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Testimony by DC Councilmember Kathy Patterson
before the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources,
Hearing on Problems of the DC Public Schools

January 14, 1998




Dorothy Brizill
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My name is Kathy Patterson. I'm a member of the Council of the District of Columbia, chair of its Government Operations Committee, and a member of the Education Committee.

Senator Jeffords, thank you for your commitment to the children of the District of Columbia. As a parent of two children in two D.C. public schools and as an elected official, I thank you for your leadership in funding school facility improvements and for your advocacy of reform in D.C. Public Schools.

The topic for this series of hearings is workforce development in the greater Washington D.C. region. My testimony today focuses on issues facing the public schools, but I would also be happy to respond to questions about job training in the District since that is an issue for which I have oversight responsibility in the D.C. Council.

If you want to know the most significant obstacle to workforce development in Washington it is, in fact, the D.C. Public Schools. You need look no further than the recently published Stanford 9 test scores to see the extent to which we are failing our children. The longer a child stay [sic] in D.C. schools the more damage that's done. In the average high school in D.C. fully 90 per cent of students tested "below basic" in math. Fifty-six percent tested "below basic" in reading.

These are the kinds of issues that prompted the Financial Authority in November 1996 to turn the school system upside down. I strongly supported that action, having spent much of 1996 working with authority members and staff on education concerns. Because of the circumstances in the last few days -- the appeals court opinion last week that the control board overstepped its authority and the audit of summertime roof work that found gross mismanagement – this hearing today offers an opportunity to step back and take the measure of the new leadership structure put in place in November 1996.

Here is what the current leadership of D.C. Public Schools is teaching our children:

First. they are teaching children that education doesn't really matter that much. How else should school children understand the 3-week delay in school last September? We locked children out of school rooms because the grownups couldn't get their act together to hire contractors in the spring to start construction work June 20. Most of the roof repair projects began in August – and school was to have started September 3.

Second, they are modeling behavior that says: "The law doesn't matter." That rules apply to other people but not to us. We're in an emergency, they say, and therefore no rules apply. The audit released Monday night found that school leaders believed they did not have to follow any procurement rules or laws. Not the DC law; not the federal law. Neither applied to them. General Williams, the chief operating officer, now claims that a condition of his employment in January 1997 was the assurance that he did not need to follow procurement law in fixing D.C. schools. Senator Jeffords, this is unacceptable.

Third, they are teaching children that the truth doesn't matter. For six months now school leaders have insisted, in the face of documents to the contrary, that the reason summertime repairs started so late was lack of funds. This is known as the "big lie" technique – if you say something often enough, to enough audiences, it will become accepted as fact.

In the audit released this week, five of the top officials in the public schools were cited for "noncooperation" with the auditors hired by the financial authority. The report cites the chief executive officer, the chief operating officer, the chief financial officer, the general counsel, and the chief of capital projects. Each one of these public officials refused to confirm in writing the information they had provided to the auditors. These are public employees playing fast and loose with truth. This is also insubordination.

Fourth, we are teaching that ignorant action is better than no action. The new leadership has adopted a policy of retaining children at grade level based on standardized tests. Not only will children be held back –  teachers and principals will be evaluated based on test scores and improvements. There is grave harm being done today by this high stakes testing – testing without the academic supports necessary to give success a chance. Principals, in desperation, are giving practice tests. Assistance has been promised but not delivered. We haven't adjusted curriculum to conform to the standards we are moving toward, but in the meantime we have put a wholly unrealistic testing policy in place.

It has been the perspective of the new leadership of D.C. Public Schools – and frankly, and sadly, the perspective of the control board to date – that decisive actions such as closing schools and fixing roofs, no matter the cost to children and their education, is what you, the Congress, demanded. I don't think so.

Let me share with you where the D.C. Public Schools are headed in the next few weeks: It is, unfortunately, the same kind of action we have seen heretofore: ignorant, unrealistic, unlawful.

