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Joyce Ladner, testimony on DC Public Schools, Testimony before the Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, Restructuring and the District of Columbia
March 9, 1998




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Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

I am Dr. Joyce Ladner. I am a Member of the District of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority (Authority), and I am the Board Member with lead responsibility for public education in the District of Columbia. I appreciate the opportunity to testify on the progress made by the Authority and the D.C. Public Schools to improve the quality and safety of our schools and to put "children first" in our efforts to reform the District.


The Authority was created by the U.S. Congress in 1995 to return the District of Columbia to financial solvency and to improve the management and delivery of public services. As the Authority has reported to Congress previously, there has been considerable progress already made in revitalizing the District Government and improving the quality of life for residents and visitors.

Mr. Chairman, the Authority has devoted much time and attention to the condition of public education in the nation's capital. There is no question that the education of our children, and the state of the public schools, has been – and remains – a critical issue for this community. I believe that if we fail to educate our children, we will erode the progress being made in so many other important areas. Without adequate education, our children will never take their places effectively as contributing members of this community. In improving education, our goal is to ensure that this City continues to have productive citizens who contribute to its enrichment, and who understand the role and obligations of citizenship and society.

The Authority Members are no strangers to the value of public education. All of us are the products of quality education, and we recognize that the quality of our future rested on the nature of the education that we were provided. That is why, when confronted with the failure of the District's educational system, the Authority took action. In our November 1996 report, "Children In Crisis: A Report on the Failure of the D.C. Public Schools," the Authority concluded that the deplorable record of the District's public schools, in every important educational and management area, had left the system in crisis. In virtually every area, and for every grade level, the system failed to provide the District's children with quality education and a safe environment in which to learn.

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The Authority's Mandate for Change

In response to this crisis, the Authority, on November 15, 1996, took immediate action to fundamentally improve the schools. Through a Resolution and Order, the Authority replaced the Superintendent and reduced the powers of the elected Board of Education. In their place, the Authority appointed retired Army Lieutenant General Julius W. Becton, Jr. as Chief Executive Officer and Superintendent, and established an Emergency Transitional Educational Board of Trustees, under the leadership of Chairman Bruce K. MacLaury. As part of the overhaul, the Authority ordered the Chief Executive Officer/Superintendent to address the structure, education, and management of the public schools. The Authority established an aggressive agenda of reform; Together with the CEO and the Trustees, who are volunteers, we have worked hard to ensure that the education of our children is qualitatively and quantitatively improved at every level.

Progress Continues to be Made

Mr. Chairman, the D. C. Public Schools have made great strides in addressing the deficiencies that were cited in our "Children in Crisis" report. And today, their progress has laid the foundation for further reform - and demonstrable success – in the outcomes of our children's education.

But I am also a realist. We must all recognize that the problems in our school system did not occur overnight - the physical structures alone have been deteriorating and subsequently neglected for a period of almost 50 years. The physical problems, and the educational ones, can not be fixed overnight. Yet, the important thing is that they are being fixed. For the first time, there now exists comprehensive plans, administered by capable and dedicated educators, to make permanent improvements that will benefit the schools and our children.

Despite the progress we have made, and the hard work of the CEO, Trustees and many employees, much remains to be done. In researching the approach taken by other educational reform efforts, one of the most essential ingredients was the establishment of a reform minded team committed to change. In places such as Chicago, for instance, they successfully recruited a new top management team and eliminated drastically the middle level management tier. We have encouraged General Becton to employ the same approach. We are very pleased, therefore, that Dr. Arlene Ackerman, who brings a wealth of experience and commitment to educational reform, has joined the schools as the Deputy Superintendent/Chief Academic Officer. In the coming months, we know that General Becton will continue to assemble a team that can bring the Public Schools to the next level of achievement.

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Academic Improvement and Accountability

With respect to academics, the Authority is pleased that the Chief Executive Officer and the new Chief Academic Officer are instituting plans that will leverage accountability for educational change throughout the school system. All actions, procedures, and processes are being examined for their impact upon educational attainment. A system of accountability is being developed which will have far reaching results for educational improvement. The D.C. Public Schools are holding principals more accountable, and where appropriate, the administration is replacing principals. The D.C. Public Schools have limited the appointment of principals to one year, and removed the selection of principals from the previously politicized process. Fifty percent of a principal's evaluation now will be based on students' academic performance. The D.C. Public Schools are also moving to make teacher evaluations performance-driven. Principals and teachers are receiving training in the expectations supporting performance-based management.

Increased academic standards are being instituted. On her arrival, the Chief Academic Officer implemented the nationally recognized Stanford-9 tests on a biannual basis. While this will help the schools to measure performance and develop solutions for improvement in the long term, the results in the short term have been very disappointing at all educational levels. Fourteen out of 18 DC high schools had more than 90 percent of the students below basic levels of proficiency in math. To improve educational readiness, therefore, the administration is ending the practice of passing students on from grade to grade regardless of their performance, so called "social promotion." The D.C. Public Schools are going to require students to attend summer school if they want to move on to the next grade with their classmates in the fall.

