Educational Reform Recast

New Actors, New Policies

Council Education Chair David Grosso (I-At Large) holds a hearing. Photo: Courtesy Office of At-Large Councilmember Grosso.

The DC Council Committee on Education and Libraries held a roundtable earlier this summer on the independent evaluation of the city’s eight-year-old school reform. During that session DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson looked around at other government witnesses, wondering who would respond to Chairman David Grosso’s question. “I guess I better answer that one,” Henderson finally said. “I’ve been here the longest.”

She has led the DCPS since 2010 and was deputy chancellor for three years under Michelle Rhee. Earlier, as the executive director of Teach for America-DC, Henderson helped recruit teachers for the District's school system. Next to her in seniority may be Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board (PCSB), who was hired in 2012.

The city’s education politburo consists mostly of newbies, however. State Superintendent of Education Hanseul Kang, Deputy Mayor for Education Jennifer “Jennie” Niles, and even Councilmember Grosso (I At-large) have held their respective leadership positions only since January. Just as they were settling in they were hit with critical reports, the evaluation being one of them.

Kang has been chief of staff  to the State Superintendent of Education in Tennessee and managing director of programs for Teach for America’s regional office. She also briefly taught high school. Niles is a founder and former executive director of the District’s award-winning E.L. Haynes Public Charter School. She directed education initiatives at The Ball Foundation of Glen Ellyn, Ill.; directed the charter school office for the Connecticut State Department of Education; and taught science and directed service-learning programs at middle and high schools in California and Massachusetts.

But some residents are unimpressed with the new leaders and their capacity to manage the bevy of problems plaguing the District’s public education system. “You have people who are relatively in the same age group. They may be somewhat accomplished,” says Iris Toyer, a former DC Board of Education. “But this is the most lackluster group of people that I’ve seen in this city in a long time.”

Technically Grosso isn’t so new. He served on the education committee for two years under former Councilmember David Catania. Cautions Toyer, Grosso is no Catania, who, in her view “could be a pain. But he did make people answer questions, and had an idea about what makes a good school system.

“I think Grosso is willing to listen, but sometimes I think he does that too much. I want to see that he is not accepting whatever they tell him,” adds Toyer.

Suzanne Wells, head of the Capitol Hill Public School Parents Organization, asserts that “Grosso is much improved over Catania.”

But this is the question on everyone’s mind: Will the new leaders engage and collaborate with parents and advocates or insulate their decision-making from community input?


Meet the New Boss

Mayor Muriel Bowser may have already answered that question. Consider that without any public dialogue she has sequestered Chancellor Henderson within the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME). “That was a surprise to all of us. I’m still waiting to see what the mayor’s [education] platform is,” says Eboni-Rose Thompson, head of the Ward 7 Education Council and a former member of Bowser’s transition team.

Despite the uncertainty of mayoral motivation, Thompson embraces the change. “It gives the deputy mayor’s office more gravitas and clear responsibility that didn’t exist before.”

DME Niles is top dog in education. She directly supervises the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) and DCPS. Charters, public libraries, and the University of the District of Columbia also are within her purview, except that each has its own board of trustees. Still, the DME can influence what happens to them.

The Public Education Reform Amendment Act (PERAA) that transferred control of public education to the mayor also established the DME. Then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty pushed for the creation of a DCPS chancellor who would report directly to the mayor. That action was seen as a way to provide political coverage for what everyone expected would be controversial reforms. Fenty served as flack-jacket for Rhee, which partially contributed to his re-election defeat.

Did that defeat inspire Bowser’s organizational chart redirection?

Niles says it didn’t: “The mayor asked me to be [DME] expressly because of my work with charters and the work I had done with the chancellor. The mayor saw me as able to make decisions around what is going to be best for all the children.” The chancellor is “comfortable reporting to me,” continues Niles, noting that it provides Henderson time to focus on “what she needs to get done.”

Interestingly, during the 2014 mayoral race, retaining Henderson became a key issue. Catania declined to disclose his intentions. Bowser pledged to keep the chancellor. But when Bowser took office she signed only a one-year contract with Henderson and then pushed her down the organizational chart.

“We’re fortunate the chancellor is sticking it out,” says Grosso. “But in the long run we may not have her as chancellor. So we have to make sure we have the supports to move forward.”

Having Niles at the helm could prove advantageous, say some advocates. She helped grow E.L. Haynes to a multiple-divisional institution with its own campus. This required financial development and management, acquisition of experts, hiring and retaining quality teachers, and building good relations with parents. If, as some advocates suggest, education has become a marketplace driven by parental consumers, Niles’ experience as an educational entrepreneur may prove valuable.


Inheriting a Hot Mess

Public education in the District has improved measurably. However, as Mary Filardo, head of the 21st Century Fund notes, “Under Fenty and Rhee, there was a huge decline in the DCPS population from 57,000 to 43,000. People want to celebrate because we have 48,000 students. I’m not going to celebrate until we have 58,000.”

Based on the evaluation by the National Academy of Sciences it’s clear that reforms launched by Fenty and Rhee but continued under Mayor Vincent C. Gray and Henderson have not been a complete success. The overall educational governance structure lacks clarity. There is a lack of coordination between DCPS and charters, as well as poor performance by OSSE. Minority and poor students don’t have equal access to quality teachers and are less likely to perform at grade level or graduate within the standard four years. The racial academic gap is widening. Equally important, there is no centralized data collection and storage to help target educational services and supporting programs.

