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Testimony of Suzanne Wells – Committee on Education Public Charter School Board Budget Hearing – May 4, 2017

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today.  My name is Suzanne Wells, and I have a daughter who is a 6th grader at Eliot-Hine Middle School.

Last week at the DCPS budget hearing, as Councilmember Grosso well knows, there were nearly 180 people who signed up to testify.  Having just six people testify today at the PCSB hearing should not be taken as an indication that people do not have concerns with the direction the PCSB is leading our city.  I believe it is more a reflection of the fact that the workings of the PCSB are not well understood by most people in the city.  Few understand the independent authority they have to open new schools; and few understand the Mayor’s FY18 budget proposal will give 80% of the $105 million increase being put toward education to the public charter schools.  Few know when PCSB public meetings are held because they are generally just advertised through e-mails to the ANCs and on the PCSB website.  And I suspect no one understands the inefficiencies and redundant spending that it costs our city to run multiple, distinct, and uncoordinated school systems – the DCPS, the PCSB and 65 public charter school local education agencies.

Last Saturday I had the opportunity to see the film Backpack Full of Cash that was shown at the Washington DC International Film Festival.  The film is about the social and economic costs of the movement to privatize public education.  Focusing primarily on public education in Philadelphia, you learn about a public school system where the state for years cut funding for education.  You see a city that neglected to maintain and modernize its public schools.  You learn about the problems created for the municipally-run school system when they compete for students with the emerging charter school sector.  You also learn about the school system in Union City, NJ that has made a commitment to its public education system, and has by all accounts an exemplary municipally-run school system — without a single charter school.

The film made me thankful, concerned and hopeful.  I was thankful because our city has made a commitment to modernize our public schools, and DC has been working for years to strengthen its public school system — though so much more could and should be done.  I was concerned because the problems depicted in the film that Philadelphia is facing with the competition between a municipally-run, by-right school system and a public charter sector seem to be very similar to what we see in DC.  I was hopeful because the example of Union City, NJ, which educates mostly poor, minority and immigrant students, showed how a city can become a national model for public education by embracing the ideas of gradual, sustained change, project-based learning, and working within existing structures — all without opening a single charter school.

In closing, I would like to ask the Education Committee to do three things:

  1. Request a city-wide study by the DC Auditor to assess and compare the costs to run DCPS and its schools, and the PCSB and the charter schools across the city. The study should look, in particular, at the administrative costs to run DCPS, the PCSB, and the 65 LEAs, and the facilities’ costs to operate the individual schools in each sector.
  2. Attend a screening of the film Backpack Full of Cash and encourage the PCSB members and executive director, the DCPS Chancellor, and the Deputy Mayor to attend the screening with you. While it is understandable that parents make choices for their individual children on what school is best for their own child, our elected and appointed education leaders need to be making public education decisions on what is best for all the children in our city, and how to best use our public education dollars. This should include an honest assessment about why the approach chosen by Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, most like what DC is now pursuing, is preferable to that chosen by Union City, NJ.
  3. Explore methods to better engage and facilitate greater public involvement and input into the PCSB budget process, and create a more transparent process, comparable to that involved with the DCPS budget process.

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