As the D.C. Public Schools develop an educational strategic plan which identifies the critical actions and time frames for addressing the schools' most fundamental problems and attaining the goals inherent in quality education, we are convinced that demonstrable improvements can be realized. An educational strategic plan will guide the development of administrative priorities to support educational programs. Previously' changes were frequently made in a vacuum without an assessment of their impact on the attainment of educational goals. This is being changed. A plan will also identify the financial resources needed to attain specific educational goals – also another first. All stakeholders in this process must ensure that the D.C. Public Schools do not operate in a vacuum. The Public Schools must make the most informed decision possible concerning the allocation of scarce resources.

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Administrative and Financial Management Improvements

Both the schools and the Authority agree that there are many opportunities for increased operating efficiencies and cost savings. As a result, the Authority is assisting the D.C. Public Schools in addressing the long-standing problems in the central personnel, asset management, technology, and procurement functions. We have already seen some progress. The D.C. Public Schools have developed performance measures for every part of the organization. These measures will provide clear benchmarks for gauging progress and improvement. The size of the central administration has been reduced from 15 percent of the D.C. Public School workforce in FY97 to 11 percent in FY98. In the area of financial management, the Schools' today have a much better understanding of the nature of their expenditures and the linkages to education reform, and they are now developing school-based budgets.

Authority Monitoring of DCPS Reform

The Authority has vigilantly monitored the reform efforts of the School. In conjunction with the schools, we have developed and implemented a monitoring plan that measures management and programmatic changes. The CEO's reforms are in line with the plan, and with the Authority's efforts to transform the system overall. The monitoring program measures DCPS' progress in terms of the results, or outcomes, that the CEO achieves, and it will help to support the future changes needed to improve educational results.

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Physical Infrastructure Improvements

Mr. Chairman, I am pleased to report that the D.C. Public Schools has began to address the physical infrastructure problems that have plagued the schools for far too long. The Parents United lawsuit, which affected the entire school system and paralyzed the repair of schools, has been settled. The Public Schools spent almost $50 million in capital funds in FY97. Fifty six new roofs, numerous boilers and chillers were replaced, and dozens of schools were renovated - many schools had not seen renovations in years. Eleven schools were closed, which will reduce operating and maintenance costs. The Public Schools are now marketing surplus facilities for sale in accordance with an Authority -approved surplus property disposition plan. A draft Long-Range Facilities Master Plan to guide the school's capital improvements for the next ten years has been developed and implemented. After years of neglect and failure, there is now progress and hope.

Special Education

One of the remaining challenges we face, Mr. Chairman, is the crisis in the special education system. Nearly 7,700 students are already in special education, and the number is growing precipitously. This growth is having tremendous implications for the future cost of education. In FY 1997, $93.8 million from all sources was spent on special education. In FY 1998, $102 million from all sources will be spent. Under the Mills Decree, D.C. Public Schools are required to assess and place special education students within 50 days of referral. This is the shortest time period allowed for assessment and placement in the nation. This issue, and the role of the lawsuit, must be carefully considered for their impact on the growth of this population and the attendant administrative costs. The Authority, in concert with the District's Chief Financial Officer, is reviewing this matter and will shortly provide guidance to the school system for its resolution.

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School Funding

Turning now to schools' funding, the Authority is working closely with the Administration to improve the basis for funding the public schools. The unique financing arrangement for the District's schools and its impact on education recognizes that the District carries out the roles of a city, a county, and a state. In a report issued last year on state-type functions, the Authority found that, around the country, elementary and secondary education is usually the responsibility of local jurisdictions, or operated by independent school districts at the local level. However, significant portions of the funding are established above the local level, typically by the state.

Nationwide statistics show that elementary and secondary education operational funds are provided by all levels of government, with States providing nearly half of the operational funds. Many states also assist their local school districts with capital funds for construction and major renovation of school buildings. In addition, many local school districts have their own sources of revenue and taxing authority and may issue bonds.

Unlike other school agencies, the District government must provide both the state and local sources of funds. In addition, DCPS does not have its own taxing authority, nor can it issue bonds for capital improvements. DCPS must rely on the District to ration scarce dollars to school repair and construction and must compete with other vital government programs. Most local schools rely substantially on property taxes. Of course, the city's property tax base is limited because of the significant amount of valuable property that is federally owned.

As I noted earlier, capital needs of the District's schools are massive. DCPS is estimating that stabilizing and modernizing DCPS buildings will cost approximately $1.2 billion by fiscal year 2004.

In conclusion, Mr. Chairman, the Authority is pleased that progress is being made in improving the public schools of the District. We all recognize that more needs to be done, and we are working to make sure that improvements continue according to our plans. The Authority remains committed to reforming the schools and ensuring that the District's children obtain a public education that provides them a bright and productive future.

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