An investigation by DC Auditor Kathy Patterson found a huge problem with school modernization between 2010 and 2013. The Department of General Services, the principal agency responsible for the program, failed to comply with local laws. The construction program lacked accountability, transparency, and basic financial management. Schools were selected willy-nilly, without consideration of the master facilities plan, educational needs, demographic demands, or costs.

“All these things have come at the same time, forcing people to have a more honest conversation about where we are,” says Thompson. “It’s not pretty. It’s messy. But it’s exciting. It’s created an opportunity, and I’m hoping people will take the summer to think through all this and start to engage in solutions.


Niles and Grosso Hit the Ground Running

Grosso and Niles, architects of education reform’s future, seem to have formed an alliance. For example, during the Council’s fiscal 2016 budget deliberations Grosso persuaded his colleagues to incorporate new modernization criteria.Auditor Patterson found the city spent more than $1.2 billion on modernizations for 2010 through 2013. There are still more than two dozens schools that haven’t been touched.

Niles, the Department of General Services, and DCPS are creating a new model using similar decision points: education specification, demographics, and cost. “No matter how much we want to give schools everything, we can’t. We are not having palaces,” says Niles. As an example she says the education specifications for the modernization of Duke Ellington High School of the Arts are being revised. That could alter aspects of the modernization plan, which has reached a whopping $180 million – higher than any other in the city. “We really want to be thoughtful about how we are spending money.” 

The DME has 50 projects or initiatives churning, but Niles says she and her staff “function like traffic controllers of education policy.” They are focusing their efforts on issues like how to reengage 7,500 youths ages 16 to 22 who have not finished high school, and ensuring the OSSE ramps up work around oversight and regulatory functions.

Grosso is intent on giving Niles a hand. “We have rules and regulations that are not being complied with,” he explains. He has asked Niles to prepare a list of laws that may be superfluous or need tweaking. “The previous [committee] chairman introduced seven pieces of legislation. That’s not my style.

“I want to make sure we are all on level footing. Where it makes sense to introduce legislation, I will,” he says. The committee will continue to deal with how punishment is meted out to public school students. He also wants more “community schools” and strong mental health services or “trauma-informed schools.”

Thus far the Niles-Grosso collaboration appears to be working, although Bowser’s impromptu appearance at the council hearing on modernization may have sent a different message. “I’m pretty comfortable with all the players,” says Grosso. “The one wild card is politics – how the mayor is going to handle things.”

After the mayor’s visit he invited her to lunch so they could “figure out how we want to do things. I don’t want her to use schools and education as a political football, or to think that’s what I am doing. This is about the children of this city.”


The Pink Elephant in the Corner

Whether the Dynamic Duo wins over District residents may come down to how they plan to reconcile the reform of DCPS and the growth of the public charter system. “None of the leaders is willing to address the fundamental problems posed by the ability of the [charter school board] to open up to 10 charters a year,” says Wells, citing as an example the PCSB’s approval of a new middle school, Washington Global, about 1700 feet from struggling Jefferson Middle School.

“[It’s] ludicrous,” continues Wells. “There is this unconstrained growth of charter schools. We are creating more ‘seats’ than are needed, and spreading our taxpayer resources too thin across schools we don't need.”

Back in the early 2000s, when DCPS was a basket-case and the District had very little money, elected officials made a pact. In exchange for continuing a school voucher program and establishing an independent system of charter schools, the city would receive additional federal funds. No one imagined the result would be a sort of educational Frankenstein, with parts tacked on without rhyme, reason, or consideration of purpose and expense. Scott Pearson and the charter school board recently approved a new high school for east of the Anacostia River, for example. But that area is already flush with newly modernized high schools that are under-enrolled.

Fortunately it’s not just insiders like Wells who see the problems. Evaluators raised several questions about the charter sector, including its untethered expansion without much intersection or cross-fertilization with DCPS. They also questioned how charters could operate with so little oversight by the District government, although they receive more than a half-billion dollars of public funds. Another nearly $1 billion is spent on DCPS.

Grosso says everyone is assessing “how much do we as a government push back on charter system” without adversely affecting independence and innovation. Niles is creating a “cross-sector task force” to handle what she calls “the next chapter of education reform.”

She says, “We want to make sure we have articulated where DC charters are going to open, close, and site schools.” She wants to “figure out how both sectors can come together in a way that is more coherent and clearer for the broader community,” and she argues that “we can maintain autonomy and still have coherence and community input in ways we have not done before.”

Will parents be engaged in the new task force? Thus far they haven’t been courted by the executive-legislative alliance. “There has been no communication with any of the ward-based education councils about how communities are going to be involved,” says Wells.

“Parents and the community know best. They live daily what it’s like among multiple systems,” says Thompson.

But, says Niles, “I haven’t thought about whether we need that level of community engagement in this particular topic.” 

Last year’s community engagement in the redrawing of school boundaries created a “new day,” says Filardo, who believes young families will demand to be involved. “We have not had anybody [in the educational politburo] for decades who really understands they are [public] servants,” continues Filardo. “That would be a real cultural shift.”

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