Danica Petroshius Testimony – At-Risk School Funding and School Based Budgeting and Transparency Amendment Acts of 2019 – June 26, 2019

Testimony of Danica Petroshius

Hearing on Transparency

June 26, 2019

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today. I am Danica Petroshius, parent of two children at Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan (CHML).

I strongly support the At-Risk School Funding Transparency Amendment Act of 2019 and have attached specific ideas for strengthening it. I also support the School-Based Budgeting and Transparency Amendment Act and the Public School Transparency Amendment At of 2019.  Together, all of these bills will move us a step closer to transparency in our education system.

Today I testify on behalf of the over 300 parents and community members who signed a letter asking for transparency around sexual abuse – and some of those parents are here with me today.

Almost everything I have had to testify about over the past 8 years as a parent in DCPS has boiled down to lack of transparency: hiding data on lead in the water, hiding data on crumbling school assessments, preventing parents access to basic meetings and activities; lack of equity in access to FOIA and opaque budgeting practices.

But the bottom fell out of transparency 2 weeks ago. On June 8th, we at CHML were told that an employee of Springboard was removed for misconduct. On June 10th we were told by email that “no Springboard student was involved.” Only on June 11th – when WAMU broke the story – did we find out a student minor at our school was the victim of sexual abuse. And, we found out that Springboard ran programs in 21 sites across DC and had no record of its background checks and was therefore in breach of contract. On June 14, Fox 5 let us know that there was a second allegation against the same person.

For parents, panic and fear set in; we hugged our children and we consoled each other.

We asked city leaders for answers to what happened, why communication failed and what policies are in place to protect students.

We began to research and found out:

  • There are at least 13 charter and DCPS schools with serious sexual assault cases since November 2014 – this is not a one-off, this is a system problem
  • There is no one system-wide safety policy for all kids in every district in DC
  • There is no centralized data system for tracking background checks across systems
  • There is no regular monitoring and compliance to ensure the safety of students
  • We wrote a letter to city leaders on June 12 asking for answers to our questions
  • We shared our research and questions in addition to policy solutions (you have all of this in attachments)

The response from the city completely lacks transparency, urgency and care.

  • There has been no answer to our letter to city leaders, only vague emails that only lead to more questions (I have annotated those emails in the attachments)
  • We have had no action from Council to demand answers on our specific situation, no call for a hearing, no response to our recommended solutions beyond the School Safety Act
  • This year Council did start to improve systems through the School Safety Act which asks districts to implement policies and trainings over the next 2 years, and for OSSE to provide models. Two years is too long to wait.
  • The School Safety Act is a start, but it does not improve and expand data collection and reporting; it does not centralize reporting, monitoring and compliance; it does not ensure all children have the same level of protections; and it does not mandate a full review of our system to ensure our city agencies implement the gold standard for protecting students.
  • There are pending DCPS FOIAs because there is no transparency. Yet parents in charter schools where Springboard operated cannot FOIA their districts because we have no law to protect those students when transparency fails.

The system of transparency and accountability is broken. We should not have to write letters, testify and go to the media to get answers on the most fundamental policy of protecting the safety of our children. We cannot move to the real work of teaching and learning if we aren’t first and fundamentally doing all we can to protect our youth.

We must move the bills being considered forward. In addition, we also must act urgently to implement full transparency in our education system – there is no time to lose.

If our education system, led by the Mayor, embraced transparency then

  • our communities would understand as soon as the MPD investigation allowed, what happened and how our children were protected
  • it would be easy to find the policies and practices in place to protect our children
  • every child would be fully protected in the same way in every school regardless of being in DCPS or a charter school, and every parent would have the same access to protections to get key information about their children through FOIA
  • would be easy to maintain, track and upkeep records of all safety procedures in one centralized location so every parent – regardless of school or sector – can be sure their children are safe.

If our education leaders embraced transparency, we would have trust.

Please work with us to achieve full transparency for all children.