General Becton has ordered that any teacher who is not "certified" by the end of January 1998 will be fired. Now, what is key here is "certified." The school system's personnel files are in such disarray that it is not possible to say who is certified and who is not. I know that. The former personnel director of the District knows that. Any teacher in the system knows that. Let me describe for you a few of the teachers who are on a list of 1,000 teachers DCPS sent out last week who are supposedly not "certified."

One teacher was hired just last August to teach in an elementary school. Just four months later the personnel office has misplaced her certification records. Another long-term elementary school teacher is deemed to be "certified" as a reading teacher but needs to be certified as an "elementary school teacher" which, of course, is a certification she had to have before being certified as a reading teacher.

Another is a highly regarded junior high English teacher. The personnel office doesn't know what to do with her because she is "dual certified" in French and English. So, for them, she is uncertified. She's one of the 1,000. This is a policy disaster waiting in the wings; waiting to happen in two weeks time. If you thought a 3-week delay in school was disruptive, wait until notices go out to fire teachers based on nonexistent data.

Here is a second headline waiting to happen. The school system might be shut down by a strike on February 1. The Teamsters local that represents engineers and custodians took a strike vote in December, aiming at action February 1. We're talking about the engineers who keep the boilers running to heat the schools and make no mistake: in the dead of winter they can shut down the system.

These support staff workers in D.C. public schools have not had a pay raise in nearly 10 years despite the fact that they have won arbitration awards, including one upheld by the courts. But the pay awards have not been honored by the school system or the District government. As the clock ticks away, the bill goes up. This issue awaited the trustees and General Becton when they arrived 14 months ago. Because of inaction to date, a potential strike is just two weeks off.

I believe, Senator Jeffords, that today is the opportunity to reassess the action taken by the control board on November 15, 1996. I respectfully ask that you do nothing legislatively in the wake of the appeals court decision, but that you use your considerable prestige and influence to encourage a reassessment by the control board, working with local elected officials..

A few words on where I think a reassessment could take us.

We need to build on what works. Senator Jeffords, you know and I know that school reform is possible. It has been proven elsewhere – in Chicago, for example, where the budget was scrubbed and managers were fired and illegal procurement was punished. Education reform is possible. We know that universal pre-kindergarten works, and is particularly important for children from troubled families; children living in poverty. Universal pre-school for 3 and 4-year-olds is a positive intervention that should be a top priority for public school leaders. We know that small schools and small classes work -and work particularly well for economically disadvantaged children.

To effectively develop our workforce, we need real and lasting participation from the private sector. The District is currently without a functioning Private Industry Council. Business participation on the School to Work Council is negligible. D.C. Public Schools have never welcomed participation – it's seen as interference – from the private sector though we know from experience elsewhere that this is critical.

We must get real and stop setting unrealistic expectations. It was foolish to even think about working on 50 schools in a single summer. The idea of requiring teachers to be certified is sound, but first the system has to clean up its personnel shop. General Becton is on his third personnel director. Is it working yet? I don't think so.

We still need to scrub the numbers. The system certified a student count of 77,000 and it was immediately challenged by demographers based on updates of census data and other studies. The last time the system did an actual head count the total was 68,000 students.

Finally, we must build a school system that takes its strength from the community. If the leaders appointed to the system by the control board are unable or unwilling to work with parents and teachers, with elected officials and, yes, even with the elected Board of Education, then they will fail to build an education system that works for children. Arrogance doesn't improve education. Willful disregard for truth doesn't improve education. Anyone in the upper echelons of the system who refuses to acknowledge who the stakeholders are and refuses to work with those stakeholders – and they are parents and other District residents –  should be removed from office.

Senator Jeffords, please help us hold accountable those who are accountable by law. Today the financial authority stands responsible for the operation of the schools. General Becton remains as their chief executive officer, Help us hold them accountable.

Thank you. I would be happy to respond to questions.

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