Testimony of Suzanne Wells
Committee of the Whole and Education’s Budget Oversight hearing of the Deputy Mayor for Education
April 25, 2019
Thank you for the opportunity to testify today. My name is Suzanne Wells. I am the president of the Ward 6 Public Schools Parent Organization, and the parent of an 8th grader at Eliot-Hine Middle School.
Many changes in the governance of the district’s public schools in the last twenty years have taken away democratic control of our public schools. From the School Reform Act of 1995 that created the independent Public Charter School Board (PCSB) to the Public Education Reform Amendment Act that shifted control of the public schools from an elected school board to the mayor, each of these acts have in different ways reduced the influence citizens and our local government have over the public schools.
My comments today focus on the School Reform Act. In 1995, Congress passed the School Reform Act that created the PCSB as an independent body with authority to open and close charter schools that does not report to the mayor, and is not required to plan or coordinate with DCPS.
Less than a year ago, Mayor Bowser spoke at a news conference about efforts to protect the District of Columbia’s local laws, and she said “We want Congress to keep their hands off the things that matter to our residents.” At the time, Mayor Bowser was talking about efforts to halt the district’s commercialization of recreational marijuana sales and prevent funding abortion services for low-income women.
There is probably no issue that matters more to the residents of the District of Columbia than education. Last year, the district spent almost 20% of its tax dollars on education related expenses. There is arguably no issue in the district that has been influenced more by Congress than education. For unexplained reasons, the Mayor has treated congressional control of our public schools differently than other local issues.
Since 1995, the charter school sector in DC has grown from 0% to 47% of the public school students in DC now attending public charter schools. Because the PCSB is an independent body, there has been no planning on the opening and closing of schools managed by DCPS and the PCSB.
This lack of planning has resulted in the district taxpayers being burdened with tremendous inefficiencies in the use of tax dollars put towards education. We have seen charter schools open close to DCPS schools running similar programs, an explosion of high schools (34 at last count) with almost a third of them having under 300 students, and a steady decline of enrollment at many by-right schools. We have invested hundreds of millions in renovating our by-right schools, yet many of them are not able to invest in programming because of declining budgets due to under enrollment.
There is no position better suited to begin discussions with Congress about returning authority for managing the charter sector back to the District of Columbia than the Deputy Mayor for Education. The DME is the person responsible for developing and implementing the Mayor’s vision for academic excellence and creating a high quality education continuum. With responsibility for only half of the students attending public schools in DC, it is impossible for our city to effectively deliver academic excellence to all students. It’s past time to engage with Congress to seek changes to the School Reform Act, and return control over all public education in the district back to our local government.