Testimony of Michael Musante, FOCUS senior director of government relations, at the Committee on Education for the Student Fair Access to School Act of 2017

One note about Mr. Musante’s testimony.  If you watch the hearing you will almost certainly notice the tension between Chairman Grosso and those who oppose this legislation.  At one point the councilmember cuts off the testimony of a physics teacher from Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS.  Mr. Musante, in his remarks, is calling attention to the manner in which the hearing was organized and the way in which those who disagreed with Mr. Grosso were treated.  

Good afternoon, Chairman Grosso, and members of the Committee on Education. My name is Michael Musante and I am the Senior Director of Government Relations at FOCUS.  FOCUS supports the diverse set of public charter schools in DC by advocating for and supporting school autonomy, equity, and quality.  Thank you for the opportunity to testify today.

The legislation being discussed today has been itself an opportunity, an opportunity to have the complicated conversation about how to ensure that schools are safe and that discipline is fair. This committee has missed an opportunity, however, in how you engineered today’s 90-person witness list.  Almost to an individual, the educators who welcome DC students into their school buildings every day, teach DC students in their classes, counsel DC students, coach them and otherwise guide them are last on your list. And almost to a person, those educators—in charter schools and in DCPS schools—oppose this legislation.

Instead, for a conversation supposedly about equity and fairness, you have inequitably devoted this committee’s prime time and attention to speakers who don’t stand in front of DC students every day.  It is clear that the voices you value most are out-of-town academics, and self-promoting authors.

DC’s school leaders and principals care deeply about this issue, and at least two dozen of them signed up to speak today.  Some can’t be here this evening because they’re preparing to be back at school tomorrow.

They would be offended to hear an earlier witness say that anyone taking issue with this legislation is prioritizing adult needs.  They would be offended to hear the suggestion that their schools are not spending UPSFF increases (Five years of COLA increases for which we fought tooth and nail) to cover additional supports.  And they would be offended that you chose to beam in witnesses from California, Illinois and Ohio today before hearing from school leaders and teachers in your own city.

The intention behind this legislation is noble–we know that students who are in school consistently have more positive life outcomes than those who are habitually absent or suspended. However, bans that tie educators’ hands will not improve student outcomes.

Further, the bill conflicts with the School Reform Act.  The SRA grants public charter schools in the district exclusive control over their expenditures, administration, personnel, and instructional methods, which includes discipline policies and procedures. That aside, the legislation, as proposed, will not ensure uniform data collection across LEAs, may have unintended consequences on school climate and culture, and fails to provide appropriate resources to equip schools to meet the needs of students who need the most support.

Quality data collection and transparency both leverages changes in school behavior and enables good policy decision-making.  While the current version of the bill moves us forward in uniformly defining suspension and expulsion, it does nothing to improve the quality of data related to actual student behaviors.  Working with schools to create a uniform set of infractions will enable more accurate comparisons of school responses to student behavior.  School use of exclusionary discipline in both sectors has been on a steady decline despite this lack of comparability.  State equity reports, introduced in the-13 school year, provided the first uniform glimpse into school use of exclusionary discipline across subgroups.  Imagine how much more impactful this data reporting could be if it compared use of discipline across infractions and was interactive and sortable by school?  Collecting, disaggregating, and sharing data in this way would turbocharge the trend we started six years ago.  We encourage the Committee to consider improving data definitions, collection, and reporting before implementing any policy changes that limit schools’ available responses to student behavior.

While the body of research is clear there is a correlation between exclusionary discipline and other negative student outcomes, the impact on school culture and climate is unclear.  School leaders have the difficult reality of balancing what is good for each individual student with what is good for all students and their schools as a whole.  In My School DC’s recent analysis of reasons for mid-year transfers, student safety ranked just behind transportation challenges as the reason that a family was seeking a new school for their child.  Limiting school leader autonomy and flexibility in maintaining the delicate balance of high behavioral expectations, victim safety and well-being, and compassionate, therapeutic responses to students who exhibit troublesome behaviors is short-sighted and may ultimately result in a degradation of the very school culture and climate we wish to improve.

Our students and schools need resources not restrictions.  When speaking with school leaders, our organization has heard over and over again many feel ill-equipped to meet the needs of students experiencing the highest level of trauma.  Consider Camden City schools–in their high schools, they were able to cut suspensions by nearly 75% in one year. What did that take on the resource side? An additional four FTEs per school–one coordinator for school culture and climate, and three mental and behavioral health technicians working directly with students.  We are asking our leaders in the city do to the same thing without the guarantee of the appropriate resources to manage student behavior in the building.  Schools need funding for training in practices like PBIS and restorative justice. Schools need funding for additional mental and behavioral health professionals.  Schools need support from city agencies (CFSA,DBH, DYRS) in coordinating services for the students who are most traumatized and marginalized. Schools need additional staff and physical space to work with students whose behavior may be unmanageable in a classroom setting. Before we drop the hammer of banning suspensions–let’s listen to school leaders and ensure that students have access to the robust wrap-around services they need and that those services are coordinated seamlessly between schools, community-based organizations, and the city government.

Again, I think this Committee missed an opportunity today. We invite you to seek out the voices you may not hear from:  school leaders, teachers, students, and those who advocate on their behalf to ensure that this legislation improves data collection and reporting, allows leaders maximum flexibility in making decisions, and ensures schools are adequately resourced to serve their students.

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