The Right Moment …

(A guest blog by Peter MacPherson on the need to revert to democratic local control of schools in Washington, DC.)

By Peter MacPherson

The right moment.

A crucial sense of timing has long been viewed as the key to successful human endeavors. Advertising keeps reminding us that it’s crucial to have the erectile-dysfunction drug Cialis on hand when the right moment strikes, otherwise the opportunity for a joyful session of lovemaking will be lost. Sometimes the right moment, at least in retrospect and in real circumstances, can be of almost incalculable importance, where the very course of history is recognized to have been altered by timing. In early June of 1944 American General Dwight Eisenhower, with the help of his fellow centurions, was desperately trying to determine when they could unleash the largest invasion force in history on the shores of France to begin the final chapter of the Second World War in Europe. Before the invasion, Eisenhower and his colleagues had been bedeviled by bad weather, and 156,000 allied troops were onboard ships in ports along the British coast waiting to be dispatched to a battle that many participants on both sides viewed as an impending struggle of almost biblical proportions.

Group Captain James Stagg, a British RAF officer who led a team that monitored the weather for Eisenhower, determined that a brief window would open for a few hours on June 6, 1944 that would allow the allied invasion force to leave port and put ashore on the beaches of Normandy in France. Upon receiving this vital information Eisenhower recognized that the quintessential right moment had arrived.

The outcome of acting in that moment could not be clearer.

The voters of the District of Columbia are entering a period that seems very much like the right moment, the zone of opportunity, to produce a badly needed change for which the city will benefit enormously over the long term. With the announcement by At-Large Councilman David Grosso that he does not intend to seek re-election and that charter school board executive director Scott Pearson is leaving his post in May, the right moment to drop the curtain on mayoral control of the schools has presented itself. For it to be the right moment, though, it has to be recognized as such.

Here, in my view, is why the way in which the stars have aligned has produced this crucial moment for the city.

Grosso is now a deeply unpopular District politician. He’s been chairman of the council’s education committee for four years and because of a prickly, dismissive personality and a seeming view that the role of the panel he oversees should be a limited one, oversight of public education has been wanting. Over the past four years the District of Columbia Public Schools has been beset by scandal. Among them are heavily inflated graduation rates, the untimely departure of and reasons for former chancellor Antwan Wilson leaving DCPS and thin to non-existent oversight of critical aspects of DCPS’ operations.

Scott Pearson has been a deeply problematic actor in the ongoing drama of public education in the city. Though nominally a public employee, Pearson advocates for public charter schools as if he were heading a trade group. He’s pushed back vigorously against even modest efforts to open the charter sector to additional scrutiny by both the council and outside groups. In recent testimony before the council on member Charles Allen’s proposed legislation that would have opened charter schools to the provisions of the District’s Freedom of Information law, Pearson expressed his adamant opposition to the bill.

And the future and health of DCPS has never seemed to be in his portfolio of concerns. Pearson has actively sought to allow the untrammeled growth in the number of charter schools in the city. During his seven-year tenure as the charter board’s executive director, the number of charter schools in the city has grown from 98 to 123. They now enroll 43,000 students. He has pressed the city to transfer closed DCPS buildings for use by charters, thus inhibiting their use as swing space during modernizations or to reopened as DCPS campuses. Essentially, on Pearson’s watch, a parallel school system has been established in the city. And until his planned departure of the charter school board in May, he will continue to press for the unabated expansion of the sector in the city.

In 2007, at the beginning of the mayoral-control era, DCPS had an enrollment of around 50,000 students, with the charters educating around 22,000. During this 12-year period DCPS has bled away a staggering level of enrollment to charters. If mayoral control was supposed to secure the future of DCPS, which was broadly represented to mean high-quality education for all District children, then the great education reform experiment has failed. DCPS has good schools, as it always has. But their location is as disparate as ever. Between stagnant enrollment and virtually non-existent test score growth, then the experiment has failed. The city not only has a failed governance model, it has also wasted an immense amount of municipal treasure pursing this model. In the surrounding jurisdictions in Maryland and Virginia that have comparable numbers of students to the District, they spend around half of what the city does [per student] and have higher performing systems. With over 22,000 vacant seats, the District is maintaining a staggering amount of excess capacity.

With the impending departures of Grosso and Pearson, the question that District stakeholders need to ask themselves is whether meaningful change will happen once they’re off the stage. If mayoral control remains in place the answer is easy to discern. For those not wearing their glasses and cannot see the writing in the sky, the answer is no.

Part of the reason that one should have no expectations of changes that will lead to school improvement is implicit in the design of mayoral control. Though the mayor has statutory responsibility for DCPS, the executive is also responsible for generating a budget that funds the charters. The mayor appoints the members of the charter school board. The mayor ultimately decides the fate of excess District school buildings. And, through the deputy mayor for education, has a strong planning role as well.

Then there’s the realpolitik aspect of the way the city government run. The mayor is beneficiary of significant campaign contributions from outside charter supporters and operators. It’s inevitable that the mayor would play both sides and that is certainly what Muriel Bowser has done.

The city council, during 12 years of mayoral control, has mostly shown great squeamishness about exercising its oversight role of the schools. Having watched and given testimony before the council, I have yet to see a major sea change in DCPS policy that resulted from that testimony. The impact of public testimony has chiefly been felt in area of school modernizations, which have often required aggressive advocacy on the part of school communities to bring equity what has been a brutally unequal process.

Going forward what we’re likely to see is a real struggle to find a council member willing to enthusiastically take on the role of education committee chairman. One frequently hears from council and their representatives that the council is not the school board, that by design oversight is supposed to be more modest. But when the council voted to eliminate the elected school board, they became de facto the school board. The public has demanded a court of last resort in education matters when they don’t like the way things are going. Virtually any education committee hearing that will accept public testimony finds itself hearing from a large number of witnesses. The public clearly wants to participate in school governance and wants its voice heard.

The obvious ambivalence of current council members to take on the education committee chairman role, and the track record the council has relative to education oversight, mean that the city is in the midst of a right moment moment.

In a city short on representative democratic institutions, the city council and mayor made a grave error in eliminating the school [board] in 2007. The experiment upon which they allowed the city to embark has proven to be one of poor quality. And the council is not telegraphing a willing desire to improve its performance relative to education oversight. District children need oversight of their school from adults who are committed to their success, who want DCPS and existing charter schools to thrive. The mayor keeps DCPS on life-support. It’s never permitted to be strong or aggressive enough to really compete in an education marketplace.

And charter students are poorly served in the existing governance structures. The city provides a significant facilities fee per student to charters. Yet that money is not required to be used for that purpose, and frequently is not. If students and parents have an issue with a charter, their route of appeal ends at the front door of the school. And once the search begins for a new charter school board executive director, the selection process will not involve the public in any meaningful way. Remember that the charter school board is appointed by the mayor, which then functions autonomously. The charter board will decide on its next executive director.

Ideally the council would vote to reestablish the elected school board. It would also vote to make the State Superintendent of Education a creature of the State Board of Education, the District’s only body related to education that is directly elected by voters. And they would also construct a more robust regulatory structure for charter schools so that parents, students and teachers have a real voice. But if the council will not act than the voters must. If a ballot initiative is required, then concerned citizens must pursue it vigorously.

This is the right moment.

 

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