On April 5, the DC Council held a budget hearing for public witnesses to testify about all publicly funded agencies with education responsibility.
The hearing was supposed to start at 9 am, but began about 40 minutes late. It had more than 400 public witnesses and went until 11:59 pm that night.
Alas, as public witness number 387, I was asleep when called to testify, having gone to bed hours earlier—and until Friday April 21, the council website had NO record of the hearing (as in, no video and no transcript).
Also alas, I have no profound summation of the better part of 24 hours’ worth of public witnesses coming forth with problems ranging from severe building neglect to overcrowding to Duke Ellington’s continuing battle for existence. Many issues raised were of DCPS individual school budget problems in addition to charter personnel and advocates alleging underpayment of teachers in that sector—all the while most DC council members showed up individually (if at all) for short bursts, with few questions asked.
That last part appears to have been necessitated by the hearing’s sheer length. As it was, council chair Phil Mendelson conducted the hearing like a line at a boardwalk ice cream shop in July: just say what you need and move on, so as not to delay the folks behind you.
While DCPS school budget woes are an annual phenomenon, the arias during the hearing from the charter sector about the “separate but equal” pay of charter teachers were something to behold—if for no other reason than the unbelievable rationale that charter teachers deserve the pay increase that DCPS teachers actually fought for and won.
And that’s not mentioning the fact that if charter personnel believe charter teachers are not paid fairly now, they have the power to change that immediately. As in, go for it! Why ask the council for help when LEAs control ALL of charter teacher pay?
Though there is no legal requirement that a chunk of money goes to charters because of the DCPS contract, charter advocates want it to be part of the UPSFF (uniform per student funding formula) for next school year. In that case, it can be freed for any use—not just for teachers.
That is not what the mayor has in mind for next school year, however. The mayor has proposed a grant system wherein charter LEAs apply for the money and then report on its use specifically for teachers.
Needless to say, all of this informed another long hearing 2 days later, on April 7, featuring the testimony of the heads of the various agencies that were the subject of the April 5 hearing.
Starting 40 minutes late (our new standard?), the 4/7/23 hearing featured a large subset of council members (Frumin, Henderson, Lewis George, Mendelson, Parker, Robert White, and Trayon White, with Nadeau and Pinto briefly) appearing (or re-appearing) at various points over the hours.
(NB: There are two videos posted on the council website of this April 7 hearing. The first video, linked here, goes for about 6 hours, while the second, linked here, lasts about 3 hours.)
The first agency head to testify on April 7 was Michelle Walker-Davis, of the charter board. Out the gate, Mendelson asked her (at the 1 hour, 3 minute mark of the first council video here) about charter teacher pay and why she had been so “quiet” about it in her own testimony.
This marked the first of many hours of Mendelson being deferential to the entire concept of charters receiving money because of the DCPS teacher contract—and in the very way that the charter lobbyists had written the talking points: with no strings attached!
Thankfully, individual council members pushed back on Mendelson’s pandering.
At the 1 hour, 30 minute mark, for instance, Zachary Parker admitted being confused as to why the charter teacher pay was an emergency because every school is funded already by the UPSFF and if charter teachers need more money, their LEAs can pay it as they control ALL of it. At the 5 hour, 32 minute mark, Parker also asked about a claw-back, in the event charters do not actually spend the DCPS contract money on their teachers. (Not possible, apparently.)
Yet, at the 3 hour, 21 minute mark and, hours later, starting at the 5 hour, 39 minute, and 40 second mark of the council video, council chair Mendelson gnawed on the bone of how charter teachers will get the DCPS teacher contract money.
In the 3-hour period, for instance, Mendelson worried through this with Christina Grant, head of the office of the state superintendent of education (OSSE), by wondering if charters would get the money fast (and unencumbered) enough. Then, in the 5-hour period, Mendelson took up the subject obliquely with the deputy mayor for education (DME), by asking why DCPS teacher bonuses are outside the UPSFF.
The rationale for that question became clearer as Mendelson went along in that hour, which was pushing back against not including the DCPS contract up in the UPSFF. Mendelson even went as far as asking the DME whether DC could be sued if the teacher contract funds were not in the UPSFF.
