Earlier this year, the Committee on Education held hearings on nine bills designed to strengthen the public education system in the District. I co-sponsored seven of the nine bills that range from radically changing how we finance our schools to the creation of a unified lottery. I co-sponsored these bills because they are a great first step in spurring a public conversation and debate about the next step in the public education reform discussion here in the District.
I was pleased to join the Chairman of the Education Committee, David Catania at all five of the public hearings at the Wilson Building and at the eight important public forums held in all eight Wards of the District. Each of these 13 distinct public meetings were attended by large crowds eager to share thoughts and feedback on our legislative plan. The conversations ranged from specifics about the draft legislation to the overall state of our public education system. The resurgence of public interest in education reform was evident.
The education debate that surrounded these bills elicited a wide variety of opinions within Wards and between Wards. Although in each of the Wards, residents brought specific concerns about the state of education to the discussion, more often than not parents, activists and educators had common concerns and ideas.
Parents and families across the city expect a culture of high expectations in the public school system. They do not accept that poverty is an excuse to demand less from children. They believe that poverty does not reflect a student’s ability to achieve, but that poverty is a hurdle that must be overcome with targeted, well-financed support. There was a consensus that a weighted student funding formula was one way to begin to address this problem. During the Committee’s earlier hearings, we learned that successful charter schools on average spend $1500-$1800 more per student to cover the additional needs of educating their students from high poverty backgrounds. This is one area where the traditional system can learn from the charter sector.
Our families desire more in terms of educational enrichment opportunities for their children. No one denies the fact that our current proficiency rates do not meet our standards. Almost every resident who came to the forums believe that test scores alone should not dictate whether or not children receive a full and vibrant education. In Ward 7, we heard of a thoughtful proposal from the community to establish an application middle and high school in Hillcrest. In Ward 2, families attending Garrison Elementary would love to see a language immersion program, especially considering the Office of Bilingual Education is located in their school building. In Ward 6, a parent spoke about the desire for her child to learn art and dance as part of the educational experience. In Ward 1, an educator expressed concerns that there is no longer an emphasis on cursive writing and civics in school curriculums. These comments, and many others, served as a constant reminder that for parents and educators, they are not raising test takers, but instead productive, engaged members of society. We cannot lose sight of the responsibility of our public education system to help ensure robust educational opportunities – for everyone.
Our families also desire meaningful communication with D.C. Public Schools (DCPS). From west of the Park, to east of the River, and everywhere in between, this issue was vociferously raised by residents. Parents can forgive poor facilities if they have strong leadership, curriculum, and communication. Leadership on these priorities must come first from the Chancellor and Mayor and then from the D.C. Council to ensure that parents, teachers and other community members have the opportunity to engage and ultimately “buy-in” to the current school reform effort. Teachers and other employees of DCPS will respond to strong guidance from the Chancellor and Mayor. No resident should ever have to say with desperation in her voice: “It is as if we want DCPS more than DCPS wants us.” The Council must make sure the government is responsive to the people in all issue areas, but especially during this tumultuous time in our school reform process.
Finally, during this public engagement period I saw, as I did during my campaign, that our residents are passionate and engaged in our public school reform process. While there were a lot of parents and grandparents represented at these meetings, there was also a strong presence from members of the community who do not have children in schools. They want to engage and be active in a way that is not disruptive, but so far have not been given opportunities to do so. Even some parents reflected on the difficulty of volunteering with their child’s school. Why does the government bureaucracy make volunteering at our local schools so complicated? For instance, why is DCPS’ central office the only place that someone can go to get fingerprinted to become a volunteer? Can we not work out a system with the Metropolitan Police Department that allows individuals to be fingerprinted at any district station and the list of those cleared are simply shared with the school system? We are focused on achievement, but these conversations in the community highlighted some easily achieved success, that if addressed would actually support more academic growth.
I found these meetings to be incredibly informative and fruitful. As the summer continues, I hope that more residents will share their thoughts and opinions with me and the Committee on Education. I know that working together we can certainly improve the current legislation and the overall performance of our public school system. I, for one, am committed to ensuring that your voice is heard.