The Misdirection Of Public Education in DC

June 8, 2017

THE two notices from At-large DC. Council members David Grosso and Robert White arrived almost simultaneously. The former wanted more details surrounding previous DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s waiver of lottery admission rules for key government officials. The latter was demanding a public hearing into the fact that more than 80 teachers had resigned from DCPS during the past two years; a quarter of them worked in schools east of the Anacostia River whose students come from mostly low-income, working class families.


Those divergent foci exposed the fault-lines of education reform: politics vs. actual education of District children and youth.


As chair of the Committee on Education and Libraries, Grosso seemed more concerned with politics, including assuaging the hue and cry of middle and upper-income parents, who believe themselves aggrieved by Henderson’s choice to permit some to skip the lottery admission line. The larger more significant question that should be asked, however, is this: Why is there even a lottery?


The District has failed miserably to provide quality schools in low-income or working class neighborhoods, many of them predominantly black and Hispanic. To camouflage that failure a lottery was allowed to be created and has existed for more than two decades. Consequently those parents and their children who are subjected to subpar neighborhood schools must travel hundreds of miles each year outside of their communities in an attempt to find a better education in better equipped facilities with more experienced teachers. Their daily sojourn has been aided by a government subsidy that permits “kids to ride free” on public buses and subways. That policy and the financial outlay paper over the fact that the District is operating a 21st Century version of school busing, designed mainly to distract the public from a shamefully unequal system.


Many schools in low-income communities have been the last to be modernized. Millions of dollars appropriated specifically for at-risk students have been flittered away on various and sundry unrelated expenses including coaches. The resignation of teachers at schools in their neighborhoods, such as Ballou Senior High School, has continued unabated and essentially cast as irrelevant.


Consider for example, what happened to White’s request for a hearing about the teacher resignations, which was first reported in the Washington Post. When TBR asked White whether a hearing has been scheduled, he said through a spokesperson that Grosso had said “he will ‘consider including a roundtable’ on teacher retention.


“Because Chairperson Grosso has not released his response publicly Council member White does not believe it’s his prerogative to do so,” added the spokesperson.


Interestingly, one day after White’s office provided that statement to TBR, Grosso told a Post reporter the same thing: he is “considering” holding a roundtable. Grosso also called the loss of 21 teachers at Ballou High School an “anomaly,” according to the Post.


What an insult. His comments suggest parents and students at Ballou should not expect better. And this from the chairman of the education committee. Grosso should schedule a public hearing—not a roundtable—immediately.


How can students be expected to score proficient or even advanced when they are without a permanent math instructor for two years, as has happened at Ballou, according to sources with whom TBR spoke.


The problem of teacher departures also hit Ward 3’s Wilson Senior High School. The student newspaper—Wilson Beacon—reported that 13 teachers had already announced their resignation. Joseph Herbert told the paper that “It’s a challenge to work in a District that cares more about looking good than it does about being good.”


That, dear readers, is the rub.


            In 2007, when then Mayor Adrian M. Fenty persuaded the Council to give him complete and absolute control of public education, he pledged to shake up the system, improving student performance and enhancing the quality and experience of teachers in DCPS. The rallying cry was “Children First.” While there were noticeable changes in the first three years, including implementation of a teacher evaluation system, there have been only minimal improvements to the overall system, despite millions of dollars that have been poured into education through DCPS and public charter schools. There also is little question that children, public school students, are certainly not first—maybe not even second.


For all intents and purposes education reform in the District has been derailed in the nation’s capital: Instead of the DCPS’ chancellor having a direct line to the mayor as proposed in the law, that person has been ensnared by a deputy mayor for education bureaucracy that is so inept it has been unable for two years to complete a plan to restore or redesign a neighborhood school structure. The chancellor, therefore, has been neutered; the deputy mayor for education lacks strong experience and expertise or the sense of urgency required to truly turn the system around.


 Consequently, the system has once again become a sluggish, under-performing operation. In most instances, schools where students struggled prior to the launch of education reform, continue to struggle after 10 years of education reform.


Charter schools were supposed to be engines of innovation, acting as instructional models for DCPS. Instead, far too many charters have morphed into trough feeders, demanding they receive the same about of money as DCPS while also demanding full independence and autonomy. During the budget process, council members tripped over each other trying to get an increase in per pupil funding, mostly to satisfy charter school providers. While charters have been allowed to spread like kudzu, they primarily have offered mediocre programs and services. 


Few elected officials would acknowledge this reality. Rather, they shuffle and dance around the problems and sing the same song about public education being on the upswing. That depends, of course, on where you live.


 It’s all about image, all about politics--satisfying certain constituents, ignoring others. Remarkably, the Washington Post wrote three articles about the lottery waivers. Only two stories were written about teacher resignations; one of those appeared on page B4.


Meanwhile, another generation of mostly black and Hispanic youth will graduate, not fully prepared to succeed in college or the labor market. TBR can’t help asking why can’t black and brown children receive

a decent public education in the nation’s capital, which is run by a government led predominantly by people of color? Why is the plight of children from poor and working-class families treated with such callous disregard?






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