That mention of a lawsuit formed the basis of Matt Frumin’s pushing back on Mendelson’s carrying of water for the charter lobby.
Starting at the 6 hour, 38 minute, 25 second mark, Frumin noted that the charter sector had years ago filed a lawsuit saying that all money had to go through the UPSFF. In the wake of that lawsuit, Frumin noted, two attorneys general said no, it did not need to go through the UPSFF; the council amicus brief also said no as did two judges—and the lawsuit was tossed.
Frumin then expanded into the various sources of money that charters get outside the UPSFF and concluded that the city needs to have a conversation about teacher compensation and control the number of schools because money is spread more thinly.
In agreeing with Frumin (!), the DME noted that “we have enough schools in the city” (!), while noting that we “need to fund the schools equitably” and that funding needs “to follow the kids based on their needs.”
While one may think the DME’s response is rational, it actually sidesteps the utter craziness of DC’s school governance, wherein there is no tracking of students OR money to charters.
It’s not merely that the UPSFF does not guarantee payment to charter teachers (as opposed to whatever Mendelson thinks on this subject). It’s that the DME’s blithe statement that we “need to fund the schools equitably” means very different things to different people—which is why charters spent hours on April 5 bleating that they were being cheated out of money that DCPS teachers not only earned, but fought for and that charters have no right to by law.
As it is, money most definitely doesn’t follow students, as students go from charters to DCPS during a single school year with regularity without any flow (much less accounting) of the money back to DCPS. And there is absolutely no tracking of charter facility funds—and no requirement that they are actually used for facilities. I mean, charters can legally burn that cash in grills for a cookout. (Unlikely–but perfectly legal.)
And we’re not talking about play money for those facilities funds.
For instance, the fiscal impact statement for the budget support act for FY24 outlines more than $175 MILLION untracked, unaccounted-for dollars going to the charter sector for facilities funds in FY24. Ironically, the fiscal impact statement notes that these funds bring charters’ share of local spending to $1.18 billion—more than the $1.13 billion allotted from that same pot to DCPS. (Separate but equal indeed.)
Possibly because of the cavalier way in which our appointed and elected officials view that annual BILLION, the questioning of the charter board executive director lasted only a little over an hour and a half.
[Confidential to the DC Council: Ever wonder if, by promoting charter schools so much, the chairman just wants to ensure education oversight hearings are shorter? I mean, there can be very few public questions if all schools are privately run and most of the public money funding them comes with no strings attached. OTOH, if you think this is good for DC or democracy, please reconsider your day job.]
There were other interesting moments at the April 7 hearing:
–At the 2 hour, 26 minute, 40 second mark of the first council video, Christina Henderson asked OSSE’s Christina Grant about growth in applications in the lottery for this school year. Grant reported that DC had the highest number receiving their first choice—74%–alongside a 3% increase in total applications (close to 23K). Henderson thanked Grant, and they continued to express pleasure in the results.
The only rub: Grant’s assertion that “74% of families received their first choice” is actually wrong.
That is, in its 4/9/23 story on the lottery results, the Post dutifully reported Grant’s assertion–but the next day issued a correction, saying that 74% of families were matched but not necessarily with their first choice.
Nowhere is mentioned the ACTUAL percentage matched with their first choice–nor the fact that as more families participate in the lottery mobility increases, which we know is harmful to students. Nor was mentioned the distinction between the number of applications versus the number of participants (data from last school year, for instance, suggests that the number Grant cited in the hearing as “applications” is actually the number of participants).
–Right before that fascinating exchange, Henderson asked Grant about the late release of audited enrollment numbers, noting that the budgets of all DCPS schools are based on numbers that may resemble (or not) the audited enrollments.
(You can listen to both exchanges in this clip; the exchange around the lottery begins at the 1 minute, 13 second mark.)
