WHENEVER a District government agency has been found to be in chaos, unable to perform even its most basic duties, the solution devised by many elected officials, civic leaders and advocates has been to expand the bureaucracy. Case in point: When the Office of Property Management and various other agencies couldn’t provide cost-efficient management or snag low-cost rental deals for the government, the answer was to establish the behemoth Department of General Services. The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs has been a mess; a plan has evolved to slice it in two.
The bypassing of incompetent managers has become a popular and expensive art in the city. A DC Council proposal to create a new advisory board and collaborative as a response to public education issues would extend that tradition. It also would embrace redundancies while misdirecting at least a half-million dollars of taxpayers’ money.
At-large DC Council member Robert White, Ward 3’s Mary Cheh and other legislators have co-introduced “The District of Columbia Research Advisory Board and Collaborative Establishment Amendment Act of 2018.” The bill, if approved, would create an advisory group, appointed by the mayor and the council, to oversee school data and data-collection policies undertaken by a collaborative operating within the Office of the City Auditor. The collaborative would also examine broader education research around the country to help improve outcomes in the District. Interestingly, even before holding public hearings or voting on the measure, the council decided to set aside $500,000 within the 2019 budget for its implementation.
“Creating an independent education research entity will distance education from politics and ensure that the council has the tools it needs to perform oversight over our schools,” White has said.
What? How would politicians appointing an advisory board remove it from politics? What’s more, the council doesn’t need any additional tools to conduct oversight — except perhaps a backbone and willpower.
Despite the contradiction and obfuscation, the proposal has found support. Washington Teachers’ Union president Elizabeth Davis, who advocated for an independent commission, said she has had “difficulty getting data on teachers from the DCPS. There is a lockdown on data.” Robert Bobb, a former president of the DC State Board of Education, told me the plan could work, but only if the research is done in a “university setting.” The larger question that must be asked, he said, is, “What are you going to do with [the research] once you have it?”
Auditor Kathy Patterson, whose office would oversee the work done by the collaborative, said it would be useful — as it has been in other cities and states. “It could help the school district know what’s working or not working.”
I am not with them. I am with at-large DC Council member David Grosso who had sought, unsuccessfully, to quash the additional spending approved by the council.
The problems of public education in the District are well-known and well-documented, although elected officials embraced the sparkly propaganda advanced by various school officials, including former Chancellor Kaya Henderson. Equally important, there are several reputable outside groups examining the details of the city’s 10-year-old education reforms while offering recommendations built out of best practices.
For example, FutureEd, an independent think tank at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, recently released a report that offers a comprehensive review of DC Public Schools’ actions to grow and strengthen its teacher corps. That study, led by the group’s director, Thomas Toch, included a review of empirical data along with interviews with individuals directly involved in reforming the system.
FutureEd’s report wasn’t instigated by council legislation. Nor was it financed with District taxpayers’ money.
Equally important, the auditor has the tools to achieve the goals of the White-Cheh legislation. Patterson can already go deep into any city agency to see what is or isn’t being done. She can tap any external resources — human and material — to do her job. Using the network of auditors at the state and local levels around the country, she can examine education public policies that have produced tangible and significant results with an eye to presenting them to local officials.
Truth be told, the city and the council already have a structure for gathering critical data; it’s called the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. Data collection and analysis have been part of OSSE’s job since it was created in 2007. In fact, in its 2015-2018 strategic plan, the office had pledged to provide “high quality data and analysis that will empower local education agencies.”
If OSSE hasn’t been performing a key component of its work — if it hasn’t fulfilled its pledge in its three-year plan — then creating a new bureaucracy isn’t the solution. The council should consider the radical action of demanding that the mayor fire the current state superintendent of education and appoint a new person — someone with the skills, talents and determination to set up that comprehensive data collection and analysis system everyone desires while conducting policy research and proposing the implementation of cutting-edge programs that can help lift poor performers and close the achievement gap between white and minority students.
Or White, Cheh and their colleagues could choose to follow tradition, permitting yet another bypass to be installed.
This article first appeared on TheDCLine.org