Monday, December 5, 2011

School "Reform" in DC: Is the Problem Choice or What Compels Families to Choose?

After reading the New York times op-ed on school choice in DC, I asked some folks close to what's happening in education there for their thoughts. Mary Levy sent me what is written below and (with her permission), I decided to use it as a guest post. Mary Levy has analyzed DC Public School staffing, budget and expenditures, and monitored the progress of education reform for thirty years. She is a major source for fiscal, statistical and general information on DCPS for the media, government officials and non-profit, business and civic groups. She directed the Public Education Reform Project at the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights & Urban Affairs for 19 years, during which she played a major role in developing the District of Columbia’s school funding systems, wrote numerous reports on DCPS, and participated in every major reform planning initiative. Previously, in private practice with Rauh, Lichtman, Levy & Turner, she did civil litigation in civil rights, labor law, and school finance, including major litigations in New York  and Maryland.
I share Natalie Hopkinson’s frustration, as expressed in an op-ed in today's New York Times and have for a long time. Unfortunately, some of her facts are wrong (Has the New York Times now dispensed with fact checkers?) Furthermore, the larger problem in the District isn't choice per se, but why families feel compelled to exercise choice. 
To address some of the inaccuracies, what Congress has done is little compared to the work of DC's own elected officials. In 1995 Congress produced only the charter law and there was nothing about an option to transfer. The DC Council at the same time separately enacted a parallel law. Congress never did a choice policy for DC. Vouchers, which came later, were in fact, much to the chagrin of some of us, endorsed by our elected officials, including the Mayor, the Council Chair, and the President of the Board of Education. As for performance on tests, charter schools in DC on average have test scores somewhat higher than DCPS schools, though not by a lot. As to the closure of schools whose students struggle the most, the schools that then Chancellor Rhee closed on the whole actually had higher test scores than the schools to which their students were later sent; they were also more likely to have made Adequate Yearly Progress. And a reminder: Rhee was not appointed by Congress but by the popularly elected Mayor Fenty.
The argument about choice has been going on at least since I become involved in DCPS in the mid-1970s and probably before that. Many school activists from east of Rock Creek Park argued passionately against out-of-boundary placements, even when they were (allegedly) based on need. The assumption is that if the government forces people to stay in neighborhood schools, the parents will stay and make the schools be good. The result here has not been so felicitous--those with the means, or the moxie to get outside help, move to the suburbs or pay for low-cost independent or parochial schools. In fact, part of charter growth is from those schools, rather than from DCPS. I have watched over thirty years while determined parents tried to make their neighborhood schools better--and were mostly rebuffed or ignored. Even west of the Park, where my children attended DC Public Schools, we spent the majority of our efforts trying to neutralize the damage done by the DCPS administration. Still, we were more successful than those east of the Park. 
With the appointment of Michelle Rhee and the end of any avenue for meaningful parent involvement or influence, the situation is even worse. The schools west of the Park and some in gentrified Capitol Hill are favored, and DCPS administration is more authoritarian and unresponsive than ever to the rest. It is also elitist, and more uninformed, more unstable, more arbitrary, and less competent than before the mayoral takeover--a distinctly dubious achievement, since the situation was pretty bad before. That’s why so many people--both families and good staff--leave.
Now our elected officials and their appointees are threatening to close more neighborhood schools and bring in outside charter operators. Currently, charter schools in DC are city-wide by law and may not give preference to neighborhood children. Many current DC charter schools are local products, started by DCPS parents, teachers, principals, and social service providers who couldn’t take any more of DCPS. They’re going to be under threat too--because of the latest “reform” panacea, closing schools in order to bring in new operators and their programs with no little or no evidence of effectiveness, and new teachers and principals, many poorly prepared and foreign to communities here. I see the advent of charter school chains as trading a remote DCPS bureaucracy for a remote private bureaucracy located elsewhere in the country. 
In the old days there was a lot more out-of-boundary space in the schools west of the Park; in addition, though few people realized it, there was a lot of out-of-boundary placement within neighborhoods and wards. Now, due to demographic change and favorable treatment, there is not much out-of-boundary space in schools west of the Park, so we could get a test of the parents-can-make-their-neighborhood-schools-good proposition east of the Park. But only if the schools stay open and only if the parents stay. 

1 comment:

  1. "I have watched over thirty years while determined parents tried to make their neighborhood schools better--and were mostly rebuffed or ignored." This is a statement of what I lived with and all these years later am driven by. The single biggest problem we face in this country, on multiple issues, is the failure to listen to the people.

    So we should see that a system that ignores the people they are to serve is a broken system. Those that keep claiming there is no problem other than poverty are continuing to feed the infighting that is destructive to real school/community/systemic improvement....can't MAKE people listen. That's why attitudes must change first.