–At the 2 hour, 31 minute mark of the first council video, OSSE’s Grant says in response to Janeese Lewis George that as of September 2022, OSSE had spent $241.9 million out of about $600 million in federal ESSER money. Because of the obvious question of where the rest of the money is going, a few minutes later Zachary Parker took up the questioning, to which Grant said 90% of ESSER funds had been pushed to LEAs but not necessarily yet spent.
(Fascinatingly, Mendelson took a different tack yet, complaining to the DME in the last 10 minutes of the 5 hour period of the first council video about the lack of compliance with Mendelson’s budget bill and the use of ESSER funds for staff, both of which Mendelson attributed to staff cuts at DCPS schools. But Mendelson didn’t mention the brutality inherent in any cutting of staff—as this article excellently showed—and neglected to connect those budgetary shortfalls to his own, hours-long, insistence that charters deserve money that they are not legally obliged to get.)
–Lewis George also asked (at the 2 hour, 39 minute mark) about the cost of nonpublic placements in the last school year. Answer: $35 million in tuition, with $34 million for special education alone.
–In response to Robert White, the DME questioned at the 6 hour, 8 minute mark whether teacher flexible scheduling (which was not funded) is a good use of money since we don’t know whether it works. (Fascinatingly, we won’t know until later this year whether the many millions spent on high-impact tutoring (HIT) worked, either—but the DME had no such qualms about that money, possibly because private groups in addition to schools received it.)
(Robert White also asked about onboarding of the teacher contract money—but the DME didn’t know when that would happen.)
–Brooke Pinto at the 6 hour, 36 minute mark asked about principals liking school resource officers, with the DME responding that most do.
–Mendelson (at the 1 hour, 18 minute, 40 second mark of part 2 of this hearing’s videos, available here) noted to Chancellor Ferebee that enrollment at Anacostia HS dropped 61% in 10 years, by way of asking how the school can “turn around” if its budget keeps getting cut.
Which is good to ask—but as this was also the same school that received the kindly ministrations of the billionaire-funded XQ Institute to “disrupt” high school education, Mendelson might have also asked how that “disruption” is supposed to help the other high schools (Cardozo and Dunbar) slated for it starting this school year.
–At the 2 hour, 30 minute, 25 second mark of the second video, Frumin asked about the number of DCPS schools that have yet to receive a full modernization and are not yet in the queue. (It’s 11. Naturally, none are west of Rock Creek Park.)
–At the 2 hour, 39 minute mark of the second video, Parker asked about the “citywide pervasive” issue of maintenance of buildings in DCPS. (Not sure he got a good answer.)
–At 2 hours and 52 minutes of the second video, Mendelson asked explicitly about the proposed (and apparently unwanted by everyone outside the Wilson Building) Foxhall school, and the chancellor said it has been delayed.
To be sure, the admittedly idiosyncratic accounting here of several DOZEN hours of testimony may be the new custom of our DC country and its idea of public oversight.
For one, the public can find witness lists and testimony for these hearings only on a private website (that of the council chair) here.
For another, there is the little issue of no posting of the April 5 hearing on the council website until weeks afterward. (The committee of the whole youtube website actually has a video—but it cuts off in the middle of someone’s testimony and leaves off hours of the hearing, not to mention that as far as I can see, there is no second video for the rest of the hearing.)
And for yet another, the DC council transcript of the April 7 hearing is missing apparently large chunks of the conversation, including the entire exchange between Christina Henderson and Christina Grant on the lottery. (Yes, really. Here’s a screenshot of the transcript where the conversation in this clip should be represented. Oops.)
And fascinatingly, the first committee of the whole youtube video of the April 7 hearing has terrible sound quality at the 6 hour, 40 minute mark—devolving into what might be described as a “rapid unscheduled disassembly” (in billionaire-centric parlance) right at the very moment that Matt Frumin criticized Phil Mendelson’s pandering to the charter lobby! (Also fascinatingly: such mangling of sound at that precise moment is not an issue in the council video.)
Perhaps we should conclude that both billionaires and the billionaire-adjacent really know how to have fun with controlling public perception.
2 thoughts on “The Cruelest Month Carries On”
Another way they control public perception is by exempting public charter schools from the Freedom of Information Act.