Iris Bond Gill Testimony – Deputy Mayor for Education Budget Oversight Hearing – March 29, 2019

Testimony of Iris Bond Gill

Council of the District of Columbia

Committee of the Whole and Committee on Education

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Thank you for the opportunity to testify at this Joint Budget Oversight Hearing.

Like so many parents in this city, I have children in both a DCPS and a charter school. I applaud the steps the Deputy Mayor for Education’s Office has taken to make the transitions between the charter and DCPS sector easier for families through the MySchoolDC process.

But even as families move between sectors in an integrated way, the system has not caught up. It continues to be siloed and that’s not at all how most families experience education in DC. ​It begs the question: Who are you designing the system for if not for our families who use it?

So the difference between the user experience and the system structure is deep and it’s widening. And parents are starting to ask: who oversees planning across our entire education system. I’ve been told this is within the wheelhouse of the DME, which is what brings me here today.

If we are to design a system that works for the people using it, we need someone​at the helm who understands​how families operate within our system and who ​has the authority​to plan and make decisions for the whole system. We don’t have a systems approach now and…

  • It’s perpetuating a false and outdated narrative.
  • It’s disproportionately impacting our most vulnerable children.
  • And it’s wasting city resources. All of this is resulting in a system that is increasingly unstable and inequitable.

So let’s talk about this outdated narrative​.In the first 10 years of this movement, the charter sector was a “hub of innovation”. With only 5-10% of students in those schools, changes in the sector had little impact on the whole system. And at that time, the strategy was about school improvement for the majority of schools.

But the context has changed. Yet our conversation policies and planning have not.

So here we are in 2019, we have over 200 schools for 90K students with numerous options. The charter sector serves 47% of students and is no longer operating an off-to-the-side hub of innovation. And every decision—every opening, every closing, every new school location— in one sector impacts the entire education system. For example, opening new STEM-focused middle school next to an existing middle school with a STEM focus only serves to pull enrollment and resources away from students. And without a systems approach to planning, these decisions are creating massive instability.​

Essentially, DC is operating blindly and accelerating waste, instability, and inequity.

The brunt of our instability is not evenly distributed. Our children who experience the least stability at home, experience the least stability in our education system.​And it’s been designed that way or at least it’s evolved that way. And research has documented that students who attend schools that close do not end up at higher performing schools. I know a family who has been in not one, not two, but three schools that have closed on them. On top of this, the city makes it so those in the least resourced parts of our city travel the furthest to school, it strands families with school closures after lottery dates. And contributes to a volatile budgeting strategy where schools are left without adequate resources, investments, and supports.

Here are a few things we need city leaders to do:

  • Clarify to the public who is responsible for planning across the entire system so we know who to hold accountable.
  • Create a transparent needs assessment process for the entire system rather than the siloed decision-making of today. It should robust community engagement so decisions are made efficiently and in the best interest of the families.
  • Develop in a robust school improvement strategy so we increase the quality of our schools.​It must ensure the highest investments are aligned to the highest needs and that schools can rely on receiving the funding needed to maintain core staffing, year to year.
  • Charge city leaders for coming up with creative solutions for building and stabilizing enrollment. Rather than opening a new school to operate as an early college high school, why not open an early college high school program within an under-enrolled but renovated DC high school? Creative solutions that engage communities will use funding more efficiently and build enrollment and stability.

Families are shouldering the burden that city leadership is not. We are working to improve schools, to stabilize enrollment, secure investment, and find stability. We need the city to move the conversation and policies to match the 2019 reality and begin to act as ONE system with two sectors (which is how families experience it) instead of operating as two separate systems. People don’t agree on everything, but across the city, we are united on the need for high quality schools and stability, transparency, and efficiency across education in DC.

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