By Thomas Ultican / Ultican
Washington D.C. schools are classified as a portfolio district by the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE). CRPE is the Bill Gates-funded think tank on the campus of the University of Washington whose primary function is to promote portfolio district governance. Oligarchs and politicians call D.C. an education model. I agree. It is like when my mother held up Glenn Elmore as a model for me saying; “When you graduate from high school you’re not going to sponge off your parents the way that lazy freeloader, Glenn Elmore, sponges off his family.” [name changed]
Portfolio district management means closing some percentage of “failing schools” as determined by standardized testing and replacing them with innovation schools, charter schools, or voucher schools. In the same way a stock portfolio is managed, the continuous closing of “failing schools” and replacing them with “superior schools” is the path to education nirvana.
Only someone who has never worked with children and especially children living in poverty, could even remotely imagine this kind of disruption would lead to better schools and healthier children.
The charter school industry along with many billionaires and famous politicians call the Washington D.C. schools a great success illuminating the path for education nationwide. That is a destructive lie. The results of twenty years of portfolio-style reform in Washington D.C. are grim.
The conservatives at the National Review see it. Theodore Kupfer wrote last week:
“Had attendance and credit-recovery policies been properly followed, the glitzy graduation-rate gains Obama touted would have been wiped out. Nat Malkus, an education-policy scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, puts the proper graduation rate at 51 percent — about where it was in 2011. School reform in D.C. was the education-policy success story of the 2010s; it turns out to be a fraud.” (emphasis added)
A consequence of mayoral control of the schools in D.C. is politicians like the good press coverage touting school success. They have little interest in bad news. Last year, Rachel M. Cohen writing for the liberal-oriented Prospect offered this observation:
“One Reason it’s become so easy for advocates to spin the city’s school reforms is that despite DCPS’s claims of being “data-driven,” comprehensive, accessible data actually remains hard to come by. As a result, it is hard for researchers to get a sense of how specific policies are working, and for the public to hold school leaders accountable.
“Mathematica’s Glazerman agrees it has been difficult at times to obtain DCPS information to conduct research. ‘The researchers want to do research, they want access to data, and the people who control the data don’t want to give it up, except under tightly controlled circumstances,’ he says. ‘Researchers need independence and access to data, and they shouldn’t have to worry about whether the agency is going to look good—both in whether they undertake the study, and how they report results from their study.”’
In the wake of the stunning 2017 graduation fraud scandal in the D.C. schools, Valerie Strass writing for the Washington Post said,
“On Oct. 28, 2015, the D.C. Public Schools district put out a statement lauding itself with this headline: “DC Public Schools Continues Momentum as the Fastest Improving Urban School District in the Country.”
“For years, that has been the national narrative about the long-troubled school district in the nation’s capital: After decades of low performance and stagnation, the system was moving forward with a “reform” program that was a model for the nation. The triumphant story included rising standardized test scores and “miracle” schools that saw graduation rates jump over the moon in practically no time. Arne Duncan, President Barack Obama’s education secretary for seven years, called it “a pretty remarkable story” in 2013.
“That tale is looking a lot less remarkable in the wake of revelations that educators and administrators, feeling pressure from their bosses to boost graduation rates and student performance, allowed many students who did not have the requisite qualifications to graduate.
“A city study — undertaken after media reports revealed the situation — found that more than 900 of 2,758 students who graduated from a D.C. public school last year either failed to attend enough classes or improperly took makeup classes. At one campus, Anacostia High in Southeast Washington, nearly 70 percent of the 106 graduates received 2017 diplomas despite violating some aspect of city graduation policy.”
At the end of the article, Strauss asks a pertinent question,
“When are school reformers nationwide who have had a love affair with the D.C. model going to give it up?”
An Independent Evaluation
In 2007, the District of Columbia passed a law (Public Education Reform Amendment Act [PERAA]) that gave control of its public schools to the mayor. The law also called for a future independent evaluation of how well the public schools fared under new governance, to be carried out by a committee of the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences.
