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Caryn Ernst Testimony – DME Performance Oversight Hearing – February 13 2018

I have been a member of the Deputy Mayor for Education’s Cross Sector Collaboration Task Force for the last two years and am testifying on the efficacy of the proposals currently being considered.

There are many recommendations from the Task Force being pushed out for public comment at the same time and only one meeting for the Task Force to consider that feedback and make changes before passing them on to the Mayor. The policy issues being considered are extremely complex and have the potential for serious unintended consequences. It will be primarily up to the Council to ensure any policies that advance are thoroughly considered, which is why I’m here today.

It’s important for Council to know that there were critical issues that should have been discussed by the Task Force but were not, because they were taken off the table from the outset. As a result, the recommendations will not only fall short of their stated goals, but in some cases may actually do more harm than good.

My assessment, which is shared by many education advocates from around the city, is that these recommendations are not going to improve education for the vast majority of students, particularly the 44% of our students considered at-risk, and could actually exacerbate the current problems created by our divided system.

The Task Force focused on three important goals during our two-years together:

1. Promoting enrollment stability

2. Improving education for at-risk students

3. Coordinating the opening, closing and siting of schools

In my brief comments today, I will focus on just a few of the higher level policy issues that were not discussed, which should therefore be thoroughly considered by Council.

I. Promoting Enrollment Stability

The policy that the Task Force focused on to address mid-year mobility was the creation of a centralized system for managing mid-year transfers.

I support creating a centralized system; however, the system as proposed is not designed to promote enrollment stability, and could actually facilitate greater mid-year mobility, particularly for at-risk students.

The central flaw in the policy is allowing schools to maintain waitlists throughout the year, a topic that was taken off the table for discussion. Maintaining waitlists ensures that:

1. Higher risk students will continue to have the least choice in school placement, and

2. That you will create a cascade of voluntary mobility throughout the school year.

This isn’t just a theoretical concern. This impact was actually documented by the City of Denver, which had a similar policy, but then eliminated waitlists for exactly the reasons stated.

By allowing schools to maintain waitlists throughout the year, you ensure that the highest demand schools will fill open slots from their waitlists, rather than taking the higher risk students who need to leave their current school for reasons such as housing instability or expulsion. Those higher risk students can then only be placed at schools with no waitlist. Also, by allowing schools to pull from waitlists throughout the school year you create a cascade of voluntary mobility – when one school invites a student off of their waitlist to take advantage of a transfer opportunity, that transfer creates an open slot at the student’s current school, which will then be filled by someone invited from their waitlist, and so on, and so on.

If the centralized system is implemented, it must be measured against the goal of reducing mid-year mobility, particularly for at-risk students. If mobility of at-risk students does not decline, waitlists should be eliminated for all schools after October.

II. Improving Education for At-Risk Students

The recommendations being advanced by the Task Force for at-risk students are largely focused on redistributing a small percent of students between schools, rather than on identifying strategies to improve education for all at-risk students.

For example, the recommended policy to provide a preference in the lottery for at-risk students was shown to only benefit 600 students in a mock lottery. There are 40,000 at-risk students in our school system, yet the Task Force spent months discussing a policy that would benefit 600 of them.

Meanwhile, very little time was spent identifying and analyzing ways to replicate educational approaches that have actually proven successful in improving achievement of at-risk students in DC. We have a handful of excellent examples in both DCPS and Charter sector, including schools with high concentrations of students living in poverty. Repeated requests from Task Force members to analyze these success stories and discuss replication strategies were disregarded by the Deputy Mayor.

With 44% of our public school students at-risk of school failure, creating policies that shuffle them between schools is not a solution.

III. Opening, Closing and Siting Schools

The Task Force recommendation to compile data from both sectors into one city-wide analysis is fine, but there was no broader agreement on policies that will guide the use of that data, and no agreement on changes to the separate governing structures that could actually facilitate coordinated planning and decision-making.

Critical issues, such as how to measure and manage excess capacity in order to align school growth with student population growth, were completely taken off the table for discussion.

Currently there are over 21,000 excess public school seats – roughly half in each sector – yet the Public Charter School Board stated explicitly that it would not manage its development of new schools to align with student growth, but would instead continue to build new schools as long as there are students in the District scoring below basic on the PARCC exam.

We are spending limited tax dollars to not only maintain 23% excess capacity, but to continue to expand that capacity further beyond population growth. By necessity, this results in reduced enrollment and budget in existing schools regardless of their quality, undermining the success of both charter and DCPS schools.

These broader policy and governance issues must be dealt with for cross sector collaboration to be meaningful and for there to be significant improvements to education in the District and any real progress in closing the achievement gap for our 40,000 at-risk students.

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