Mayoral control did not fix D.C.’s public schools

Yesterday, the editors of the Washington Post came out strongly against the suggestion by At-Large Councilmember Robert White that a committee be created to study the governance structure of D.C. public schools. They say that the move had one motive and that is to return DCPS to an arrangement in which it reports to the school board. In their piece the editors point out that Mr. White ran on the notion of ending Mayoral control. They wrote:

“Here is what is important: There has been undeniable progress in the city’s schools since mayoral control was instituted. A school system that was once unable to pay its teachers and ensure that buildings were ready for the first day of school has been completely transformed. There have been increases in student achievement across all student groups, and the national report card, the gold standard of testing, has shown D.C. to be one of the fastest improving systems in the country. Additionally, there is a flourishing public charter school sector that offers worthy choices to parents. There is no question that there is still much more to be done. Far too many children can’t read or do math, and the achievement gap between students of color and their White peers persists; new urgency is needed in addressing these challenges.”

But here is where the Post editors are confused. The improvement in the traditional schools had nothing to do with who was in charge. The tremendous change in DCPS came due to competition from the charter sector. I know, because I watched all of this take place being an active participant as a charter school volunteer tutor, board member, and through my coverage of the movement.

Just to recap. As soon as the first charter school opened parents rushed to place their children in these facilities. Their decision was not primarily to provide their offspring with a better education, although that was a consideration. The driving concern was over the safety of their sons and daughters. The regular schools were routinely filled with gang members, drugs, and weapons. As I’ve written many times, it was often safer during this period to keep your kids home than to send them to the neighborhood schools.

As more charters opened, DCPS lost more of its pupils. Those of us who believe in school choice were waiting for DCPS to react, since funding was tied to how many students a school taught. Shockingly, it took DCPS losing more than twenty-five percent of its enrollment before we saw the election of Mayor Fenty over his campaigning on a promise to fix the schools. He brought Mayoral control, Chancellor Michelle Rhee, and modernization of school buildings that really should have been condemned due to their poor physical condition.

The Washington Post editors do get something perfectly right. There is much more work that needs to be done. This is why I’m struggling. If charters are what caused all schools to increase in quality, then why not have more of them? Will the editors heed my call to turn traditional schools over to the sector that has driven academic standards to soar? Why don’t we allow the competition for students to permanently close the academic achievement gap?

Again, as I’ve written on numerous occasions, now is the perfect opportunity to make such a dramatic change. Schools are mostly closed and trying to figure out how to reopen. Let’s give the regular schools the freedom and opportunity to re-cast themselves as a new version of themselves by offering them self-governance. I concur strongly with the Washington Post editor’s closing statement: “new urgency is needed in addressing these challenges.”

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