Logosm.gif (1927 bytes)
navlinks.gif (4688 bytes)
Hruler04.gif (5511 bytes)

Back to DC public schools main page

Testimony of George Grier
before the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, District of Columbia Subcommittee
March 13, 1998




Dorothy Brizill
Bonnie Cain
Jim Dougherty
Gary Imhoff
Phil Mendelson
Mark David Richards
Sandra Seegars


DCWatch Archives
Council Period 12
Council Period 13
Council Period 14

Election 1998
Election 2000
Election 2002

Election 2004
Election 2006

Government and People
Anacostia Waterfront Corporation
Boards and Com
Campaign Finance
Chief Financial Officer
Chief Management Officer
City Council
Control Board
Corporation Counsel
DC Agenda
Elections and Ethics
Fire Department
FOI Officers
Inspector General
Housing and Community Dev.
Human Services
Mayor's Office
Mental Health
Motor Vehicles
Neighborhood Action
National Capital Revitalization Corp.
Planning and Econ. Dev.
Planning, Office of
Police Department
Property Management
Public Advocate
Public Libraries
Public Schools
Public Service Commission
Public Works
Regional Mobility Panel
Sports and Entertainment Com.
Taxi Commission
Telephone Directory
University of DC
Water and Sewer Administration
Youth Rehabilitation Services
Zoning Commission

Issues in DC Politics

Budget issues
DC Flag
DC General, PBC
Gun issues
Health issues
Housing initiatives
Mayor’s mansion
Public Benefit Corporation
Regional Mobility
Reservation 13
Tax Rev Comm
Term limits repeal
Voting rights, statehood
Williams’s Fundraising Scandals


Appleseed Center
Cardozo Shaw Neigh.Assoc.
Committee of 100
Fed of Citizens Assocs
League of Women Voters
Parents United
Shaw Coalition



What Is DCWatch?

themail archives

My name is George Grier, and I am a principal in The Grier Partnership, a firm that since its founding in 1976 has provided specialized demographic consulting services to many clients in both the public and private sectors. Our services include, among others, projecting future needs for services such as education, and developing state-of-the-art data systems to help school systems to plan more effectively to meet their future needs for facilities and staff.

It was in this capacity that we were asked to help the District of Columbia Public Schools in 1995. The 21st Century School Fund, a private non-profit organization dedicated to improving the D. C. schools and supported in pelt by funds from the Ford Foundation, approached us to project future public school enrollments in the District of Columbia as a basis for a plan to upgrade the District's school facilities to serve the needs of the coming century. The plan had been requested by Dr. Franklin Smith, who was Superintendent of the D.C. Schools at that time.

When we start working with a new school system client, we first review the basic data on the student population of that school district – including both the system's own enrollment figures and Census data on the child population living in the district. In doing so, we soon found a startling discrepancy The D.C. Public Schools reported an enrollment of 80,694 to the National Center for Education Statistics in fall of 1990, while the Census Bureau had found only 67,278 students enrolled in public elementary and high schools m spring of the same year.

Census and school system figures seldom if ever agree exactly. One reason is that they are taken at somewhat different times. But they are usually pretty close, typically no more than a handful of percentage points apart. In the District of Columbia, however, we found that the Public Schools reported 20.6 percent more students enrolled than did the Census Bureau.

We then compared this to the Census and School System figures for ten other major cities. They were Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston? Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, and Philadelphia. In all except Atlanta, the discrepancies were below five percent. In Atlanta it was 8.8 percent. The average of all these discrepancies (excluding D.C.) was 2.5 percent. Seven of the ten were positive (i.e., the school systems counted more pupils than the Census). The chart on the following page displays this comparison.

Discrepancy Between Public School Enrollments as Reported by School Systems to NCES and by 1990 Census of Population
Major Central Cities of United States

grier1.gif (5255 bytes)

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

Back to top of page

Part of the discrepancy in the District, but only part, may result from misclassified enrollment numbers. The Census Bureau figures for all the cities are for elementary and high school They exclude what the Bureau calls "preprimary school," which includes kindergarten, pre-kindergarten, and pre-school or nursery school The District, much to its credit, has one of the most comprehensive early childhood education programs of any major city and is nationally recognized as a leader in this field. All day child care is included, making the program especially helpful to working parents of low to moderate income. The children enrolled in this program were, however, reported as part of the elementary enrollment in the figures assembled by the National Center for Education Statistics.