Supplemental documents, recommendations research, timelines:

Kent Withycombe Testimony – At-Risk School Funding and School Based Budgeting and Transparency Amendment Acts of 2019 – June 26, 2019

WLC

Kent Withycombe, Education Justice Project Director

The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs 

Testimony Before the Council of the District of Columbia

  For the June 26, 2019 Joint Public Hearing on:

(1) B23-0239:  School Based Budgeting and Transparency Amendment Act of 2019; and

(2) B23-0046:  At-Risk School Funding Transparency Amendment Act of 2019

I.               Introduction

Thank you Council Chairman Mendelson, Education Committee Chairman Grosso, and all Councilmembers for this opportunity to testify.  I am Kent Withycombe, from the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, where I work to advance education justice in DC.

Since the late 1970s, the Committee has been committed to fighting for equity in the D.C. schools.  In particular we have focused our advocacy, particularly for families of color that come from neighborhoods that we as a city have historically deprived of resources and support.[1]

We are committed to ensuring every student’s right to an excellent public education.   Budget, planning and transparency issues are inherently civil rights issues, as they all must be done with a keen eye towards actually achieving equity and providing quality opportunities for students in all of our public schools.

Community input is a critical component of ensuring that DCPS and the public charter school LEAs are accountable to the students and parents that they serve.  Transparency into the operations of these schools and how they make decisions about budgeting and planning allows community members to provide meaningful input.  We support the intent of many provisions in the School Based Budgeting and Transparency Amendment Act, as it intends to give more local control over budgets to Principals and their school communities, and it applies DC’s open meetings laws to all public schools.   However, we recommend that the law also require each Local Education Agency to comply with the District of Columbia’s Freedom of Information Act.   We also support and urge the Council to pass the At Risk School Funding Transparency Amendment Act provisions, as it also gives more local control over budgeting to schools, and it will increase transparency and accountability to ensure that DC public schools are using At Risk funds for the direct benefit of their students who are living in acute poverty.

II.  The School Based Budgeting and Transparency Amendment Act of 2019

Access to information by advocates, journalists, school communities and voters strengthens the District’s schools, improves policy and practice, and helps expose misconduct, waste, and inefficiency.  Investigations into school operations demonstrate the value of subjecting all of DC’s public schools to open meetings and public records requirements.

We learned, for example, from the press, advocates, and teachers that DCPS attendance and graduation rates at Ballou and other schools were actually far below what they were initially reported to be, exposing deep inequities in the quality of education that some students were receiving.

Conversely, at Chavez Prep Public Charter school, which is not currently subject to open meeting laws, teachers, parents and students were kept in the dark about school finances, the plans to consolidate schools, and then the ultimate decision to close Chavez Prep.  The community had little opportunity for input or recourse.

The School Based Budgeting and Transparency Amendment Act will achieve better transparency for stakeholders and policymakers to evaluate schools and the quality and equity of educational experiences that those schools provide.  It will provide opportunities for communities to monitor their schools and provide input at key junctures.

However, the Act does not go far enough, and we are particularly concerned that this Act does not require charter school LEAs to comply with the D.C.’s Freedom of Information Act.  This mechanism is necessary to ensure meaningful public accountability.  This bill should require that all LEAs comply with FOIA, just as Councilmember Allen’s Transparency Bill does.   Making charter LEAs subject to the same FOIA requirements that DCPS is subject to is critical, as it will increase transparency and accountability to school communities and build trust.   Ensuring broad public access to the same types of information across all of our public schools is key in understanding, assessing, and closing the persistent achievement and opportunity gaps among students, particularly with respect to students of color, our At-Risk student populations, students with disabilities, and English Language Learners.  The National Research Council’s 2015 Evaluation of the Public Schools of the District of Columbia repeatedly emphasized this point.[2]

DC’s exemption of charter schools from public accountability laws like FOIA is out of step with national norms.  National charter organizations endorse compliance with public records requests as Best Practices.[3]  Moreover, representatives of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools told the Washington Post that DC’s charter sector was unusual in not being subject to public records requests as compared to the rest of the country.[4]

In fact, 39 states require all schools to comply with public records requests.  Research by In the Public Interest found that this vast majority of states, including both Maryland and Virginia, require operators or schools to hold open board meetings or post minutes of board meetings, and to respond to requests for public records.[5]  Most recently, California adopted this year a measure that would subject all of California’s 1,300 charter schools to open meetings laws and public records requests.

