students.

Starting at the 4 hour, 42 minute mark in the video, Parker asked Walker-Davis about charter school applications, noting the difference of demand as a number (say, of students on waitlists) as opposed to demand as quality.

Walker-Davis responded that applicants who wish to start charter schools have to pay attention to what parents say they want—without noting that NO parent gets to say this in any direct form, because NO parent has any control over what charters apply nor what charters are selected (or where or when or how large they are, either). In fact, the only power parents have is putting their kids in the lottery—and as it’s possible to apply to up to 12 schools per student in the lottery, and the lottery is random, that “power” is pretty diffuse and indirect.

Walker-Davis also noted that charters don’t get funded for students they don’t have, which for her seemed to prove that they are not profligate with taxpayer funds. Unfortunately for reality, DC’s growth of charters has always been completely disconnected from DC’s student population growth. Worse, our student population has not been growing, all of which means that any student at any new school in DC HAS TO come from existing schools—which does affect taxpayer money and investments.

To his credit, Parker kept pushing on the disconnect between the charter application process and resourcing, noting that quality often means creating more schools that ensure less resourcing for existing ones.

A few minutes later, at the 4 hour, 52 minute mark, Henderson asked about charter school financial audits and levels of financial reserves and cash on hand, noting a school with 24 days of reserves and another school with >700 days of reserves.

This is when the wheels of the reality bus really came off:

While Walker-Davis said the charter board reviews school reserves and that there are good reasons for large ones (like mortgages), the truth is that the charter board has NO authority to tell any charter school to use its banked money for ANYTHING.

Which naturally Walker-Davis didn’t mention–although she adroitly pivoted from this topic to the fact that charters want money from the DCPS teacher contract. (Because of course they do.)

Frumin tried another tack a few minutes after the 5 hour mark, asking (among other things) whether Walker-Davis thought it important to preserve a successful matter-of-right system of schools in DC. Walker-Davis appeared confused, then pivoted to the old chestnut of what families want—again, without noting that what families want and what they do are two very different things, both of which have nothing to do with what and when charters are selected to exist in DC, how large they are, where they locate, and how many of them exist at all.

Frumin then raised the issue of charters’ cash on hand, noting that the average is 165 days, well above the recommended amount, and that if this money is being banked for expansions, it’s getting ahead of the issue (not to mention getting ahead of demand).

Then, as Frumin noted that this number goes up annually by $50 million (!), Walker-Davis interrupted him, telling him to speak to specific LEAs.

Or, more specifically:

The leader of an entire part of DC government, the charter sector, told a representative of another part of DC government to stuff it because NO ONE in DC has any authority over, or knowledge about, any of that money except the private nonprofit businesses that are gifted it every year from DC taxpayers.

Frumin went on to make a point about charters’ facilities allocations, which are about $25 million less than reported occupancy expenses. Frumin noted that $50 million of charter occupancy expenses are for maintenance and that because DC charters have sued to have the uniform per student funding formula (UPSFF) cover maintenance, one could conclude that the facilities allowance for charters may in fact be $25 million too much.

But there was no stopping for reality, so the carriage of oversight soon passed to Parker, who asked how the charter board will ensure individual charters give any extra money from the DCPS teacher contract to their teachers. Walker-Davis responded (at the 5 hour, 17 minute mark) by saying that they will review practices–though once again, the (unspoken) reality is that the charter board can do NOTHING.

To be fair, Walker-Davis was not alone untethering the lucrative business of school proliferation from reality.

For instance, hours earlier at the 2 hour, 9 minute mark, Phil Mendelson spoke harshly of the “downward spiral” of DCPS schools losing enrollment and having their budgets cut. He mentioned specifically Anacostia HS’s loss of money in its proposed budget and the opening of half a dozen new schools, including two in Ward 3 (Foxhall and MacArthur). He then asked Chancellor Ferebee plaintively: “How can you justify adding seats when there are so many empty seats?”–especially at schools like Anacostia, with high at risk populations.

Now, if Mendelson were not chair of the council and, in that role, approved BOTH Foxhall and MacArthur (and even authorized paying more than twice the assessed value for the GDS building that will be MacArthur), that might be a plausible question.

But reality never had a chance in this hearing—and that included the conveniently forgotten fact of Mendelson’s June 11, 2020 exchange with Ferebee in which he quietly acquiesced to the chancellor’s capital solution to overcrowding in the Wilson feeder pattern (see it here at the 3 hour, 40 minute, 30 second mark)–all in the name of preserving “diversity” and without changing feeder patterns, boundaries, or out of bounds slots to reduce overcrowding, even as more than a third of students at Jackson-Reed (then Wilson) were out of bounds for it.

Ironically, at the 3 hour, 53 minute mark in the video of the March 3 hearing, Janeese Lewis George asked about overcrowding at Coolidge high school, to which Ferebee responded about the possible need to limit out of bounds slots.

