A couple of weeks ago, during one of his legislative press briefings, DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson tried to throw former DC Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and former DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee under the proverbial bus, blaming them for the graduation fiasco at Ballou High School in Ward 8. That kind of finger-pointing was as ridiculous as Republican leadership blaming Democrats for the Republican-controlled Congress’s inability to pass a spending plan, instead of its favorite go-to: a Continuing Resolution.
Later, writing in his January 2018 monthly newsletter, Mendelson doubled down on his charge: “We blew up the system in 2007 when we revolutionized the governance. Michelle Rhee and Adrian Fenty said to the Council and the public that things would change. They said it would take time, maybe five years,” Mendelson wrote. “Well, it’s been a decade. The progress has been too little and too slow.”
He’s right about that last bit. But it’s neither Fenty’s nor Rhee’s fault. They were unceremoniously kicked out in 2010; they have long since lost any responsibility or authority for public education in the District. Fenty lost his re-election bid. His successor, Vincent C. Gray, soon showed Rhee the door.
Equally important, there wasn’t any significant focus on increasing graduation rates when Fenty and Rhee were around. They were dealing with such basics as getting the schools opened on time, ensuring sufficient textbooks, guaranteeing under-populated schools were closed, and advocating the teacher’s union approve a pay-for-performance compensation model.
The aggressive push to increase graduation rates seemed to have started three years after Fenty’s and Rhee’s exodus. “The Graduation Pathways Project” began in the summer 2013. According to a major 36-page report, it was designed to support “Raise DC” and “widely engaged education agencies, school leaders and civic partners in both the analysis and strategic planning phases.”
Among other things, that report noted that “25 percent of high school students are disengaged by their first year” and “50 percent of disengaged students are concentrated in seven schools.” In other words, problems associated with graduating students from DCPS were well-known and were amplified by abysmal standardized test scores.
(Don’t think this column a rant. It is filled with indignation. That's not wrong, is it?)
The graduation report was issued three years into Gray’s administration. Three years into the tenure of the new DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson--the woman everyone loved because she wasn’t Rhee. I liked Henderson too. But she was the wrong leader for a system in need of strong, decisive action. She constantly rearranged deck-chairs. Council members and Gray sat on the sidelines, although it was apparent low-income children were the victims of her marginal competence.
The city’s economic prosperity allowed Henderson to throw money at the problem without producing demonstrably better results. Consider for example, her “Proving What’s Possible” initiative. It was supposed to enhance innovation that aided low performers; instead most of the $10 million went to funding existing academic offerings or after-school programs.
There also was the strategic plan she and Gray unveiled in 2012. Among the many promises she made was to increase by 40 percentage points the proficiency rates of the lowest performing 40 schools. Even some of her strongest supporters dismissed that goal as pie in the sky or worse a game of three-card Monte. That goal was never met. When she resigned in 2016, it was apparent Henderson was failing miserably at significantly providing quality education for the children for whom school reform was established.
A year earlier, however, in 2015, she had managed to secure a pay raise from Mayor Muriel Bowser. The council approved the hike. Maybe the increase was sort of quid pro quo for helping Bowser win the endorsement of the Washington Post. In the 2014 General Election, the fate of the DCPS Chancellor became an issue. Bowser’s opponent, DC Council member David Catania, would not publicly commit to keeping Henderson as the Post editorial board wanted. Bowser, paying the ransom, announced she would retain Henderson.
Complicating things was the fact that the internal structure for school reform, as originally designed, had become deformed. Instead of the DCPS chancellor reporting solely to Mayor Gray, Henderson reported to Abigail Smith, the deputy mayor for education. The DCPS chancellor became just another school leader, treated in some respects like the head of any single charter school. That arrangement continued under Bowser who, not unlike Gray, appointed a former charter school leader as the deputy mayor in charge of all public education. Is there little wonder how charters developed their enormous clout over the past seven years?
Henderson’s failure and the hijacking of public education reform took place in plain sight. Now everyone has claimed to be shocked, shocked, about the scandal at Ballou, and the fact that other schools, including a couple of the more celebrated institutions in the DCPS portfolio, have been graduating students who did not meet the requirements set by the DC Office of the State Superintendent for Education. The shame is not solely on the principals, the teachers, or the students. And, it certainly is not on Fenty and Rhee.
(No, really, this is not a rant. It is, however, an indictment.)
The shame for the graduation fiasco is on the council. The council should have caught those slippery numbers. Instead, they collectively allowed Henderson, Bowser and the new Deputy Mayor of Education Jennifer Niles to sweet talk them.
So, what should happen next?
The council, through its Committee on Education, could become more assertive. It could take a fine-tooth comb to Chancellor Antwan Wilson’s strategic plan, guaranteeing it, too, isn’t some fantasy document. It could drill down to determine exactly how the $2 billion in public funds are really being spent and who is benefitting.
In short, the council could act like it understands the meaning of the phrase proactive oversight. That’s the minimum the public expects from elected officials. Certainly lame finger-pointing shouldn’t be on anyone's to-do list.