While the PCSB recently made some transparency improvements, they do not go far enough to provide the kind and variety of types of information that parents, school communities and advocates need to create true accountability.  Nor do these changes provide the depth and breadth of information that would be available through FOIA requests.[6]  We cannot rely on PCSB to be the gatekeepers of information for publicly funded charter schools.

Responding to FOIA requests should not be a significant financial or time burden for charter LEAs.  The DC Public Charter School Board has not been inundated with FOIA requests.  Between October 1, 2017, and September 30, 2018, the DC Public Charter School Board received 74 requests for information, with 59 processed within 15 days, and the rest in more than 16 days.[7]  The total cost for the PCSB to comply with FOIA requests during that year was $22,600.  For smaller charter LEAs who need assistance in responding, the bill can follow the lead of Councilmember Allen’s Public School Transparency Act and direct the PCSB to assist Charter LEAs when needed in responding to FOIA requests.

The Washington Lawyers’ Committee supports the School Based Budgeting provisions that will give Principals and their school communities more autonomy to allocate their local dollars and the ability to build their budgets based on their students’ needs, rather than DCPS Central Office mandates.

This Act can significantly improve transparency over two areas of expenditures that are currently obscured in school budgets.  First, the Act should require charter schools to disclose all contracts rather than only contracts for more than $25,000.  The current formulation allows schools and contractors to divide up contracts to avoid disclosure.  For example, a $48,000 contract for goods and services could be split into $24,000 for goods, and $24,000 for services, and neither would have to be disclosed under the proposed legislation.

Second, the bill should require charter schools to publicly report employee salaries.  Councilmember Allen’s bill requires publishing all charter teacher salaries, as DCPS is required to do.  At a minimum, charter schools should disclose st year salaries, 5th year, 10th year salaries and average teacher salaries, so that teachers will have reliable compensation information to drive their choices about where to work and so that parents and education advocates will be able to compare each year how much schools and LEAs are spending on teachers versus administrators and other expenses. [8]

Overall, the Committee supports the following provisions and strongly encourages that the Council strengthen the remainder of the proposed legislation:

  1. Require both the Public Charter School Board and individual charter schools to comply with the Administrative Procedures Act, including the Open Meetings Act.[9]
  2. Urge all public schools to use similar definitions and line-items in their budgeting.
  3. Require charter schools to publicize not just their budgets, but also their expenditures.
  4. Require charter schools to delineate how At-Risk Funds are being spent.
  5. Require that the Office of the State Superintendent for Education (OSSE) publish school budget expenditure information in a way that ensures the public can compare expenditures by LEA and by school in a clear manner.[10]
  6. Require DCPS to use a school-based budgeting model to fund schools, as opposed to the comprehensive staffing model, and submit that to the DC Council.

II.              At Risk School Funding Transparency Amendment Act

The Washington Lawyers’ Committee is in favor of the At -Risk School Funding Transparency Amendment Act.   Reliable, targeted and adequate At-Risk funding is a significant way to improve education equity in the public schools of DC.   Schools need an At-Risk supplement that is fully funded to meet the needs of the community.  The current At-Risk supplement, about $2,400 per student, is 40 percent lower than the Deputy Mayor for Education’s 2013 Education Adequacy Study recommendations.[11]   In addition to the improvements incorporated by the proposed legislation, the Council should also increase the amount of the per student At-Risk funding.

