Mayoral control of D.C.’s traditional public schools is in deep trouble

D.C. education observers thought the news could not possibly get any worse.  A National Public Radio and WAMU investigation found that at-risk students attending the city’s traditional schools received high school diplomas despite being absent from class for significant periods of time while recording passing grades for courses they should have failed.  The graduations came as a result of pressure from administrators on teachers to socially promote these kids.  It was discovered that these problems had previously been revealed to Chancellor Antwan Wilson who took no action until the report became public.

Then the once highly respected Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles, founder of the high performing E.L. Haynes PCS, was forced to resign after it was found that she colluded with the Chancellor to have one of his children transferred from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts to Woodrow Wilson High School without having to participate in the school lottery.  The discretionary enrollment violated a new rule preventing this type of action by the head of DCPS, a policy that Mr. Wilson created and signed.  The school to which his daughter was moved has a waiting list of over 600 students.  The Chancellor was asked to leave his post last week.

Yesterday, a new bombshell broke.  City officials looking into the student body at Duke Ellington have found that more than half of the pupils live outside the District of Columbia, with their parents or guardians falsifying their permanent addresses to show they reside in the city so they don’t have to pay the $12,000 a year tuition to attend the school.  Now here’s the part that makes me sick.  The Washington Post article by Peter Jamison, Valerie Strauss, and Perry Stein includes the following accusation:

“That finding was shared in December at a meeting attended by representatives from the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education — which was managing the investigation — and the office of the D.C. attorney general, the officials said.

Shortly after that, a lawyer in the state superintendent’s office told those handling the case in that office to slow-track it because of the risk of negative publicity during a mayoral election year, said the officials with knowledge of the probe. It is unclear how far the investigation has progressed since then.”

So now we have the third and final position comprising Mayoral control of the regular public schools, the State Superintendent of Education, shoulder deep in scandal.   At a news conference yesterday Ms. Hanseul Kang, the State Superintendent, and Mayor Bowser denied that anyone had been asked to delay the review.  But even if this is true, why didn’t anyone know about these findings for almost three months?

Following the resignation of the Chancellor I questioned whether Mayoral control of the traditional public school should continue, a viewpoint that upset the editors of the Washington Post.  I wrote:

“We need to replicate the success that the charter sector has had on the regular school side.  Perhaps there needs to be a DC Public School Board composed of volunteers named by the mayor.  The board would then open and close neighborhood schools based upon a charting system mirrored on the PCSB.  The timing could not be better, as the Office of the State Superintendent of Education is rolling out a five-star rating system for all public schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act.  Schools scoring lower than at least a three could be shuttered.  I’m not sure if this new organization is the answer. Maybe all schools should simply report to the charter board. But I do know that with so much power in the hands of the Mayor, priorities become one person’s prerogative. When it comes to the future of our children, I’m afraid we need something more.”

Now I’m especially convinced that those responsible for our public schools, the DCPS Chancellor and the State Superintendent of Education, need to be independent positions that act as a check and balance to the power of the Mayor, similar to our three branches of government established under the U.S. Constitution.  Perhaps these individuals should report to a non-partisan organization in the model of the DC Public Charter School Board.  Whatever the final structure looks like, inaction is no longer an option.

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