A three-year-long study was chaired by Carl Cohn (Co-chair), School of Educational Studies, Claremont Graduate University and Lorraine McDonnell (Co-chair), Department of Political Science, University of California, Santa Barbara. The study focused on the seven-year period from 2007 to 2013.
In the fall of 2015, I wrote an article about this lengthy study that summarizes the findings in some detail. Besides Cohn and McDonnell, a group of about 30 scholars contributed to the report.
They noted that when 50 percent of the students are in charter schools, parents, educators, and administrators have no way of monitoring education practices or spending. D.C. functionally has 62 school districts. One for all the public schools and one for each of the 61 charter school management organizations that operate in private. The report states:
“There are no standardized formats or definitions in charter schools’ budgets or audits, though the PCSB [Public Charter School Board] is making progress in this area. The adequacy study also commented on the difficulty of ascertaining charter facility costs. In addition, the charter management organizations’ accounts are not open to the public, and there have been cases of mismanagement.” (Page 72)
“Because each charter school is an independent local education agency, the charter sector did not (and does not) have any overarching strategy to improve teacher quality (or any other factor in education).” (Page 79)
“The U.S. Department of Education has recently reported that that D.C. is among the worst school systems in the nation in providing appropriate educational opportunities for students with disabilities, and it has the worst record of any state in the country for meeting federal special education goals.” (Page 131)
It is startling to realize that the following reported results are inflated by fraudulent diplomas:
“D.C.’s public schools have had among the worst on-time graduation rates in the country. For the class of 2014, the overall rate was 61 percent, compared with the national average of 81 percent (Chandler, 2014d). For DCPS schools, the graduation rate was 58 percent—up 2 percentage points from the previous year; for the charter schools, it was 69 percent—down almost 7 points.” (Page 154)
The NRC study also analyzed data studies from EDCORE (Education Consortium for Research and Evaluation). This little-known result came to light:
“The EDCORE analyses by sector also showed that, although both DCPS [D.C. Public Schools] and charter students showed improvement, the magnitude of the gains were higher for DCPS students in every year.” (Page 177) (emphasis added)
Washington D.C.’s Destroy Public Education (DPE) Politics
In 1968, the US Congress brought some democracy to the residents of Washington DC. An 11-member school board elected by city residence was to run the schools. In 1995, Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich teamed up to bring charter schools to D.C. A city referendum in 2000 gave the mayor the right to appoint four of the school board members. Then came the PERRA act in 2007 which eliminated the school board. It:
- established Department of Education headed by the Deputy Mayor,
- established Office of the State Superintendent of Education,
- established Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization (OPEFM),
- established Office of the Ombudsman for Public Education,
- established Interagency Collaboration and Services Integration Commission (ICSIC),
- established State Board of Education (replacing Board of Education), and
- gave Public Charter School Board chartering authority for all charter schools.