The transparency and accountability provisions will help to achieve three important equity goals:

  1. Giving principals and school communities more voice in how At-Risk funds are used;
  2. Requiring the collection of information on how At-Risk funds are used that will assist in evaluating the impacts of this funding on student outcomes; and
  3. Ensuring that At-Risk funds are used to supplement, rather than supplant, school-based spending and services, which is a persistent problem that both the DC Auditor and Mary Levy have studied and reported in recent years.[12]

The Act accomplishes these goals by shifting spending decisions for At-Risk funding from DC Public Schools’ Central Office to principals and school communities, as principals must consult with Local School Advisory Teams on how at-risk funds should be used.

It also adds new reporting requirements for all public schools receiving At-Risk funds so that parents, the public and the Council can better track how the At-Risk funds are used and if they are effective at improving educational outcomes for At-Risk students at that school.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

In summary, the Committee supports the intent of the School Based Budgeting and Transparency Amendment Act, as it intends to give more local control over budgets to Principals and their school communities, and it increase transparency into the operation of our public charter schools.  We recommend that the law also require each Local Education Agency in DC to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests, just as DCPS is required to do.

We also support and urge the Council to pass the At Risk School Funding Transparency Amendment Act, as it also gives more local control over budgeting to schools, and it will increase transparency and accountability to ensure that DC public schools are using At Risk funds for the direct benefit of their students who are living in acute poverty.

[1] The Washington Lawyers’ Committee was founded in 1968 to address civil rights violations, racial injustice and poverty-related issues in our community through litigation and other advocacy.  The Committee has a long history of working to address racial and other inequity in the DC public schools, which includes its Parent Empowerment Program and its School Partnerships among law firms, businesses and more than 55 DCPS Title I schools.  We work closely with the private bar to bring litigation, pursue policy initiatives and support the academic enrichment and other goals of our DC public school communities.

[2]http://sites.nationalacademies.org/dbasse/BOTA/Evaluation_of_the_Public_Schools_of_the_District_of_Columbia/index.htm

Page 3-20:  Public access to comprehensive data across DCPS and all the charter LEAs in the city would support tracking and analysis of key information about schools and students, particularly with respect to students with disabilities and English-language learners.

Page 3-27; Conclusion 3-3:   Accountability to the public requires that information about administrative operations be transparent and easily accessible and that mechanisms be available for DC residents to express their preferences and concerns.

Pages 7-13 to 7-14;  Recommendation 3:  the primary objective of the District of Columbia for its public schools should be to address the serious and persistent disparities in learning opportunities and academic progress across student groups and wards by attending to [a]cessible, useful, and transparent data about D.C. public schools that are tailored to the diverse groups with a stake in the system.

[3] See Recommendations and Model Laws by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and the National Alliance of Public Charter Schoolshttps://www.qualitycharters.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/NACSA-Principles-and-Standards-2018-Edition.pdf ;

https://www.publiccharters.org/sites/default/files/migrated/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/ModelLaw_P7-wCVR_20110402T222341.pdf

[4]  https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/should-dc-charter-schools-follow-the-same-rules-as-traditional-campuses/2019/02/04/544cfb36-2644-11e9-81fd-b7b05d5bed90_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.6ee9b1ee6afb

[5] https://www.inthepublicinterest.org/d-c-s-charter-school-transparency-policies-fall-short-of-nationwide-state-level-standards/

[6]  On March 18, board members voted on the DC Public Charter School Board’s new transparency changes, which would require individual schools to publish, among other things, which meetings are open to the public, board meeting minutes, the salaries of the five highest-compensated individuals, employee handbooks, and funding plans for at-risk students.  https://www.dcpcsb.org/public-comment/notice-new-policy-school-transparency-policy-reopened-public-comment . Some of the information that the DC Public Charter School Board is proposing that schools publish on their own websites is already available on the DC Public Charter School Board’s Transparency Hub, which launched last April.  https://www.dcpcsb.org/transparency

[7]  See The District’s Annual FOIA Report: https://os.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/os/page_content/attachments/FOAI%20FY18%20Annual%20Report%20updated%202.25.19.pdf

[8] https://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/news/city-desk/article/21045319/dc-charter-administrators-have-some-of-the-highest-school-salaries-in-town-their-teachers-some-of-the-lowest

[9] National charter organizations endorse compliance with open meetings laws as Best Practices.  See Recommendations and Model Laws by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.

