The mayor and the chancellor have put forward their plan to close 20 schools. And in her testimony before the council the chancellor made a dishonest representation about the nexus between closures and the presence of librarians in the school. There is none. One does not depend on the other. This and other facts, coupled with the broader pattern of disingenuousness on the chancellor’s part, makes allowing her to retain the authority to shrink the physical size of DCPS by 16 percent an unacceptably risky proposition.
We have had five years of educational policy continuity under this chancellor and her predecessor. Prior to Michelle Rhee’s arrival stable, long-term leadership had been absent from DCPS. A particular view of education reform has had a long trial period. There’s been remarkable consistency in the policies pursued during this period. We’ve closed schools, dramatically altered the way in which teachers are evaluated and are using an unprecedented level of student testing. What DCPS stakeholders have now is a system with fewer schools, fewer students and vast amounts of municipal treasure pushed toward policies that are not achieving little. The demographics of student success remain stubbornly similar to where they were five years ago. And now the mayor and the chancellor want the council’s imprimatur on the continuation of policies that have not shown appreciable success.
The chancellor wants to close schools, saying the money saved will allow the remaining campuses to be more fulsome programatically. But she cannot place a dollar figure on those savings or when they might materialize. The city is still awaiting savings from the closings that took place four years; so far we’re $40 million in the hole. Consolidated schools were promised enhanced offerings in 2008, one being school librarians. But several of the combined campuses are now without librarians. And 10 of the 25 proposed receiving schools do not have librarians. Two of the schools proposed for closure have librarians now but those students are being moved to campuses currently lacking them. And the chancellor has made no commitment to their being present in the receiving schools. in spite of the fact that it’s been amply demonstrated in the past eight months that vibrant, fully-staffed school libraries are important to this city. Is the argument going to be made this spring as the FY14 budget is being debated that DCPS cannot afford librarians because of the costs associated with closing 20 schools?
The fact is that DCPS’ own priorities and preferences are among the chief reasons that these low-enrollment schools have remained in this unfortunate condition. Many of these schools, besides lacking librarians, have only part-time art, music and physical education teachers. Instead every school is required to have an instructional coach at the cost of $95,574. We have 42 of the master educators that are the lynchpins of the IMPACT teacher evaluation system. Neither of these have shown any real evidence of substantive effect on student achievement. Art, music and school libraries. on the other hand, have large bodies of academic research showing their benefit. And parents are very keen to see their presence in schools in more than a half-hearted way. The overwhelming majority have of the proposed closures have not seen a Phase I modernization. A review of the FY13 capital budget shows that many of the proposed closures have seen the start date of modernization slip by several years. These schools are aging, threadbare, thin in programatic terms and yet are being blamed because they have been unable to create an alluring siren’s song.
The students at these small schools have been penalized because they attend one of modest enrollment and being asked to move to a different environment with no guarantee their lives will academically richer.
Everywhere one turns in this school system there is waste. The chancellor has run a fabulously expensive food service system, one the council has not been allowed to impact because the very late date the contract is provided by DCPS for review and approval. This wasted money alone could have funded many exciting programs and staff for the schools in danger of being closed. It could have bought badly needed library materials for all the schools. The money spent on an army of consultants in the past five years could have bought tangible benefits to these small schools. Instead the result of all the funds paid to outside advisers is little in discernible improvement in the schools. And then there is the central office staff that Mary Levy says is as large as it’s ever been.
In the past five years DCPS has made representations to the council that were not true and understood as such before they were made. In FY11 and FY12, for example, DCPS represented that more than $700,000 each year would be spent on library and media services. But that was not the case. DCPS had no plans for how to spend those funds and very little was spent on school libraries from these budget lines in either year. The school closing proposal is about money but DCPS is allergic to talking candidly about the subject with either the council or the community it serves. And one wonders how much useful information will come out of the “Proving What’s Possible” grants given to schools selected for closure. While only 16.4 percent of these schools got a grant out of the $10.4 million awarded, their total take was $1.7 million. Some of these grants were among the largest awarded. The outcome of these proposals is likely to be compromised because the staff conducting them will not have the chance to see a successful one continued in the future. We’re asking people to work hard on projects in schools that may not exist this time next year.
Our school system has a management team that wants the public’s embrace of a closure strategy that has been tried before by many of the same actors and with no evidence they are willing to put aside cherished but failed ideas in favor of ones with a long record of producing increased student achievement and greater parental satisfaction with the schools. Rich art and music curriculum work and are sought by parents. Abundant research has shown that properly staffed, well-resourced school libraries contribute enormously to literacy development and the creation of a culture of reading in schools.
And with an epidemic of childhood obesity in the District and the nation as a whole, the absence of full-time physical education teachers can’t help but be noticed by parents evaluating a school.
According to the analysis Mary Levy did of the FY13 DCPS budget, money is being sequestered for unknown purposes. Before the chancellor is even given the opportunity to propose closures, she needs to be made to spend that money on the under-enrolled schools for programs with both demonstrated efficacy and appeal to parents. The mayor and council should invest $23 million in DCPS libraries. This would benefit all schools and particularly generate excitement in the small ones. There is no doubt that there is considerable education spending fatigue on both the council and in the executive branch. But a good public education system is essential to sustaining the gains the city has made in recent years.
Schools can’t be expected to grow in a meaningful and desirable way when they’ve been left for dead.
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