3 Meetings, 3 Perspectives


Almost exactly four years after approval of a Mayoral reform bill that essentially eliminated the role of the D.C. Board of Education, who would have thought that the State Board of Education that remains would practically lead the city among elected officials in public approval ratings. Clarus Poll of D.C. Voters: Mayor Gray Posts Negative Job Rating

A brief synopsis of three public hearings I attended as a DC VOICE volunteer gives me some additional insight as to why.  The first hearing was hosted by the City Council Committee on Education, which for four years now has fallen under the Committee of the Whole making all thirteen members of the council a member of that very important committee.  The hearing was very informative.  Several students testified about the treatment they have been receiving at one local charter school.  Parents showed up in the middle of the day to talk about their experiences, good and bad, with their child’s current principal.  Long-time schools advocate and researcher Mary Levy reported on numerous findings including the fact that school children in ward 8 were twice as likely as kids in ward 3 to have teachers with two or fewer years experience.  She also pointed out that in recent years both Mayor Fenty and Mayor Gray’s budgets have substantially increased the amount of six figure salary positions that work in central administration – not in the schools.  

What was just as shocking about this data was that hardly anyone was there to hear it.  Only Council Chairman Kwame Brown attended the hearing long enough to hear from witnesses.  Interim-member and At –Large candidate, Sekou Biddle showed up briefly to deliver opening statements but failed to remain after he was done to hear from members of the public.  None of the other 11 members attempted to make even a cameo appearance.

A week later there was the Mayor’s public hearing on his proposed schools budget.  Three years ago, local advocates had to sue Mayor Fenty to make him hold such a hearing before submitting his education budget to the City Council as required by the law.  When he did, it was only announced on the Friday before a three day weekend and held on a Tuesday morning at a school in ward seven – not exactly convenient for students, working parents or anyone not working in the education sector.  So the properly noticed evening hearing at Eastern Senior High School near Capitol Hill was a welcomed change.  Seeing the newly appointed State Superintendent, and the Deputy Mayor for Education (both newcomers to Washington, D.C.) in attendance was even more encouraging given the catching up they have to do concerning local matters.  Unfortunately, neither they, nor the Mayor engaged in even the slightest level of dialogue with room full of parents, teachers, students, advocates and community members which had shown up.  Many people just started dropping their testimony off since it was clear they were just reading it into the record, not actually talking to anyone.  

True, the Mayor did not sit on his Blackberry throughout the hearing as had been the case at some previous hearings before this year, but to everyone that sacrificed their dinner hour, happy hour or homework hour to attend, there were no signs that anything said at that hearing was registering with any of the important policy makers in attendance, nor were there any questions posed to a single witness.  This fact was exacerbated by the extremely late availability of the DCPS budget only days before the hearing was held and the continued lack of userbility of the budget data made incomprehensible by the mounds of PDF documents separately posted on the DCPS website.

And then there was a hearing hosted by the State Board of Education the following week on the Health and Wellness of School Communities.  Notwithstanding its diverse make up of DCPS parents, working professionals, and even council candidates, one stark contrast of the State Board was that nearly all the members of this body were in attendance for the entirety of this four hour hearing.  One had hoped to see the State Superintendent present behind her nametag at the meeting as well.  But given the very modest compensation of State Board members for their service (approximately $15,000 a year) compared to the full time salaries of Council members and the Mayor (well over $125,000 on average), the full seats at their dais compared to the empty ones at the Council did not go without notice.  Even more refreshing then there mere attendance, however, was their apparent interest in the subject, the witnesses and their testimonies.  Witness testimony was utilized how it should be for public hearings – to start conversation on important matters, not BE the entire conversation.  The staff of this body was courteous and accommodating, not curt or unprepared.  And it appears that each witness even received a follow up email from the Board thanking them for their testimony and inviting them back for further discourse on what many still believe is the most important issue facing this city – Public Education.

In a time when independent evaluations of our city’s governance reveal that public education in this city suffers from a lack of accountability and responsive oversight (see “From Impressions to Evidence” by the National Academy of Science) and that our government and city council are among the highest paid in the nation (see “City Councils in Philadelphia and Other Major Cities” by the Pew Charitable Trust), we need more oversight and discourse from our well-paid policy makers in this city – not less.  Given the Mayors decision to keep Michelle Rhee’s Deputy on as his Chancellor (probably a good call in my view) and the apparent lack of anything transformative in the recently posted schools budget for 2012, it is unclear what the Mayor’s priorities are in this area or what will distinguish his leadership on this issue from his predecessor.  Given the council’s general absence on the issue other than showing up to question the Chancellor when she comes to the Wilson building, it is not clear that they care what those priorities are or how they are being implemented.  Yet each of these incumbents as candidates stated public education among their top priorities. 

I applaud the State Board of Education for working to make their relatively new role as State policy advisors relevant in this continuously changing landscape, and urge the more visible, outspoken, highly paid officials in this city who actually control the purse strings of public education to follow their example.  Be present, be engaging and be heard – it’s what we hired you to do.


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