[10] This gives parents and policymakers clear information and allows stakeholders to see across all schools how tax dollars are being spent.  This is done in several large school districts around the country, such as L.A Unified School District, which publishes the entire budget of every school (more than 500 schools) that advocates and school communities can compare and digest.  See http://projects.scpr.org/applications/lausd-2014-2015-school-by-school-budgets/  and  https://achieve.lausd.net/cms/lib/CA01000043/Centricity/Domain/123/25_2019-20%20Superintendents%20Final%20Budget%20Online%20Combined_nopg.pdf

[11] DC Deputy Mayor for Education’s 2013 Education Adequacy Study at 116-117.

[12] See http://dcauditor.org/report/budgeting-and-staffing-at-eight-dcps-elementary-schools/ at iii and 61-63; and  https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/dc-is-misspending-millions-of-dollars-intended-to-help-the-citys-poorest-students/2018/04/14/6006c02a-3788-11e8-9c0a-85d477d9a226_story.html?utm_term=.ba26c5171293

Liz Koening Testimony – At-Risk School Funding and School Based Budgeting and Transparency Amendment Acts of 2019 – June 26, 2019

Liz Koenig 

Public Testimony on B23-0046 and B23-0239

June 26, 2019

Good morning, my name is Liz Koenig, and I am a part of EmpowerEd’s teacher council.  I worked as a charter school teacher for seven years and sent my daughter to a charter school for the last two.  The School-Based Budgeting and Transparency Bill takes several important steps to increase trust in our public institutions, such as requiring charter schools to detail expenditures as well as budgets and requiring all schools to detail how they spend their at-risk funds.  Budget transparency is a worthy goal, and incredibly important against this city’s backdrop of underinvesting in the most marginalized communities.

The transparency aspect I wanted to focus on today is one that has been most important to me as a charter teacher and parent.  I enthusiastically support making charter school board meetings open to families, staff, and the public. This is an important step in connecting charter schools to the communities they serve in a way that is currently lacking.  While charter schools are granted great independence in how they run their schools, they should not be released from the obligations public schools have to their communities.

Beyond having open board meetings, I believe that teachers – who are closest to the students and who deliver the instruction every day – should be guaranteed representation on each charter school’s board.  Teacher voice is essential to strong, quality schools and, while it is prioritized and respected in many schools, it should be guaranteed in all.

Requiring charter schools to have open board meetings is an essential first step, but I believe it does not go far enough.  Charter schools should also be subject to DC’s Freedom of Information Act, giving the public the right to request documents relating to how these schools are spending public dollars.  Adding this piece of transparency to the Budgeting and Transparency Act would be complementary – charter schools have to report expenditures and citizens are given a tool to verify the details of these submissions.  The mechanics of how FOIA would work for charter schools still need to be, and can easily be, fleshed out with collaboration and creativity.

The reason all these measures are necessary is because accountability means more than test scores or a PMF rating.  Accountability means school leaders should be face-to-face with families and teachers when making decisions that will affect students’ education, most critically when those decisions are unpopular ones.  Accountability means school leaders should not be able to avoid answering for mistakes made – not when students and teachers have to live with the fallout. Accountability means that the public should be able to follow tax dollars from collection to payment, in greater detail than the broad strokes of an annual report or a 990.  