It took political action and money to make this happen. Like The Mind Trust in Indianapolis, Washington D.C. has Friends of Choice in Urban Schools (FOCUS) to direct the ground game for privatizing D.C.’s schools. FOCUS was established as a tax-exempt foundation in 1996. On their 2006 web-page leading up to the PERRA Act in 2007, they stated:
“We believe that what ails public schooling in the District should be treated by focusing school reform efforts on the creation of large numbers of schools that:
- Are independent of the school system or have autonomous status within the school system, including control over personnel, finances, and the academic program;
- Enroll only students whose parents choose to have them attend; and
- Maintain a constant focus on literacy and implement a comprehensive approach to closing the achievement gap”
The political operatives at FOCUS are well compensated through the large donations from the Walton Foundation and other “philanthropic” non-profits. In addition, they received taxpayer money for some of their efforts to help establish charter schools. The following is a hyperlinked table of funders and partners. FOCUS PARTNERS
In 2007, Washington D.C. elected a new mayor, Adrian Fenty. Not only was he the new chief executive of the city, he was also the new Czar of education. The NRC report observed:
“The specific strategies that Fenty and the chancellor he appointed, Michelle Rhee, chose were prominent on the national reform agenda: an emphasis on improving human capital using recruitment, evaluation, and compensation of educators; data-driven decision making; more uniform standards across schools; and greater school-level accountability through the use of student testing and other indicators.” (Page 40)
John Merrow is a resident of Washington DC and a longtime education reporter for NPR. In 2013, he shared his view of Fenty’s choice for chancellor in his piece Michelle Rhee’s Reign of Error. He describes the utter lack of requisite training and experience Rhee and her team brought:
“The 37-year-old Michelle Rhee had been a surprise choice to lead the schools. After college, she joined Teach for America and taught for three years in a low-income school in Baltimore. After earning a graduate degree in public policy at Harvard, she took over a fledgling non-profit that recruits mid-career professionals into teaching, The New Teacher Project. In that role, she eventually ended up supervising 120 employees. As Chancellor, Rhee would be managing a school system with 55,000 students, 11,500 employees and a budget of nearly $200 million.
“She surrounded herself with people with no experience running a large urban school system. Her deputy would be her best friend, Kaya Henderson, another former Teach for America corps member who was then Vice President for Strategic Partnerships at TNTP. She would be managing the District’s 11,500 employees.”
The New Teachers Project (TNTP) which was founded by Wendy Kopp made a name for itself under Michelle Rhee by bashing teachers. This group of what Ciedie Aech calls the “teach-for-a-minute girls” was in charge. They had no training or experience, but they believed test-based accountability was the answer. As John Merrow wrote:
“And the novice Chancellor was basing nearly everything on the DC-CAS. [D.C.’s Standardized Tests]”
“Millet [Associate Superintendent Francisco Millet] had no doubt that Rhee was sending the message that they would be fired if they didn’t achieve those guarantees. ‘Absolutely. Principals were scared to death that, if their test scores did not go up, they were going to be fired. And they knew that she could do it.’”
This kind of pressure led to a massive cheating scandal that if it had been properly investigated would have put more people in prison than the Atlanta scandal did – including Rhee. Instead, these fraudulent results were held up as proof of concept. The 2009 confidential Sanford memo made the fact of the scandal clear.
One final quote from John Merrow:
“The erasures stayed buried for years. The official who had spotted the problem and urged Rhee to investigate has kept her mouth shut. Five months after she had informed Rhee of the widespread erasures, Deborah Gist resigned to become State Superintendent in Rhode Island. Rhee now publicly praises her efforts there. Sandy Sanford, who earned roughly $9,000 for his work on the memo, has been paid at least $220,000 by DCPS for various services.”
A Few Last Words
The effect of privatizing schools in D.C. is that the gap in scoring on tests between races has gotten larger. Teacher quality has gotten less certain. There are fewer minority teachers now and per pupil spending has gone from “$13,830 per student to $17,574, an increase of 27 percent, compared to 10 percent inflation in the Washington-Baltimore region.” There has been virtually no gain in testing scores and Washington D.C. schools remain the bottom scoring schools in the nation on the National Assessment of Education Performance.
Type Washington D.C. schools into a Google search and page after page of charter school advertising appears. A parent could seek guidance by going to the Great Schools web page for an evaluation, but that would be like going to the Ford dealer and asking which car is the best.
Washington D.C.’s schools have become expensive and unmanageable. There is no way to ensure teacher competency or budgetary honesty, which means stealing is occurring. The D.C. public schools are still the best performing and safest schools in the area. (Charter schools are not public schools. They are private businesses that have a government contract.)
It is time for Mayor Muriel Bowser to step up and select a proven professional educator to lead D.C.’s schools. No more administrators from the unaccredited Broad academy or TFA wunderkinds. It is time to bring in a real professional with a record of achievement to get K-12 education in Washington D.C. on track.