(So limiting out of bounds slots at Coolidge is an option—but not in Ward 3, which deserves diversity at practically any expense.)

Here are a few more notes on items not mentioned much or at all, starting with OSSE and ending with the DME:

–As far as I know, no one asked about the fact that the SY22-23 enrollment audit from OSSE is late (and no one told, either).

–On p. 194 of OSSE’s written responses, EmpowerK12 is classified as a “charter support organization.”

–On p. 87 of its written responses, OSSE promises the SY21-22 school discipline report soon.

–On p. 225, OSSE outlines due process hearings and complaints against specific schools around violations of IDEA.

–The sheer amount of money flowing through OSSE is astonishing. For instance, one chart details more than $266M in reprogrammed funds (here are the spreadsheets for “external” and “internal” reprogramming).

–Starting on p. 190, OSSE’s written responses discuss charter school grants from the federal government. Apparently, >$35 million was awarded between July 2021 and October 2022—an amount approaching the funds DC charters would get from the DCPS teacher contract. [CLARIFICATION 3/19/23: The amount charters could be expected to get from the DCPS teachers’ contract is spread over several years and amounts to hundreds of millions, as outlined in the legislation.]

–The sheer amount of OSSE money for its department of transportation “incentive” bonuses is also astonishing. I counted 57 per page for 14 pages of $1000 bonuses and 8 pages of $2500 bonuses plus an additional five $2500 bonuses. I get a total of $798K for the $1000 bonuses and $1.14M for the $2500 bonuses, or about $2M total.

–For most excellent ineffability from both council and OSSE, look at OSSE’s response to council question 42, about student mobility (which again got no traction in the hearing AFAIK). The chart shows the percentage of the student body for each school for SY21-22 that entered and exited by month, from October through May. Explanatory material notes that the percentages are the “cumulative percentage of entries by month and cumulative percentage of exits by month.” Which means that the only way to see the total for the school year is to look at the numbers for May.

But there is no outline of mobility by sector—only by LEA, school, and the entire city–possibly because the council never requested it. So, if one does that average calculation for May for both sectors, one gets the following:

Entries in SY21-22

DCPS: 8.17%
Charters: 3.58%

Exits in SY21-22

DCPS: 5.89%
Charters: 7.97%

To be fair, just because kids are leaving DC charters at an elevated rate compared to DCPS doesn’t mean that they are all going to DCPS. But the fact that OSSE didn’t provide this, and the council didn’t ask, says a lot. As does the unmentioned fact that we have no student tracking. There’s net inflow into DCPS, as a sector, but we have no idea who these students flowing in are, where they are coming from, nor whether they are the same as the ones exiting. (In other words, enjoy the gaslighting AND lack of data.)

–Finally, in his testimony, the DME mentioned teacher housing at the Wilhelmina at Malcolm. As far as I can see, this constitutes 180 so-called “affordable” units. But what the testimony doesn’t say is that this development is occurring on a chunk of DCPS property at the old Malcolm X school set aside for private developers with council approval. (The old Malcolm X school itself is now redeveloped as Bard HS.)

The hearing for privatizing that parcel of land featured a public record with 57 IDENTICAL letters of support, signed by at least that many different people whose identity and residence were never noted. Yes, bad enough, but there’s more:

When Malcolm X was closed, the kids near this property were drawn into a boundary for a school more difficult for them to get to, Malcolm X at Green—not surprisingly, the school struggles with enrollment. Almost a year ago, on March 28, 2022, the school’s principal testified (video here, starting at the 10 hour, 27 minute mark) that her school building, in bad condition and not slated for a renovation anytime soon, was only ever intended as temporary swing space a decade ago and does not have good transit options like that property now handed over to private developers.

Naturally, all that went without anyone saying a peep.

****Cheat sheet for the March 3 mega-hearing (and others too!):

Hearing video is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_htKFJBSsqc&t=1675s

Here is the website with testimonies and responses to council questions around performance oversight: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/a9c91dqy6nmas9t/AADeClww_Bqtuc3P3cg_tx1da/3.3.23%20Education%20Cluster%20(Gov)%20Performance?dl=0&subfolder_nav_tracking=1

But caveat emptor: Last July, I wrote about the difficulty of locating where agency responses to council oversight questions were and included in that blog post links that—at that time—worked. Now many don’t work anymore.

That’s because there is no one permanent place on the DC Council website where one can find all agency testimony and responses.

Rather, testimony and other public record items are often found on the personal websites of the council members who head various committees charged with oversight. In the case of DC education agencies, that is the committee of the whole, headed by the council chair.

So, here’s Chairman Mendelson’s personal website: https://chairmanmendelson.com

And here is where you can find recent and previous testimonies on that personal website:




Good luck.

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