Accountability means that when the stakes are this high, you should not be able to hide behind the empty platitude, “trust us.”  Schools in both sectors are still falling short of the high standards we expect them to have in educating our city’s children. Transparency is an issue across sectors in DC.  There are committed advocates who work to hold DCPS accountable to their students every day, and I fully support their efforts. Those who wish to put the same democratic pressure on the charter system have fewer tools.  

While the PCSB is there to hold schools academically accountable, families and teachers care about more than just “outcomes,” a term which often just refers to two-dimensional test scores and graduation rates.  They care about the inputs and the processes of a school – How are students treated? How are teachers valued? What kind of social emotional and discipline practices are used? What is the school doing to protect its children from health and safety hazards, including predators?  Whose input is being solicited and listened to? As Councilmember Robert White has said, “Not everyone who has an interest in our schools has an interest in our students.” We need to empower those who have genuine interests in students’ safety and success.

Recent events have made this year feel like a watershed moment in this city for the future of our educational system.  There have been too many failures, too many hollow mandates, too many repetitions of our same inequitable history – in both charters and traditional public schools.  Asking for more transparency is absolutely not a condemnation of one type of education or another. Asking for transparency is asking for respect from our school leaders and city officials.

Status

School Transparency Bills: Discussion with Councilmember Allen – May 20, 2019

Summary of Discussion with Councilmember Allen regarding School Transparency Bills. Meeting was hosted by the Ward 6 Public Schools Parent Organization on Tuesday, May 20, 2019.

Resources:

 

Background behind the drafting of the Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019 (introduced by Charles Allen):

  • Public accountability and transparency are important
  • Meant to bring parity between DCPS and DCPCSB and require ALL LEAs (DCPS, KIPP, BASIS, etc) to be subject to OMA and FOIA
  • Follows recommendations and best practices established by National Alliance for Charter Schools vis a vis Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Open Meetings Act (OMA)
  • Talked w/ charter school parents who are surprised FOIA and OMA do not apply to their school boards
  • School leaders looking for transparency and voice
  • In terms of administrative burden, when we look at other school systems, there do not seem to be a lot of FOIA requests
  • Hearings are split. June 26 is School Based Budgeting and Transparency Amendment Act of 2019,; Oct 2 for CM Allen’s Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019  expecting both conversations to be similar, including public testimony.

Discussion:

Resources needed to support LEAs in FOIA compliance:

  • CM Allen and colleagues want to think creatively around accountability and transparency and willing to support resources towards LEAs and DCPCSB in fulfilling FOIA requirements.
    • *EmpowerEd Research reflects that subjecting schools to FOIA is endorsed by the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools and data show it hasn’t been cumbersome for schools in the least. There are no states that provides support funds to local LEA’s to comply with FOIA since it is usually such a small percentage of someone’s existing job. In EmpowerEd research calling charter schools across many states, they talked to no school who received more than five FOIA requests in a year.

Competing(?) Bills

  • While there are several school transparency bills on the table, it is possible that elements from each will come together in a synthesized version. It’s likely that the hearings on each bill will yield discussion across all of the bills.

Transparency gaps raised:

  • We’re not asking for any more than what public schools provide. Also, all contractors that do work for the city are subject to FOIA.
  • Families concerned about at risk dollars, transparency, is money there for my child being used for my child? If there’s an issue, will we be able to FOIA that? These are public dollars. If passed, will it be properly funded the right way to be implemented?
    • FOIA may not be able to help with this (or other issues) directly, but allows communities to be empowered to ask the questions and sunshine on govt.
  • Monument Academy, sexual assaults, weapons charges and allegations have yielded mixed responses vis a vis transparency. In situations where something wrong is at the school, what could bill do to ensure transparency? CM Allen: When Monument was coming in, there was pushback from neighbors, so stood up for Monument. Does having ability to have more information bring transparency? Some issues described come up against criminal justice system, which we also need to be sensitive to.
  • Is it possible to get a fiscal impact statement for transparency bill? Can we FOIA DCPS and ask how much spent on FOIA? CM Allen: Typically, fiscal impact statement not prepared in advance of a hearing. However, just because FOIA requires resources, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. From agency side, transparency is a cost of doing business.
  • Wish DCPS and DCPCSB get on the same page. It would be so much easier for parents. Parents have kids in both sectors, it would be easier to stay on top of everything happening. Education dollars are significant and affecting a lot of kids. If we take away labels, they are all DC kids. Where is curriculum? Where are the teachers?
  • There are less restrictions on public funds – none of the bills put the same restrictions on at-risk funds across DCPS and charters.
  • Teachers would like for more information sharing so they are more protected: care about how schools are spending money, compensation (no pay scale, equity concerns), how our schools are governed – unless at a school that prioritizes teacher and parent voice.

Possible solutions to DCPCSB FOIA compliance structure:

  • (DCOGC) Recommendation for DCPCSB to serve as FOIA facilitator for LEAs. The way this can work is that while FOIA doesn’t let you reach private entities, but if it’s required that LEAs turn over their information to the DCPCSB, if you don’t get the records; you want, you can appeal to the Office of Open Govt and compel the DCPCSB to turn over the documents. It makes sense for DCPCSB to develop disclosure policy.
  • The way it currently works, you are unable to FOIA the contractor and what power does DCPCSB have to get info from LEAs?
  • Answer is for DCPCSB to include in charter the provision that requires school to turn over records to the board.

Outreach around bills

NEXT STEPS:

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.

Suzanne Wells Testimony – Deputy Mayor for Education Budget Oversight Hearing – March 29, 2019

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.

Sandra Moscoso Testimony – Deputy Mayor for Education Budget Oversight Hearing – March 29, 2019

Testimony of Sandra Moscoso 

Committee of the Whole and Education’s Budget Oversight hearing of the Deputy Mayor for Education

April 25, 2019

Good morning Chairmen and Councilmembers. I am Sandra Moscoso, a parent of students enrolled in Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan, and School Without Walls and formerly, BASIS DC.

I am also secretary of the Ward 6 Public Schools Parent Organization.

In preparation for this testimony, I wanted to understand the DME’s priorities.

I couldn’t find any statement of priorities on the DME website. The best I could do are four bullets from a tweet by the DC State Board of Education from it’s March 6, 2019 meeting, where Mr. Kihn was a guest. Because the state board complies with the open meetings act, I could watch a partial recording of the meeting on periscope (though it did not include DME Kihn’s opening remarks). Anyway, the priorities are:

  • Early childhood
  • Mental Health
  • Human capital
  • Post-secondary career readiness

All worthwhile priorities and presumably they are applicable to all publicly funded schools. I want to be able to support the DME in meeting these, so I put on my project manager hat and thought about what it might take to get to success.

First and foremost, in order to assess the key issues around each priority, the DME will need data from schools and LEAs. Then, in order to articulate the issues around each priority, the DME will need to communicate that data to families and educators in a way that we can provide input and ideas into goals. When families and front-line educators are engaged in a way that is transparent, it’s much more likely that we will understand priorities and support the work. Once plans are under implementation, DME will need to access data to monitor progress against targets and communicate with families and to Council on how it’s going. Easy, right?

Well, along the way, the DME may discover issues that can impact priorities, like for example, lead in school facilities, which can have grave impact on early childhood development. The DME and the public need schools and LEAs to share how our students are kept safe from environmental hazards. If the data isn’t regularly published, this data should be subject to FOIA.

All of the above to say that success with any initiative will require transparency from all schools and LEAs, as well as from the Deputy Mayor of Education, DC Public Schools, DC Public Charter School Board, and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.

Parents and students must know that they are safe and supported. There are two school transparency acts, both with worthwhile elements, in particular FOIA compliance for all schools. We urge DME to support transparency across all schools (and of course, we ask Council to do so as well).

Thank you for your time.