The Census Bureau counted 5,532 students in the preprimary categories in spring of 1990, while the D.C. Public Schools reported 10,611 (558 in pre-school, 3,646 in pre-kindergarten, and 6,407 in kindergarten) in fall of the same year. It is possible that the school system may have incorrectly reported these children to the federal governmental as enrolled in the elementary grades rather than in the preprimary grades. It is also possible that the federal agency classified than incorrectly. If this were to happen often, however, large discrepancies would result in many more cities than we found.

In any event, if we add the 5,532 preprimary students reported by the Census to the 67,278 enrollment m elementary and high school stated earlier, we get 72,810 -- leaving a gap of 7,884 or nearly 11 percent still unaccounted for. This is still much larger than the 2.5 percent average for the other ten cities. Only one of these cities, Atlanta, is even in the ballpark.

The fact that most of the differences between the school system and Census figures were positive suggested that undercounting by the Census Bureau might have played some role in these differences. The Census does tend to undercount minorities, and all of the ten comparison cities have large minority populations. But the differences m all but Atlanta were so much small than in the District that we consider it highly unlikely that undercounting is a major source of the discrepancy here.

All the figures I've been discussing so far am for 1990, and a lot of change has taken place since. We next examined whether and to what degree the downward trend in the District's population – a trend that began decades ago but has accelerated since 1990 – had been reflected in the school system's official membership, more commonly called enrollments. The chart shows the trends in population and enrollments between 1985 and 1997. I've scaled the two sets of figures differently to make it easy to compare the two trends.

Trends in Total Population (Census Bureau) and School Membership (Schools)
District of Columbia, 1985-1997

grier2..gif (5409 bytes)

Back to top of page

Enrollments would not be expected to track population changes perfectly, because families with children account for only part of these changes. But enrollments normally reflect the population trend to a visible degree. Here there appears to be little relationship between the two – at least after 1989. In that year school officials at first learned of sharp declines in enrollments, exceeding 15 percent at many schools. These declines were not revealed until after the school system's budget was submitted, but became public early in 1990. The resulting uproar caused a downward revision of the official figures, and they appear to have tracked population fairly closely from 1985 through 1989.

The enrollment curve then leveled out and remained virtually unchanged from 1990 through 1994, with a decline of only 200 students or a tiny fraction of one percent in that entire period. Meanwhile the District's population declined by nearly seven percent. Starting in 1995, the official numbers began to decline slowly as school officials identified and corrected various errors in the procedures for counting and recording students. By fall of 1997 they were down to 77,111. That's a decrease of 3,600 students or 4.5 percent since 1990 In the same seven years the District's population as estimated by the Census Bureau dropped by 78,000 or almost 13 percent.

On the face of it, this would suggest either (1) that the official enrollments are still significantly in error, (2) that births have teem going up (since 1991 they've been dropping even faster than the population) or (3) that the great majority of children have somehow remained in the District while their parents have been migrating by the thousands to the suburbs. This last sounds crazy, but something a bit like it could be going on

School officials believe that a large part of the gap results from parents who live in nearby jurisdictions (and particularly Prince George's County, MD), and who drive their children into the city, or leave them for the day with grandparents, in order to take advantage of the high-quality early childhood education, coupled with all-day supervised care, that is available here.

If so, then the impact should be felt largely in the preprimary grades, and perhaps also in the early elementary grades. In fact, there has been an increase of 1,527 or about 14 percent in reported preprimary enrollments since 1990, while enrollments in first through third grades have increased by 688 or about three percent. The total for pre-school to grade 3 is 2,215. If enrollments have tracked population fairly closely since 1990, they will have decreased by around 13 percent or roughly 10,500 students. Increasing enrollments in early childhood programs would offset only a small fraction .

But District residents would not be well served if all or most of the additional students had come from outside the city, and were not the result of increasing popularity of the early childhood programs with parents in the District itself. There is little reason to doubt that some have been suburbanites, but the school system has not been very successful in identifying many of them to date. In school year 1994-1995 only 80 students were excluded for this reason.

How many suburbanites there may actually be is put in question by another set of numbers. We compared the discrepancy between enrollments in 1990 as reported by the D.C. Public Schools and by the 1990 Census with those for the nearby suburbs. The results are shown in the next chart.

Discrepancy Between Public School Enrollments as Reported by School Systems to NCES and by 1990 Census
Major Jurisdictions of Metropolitan Washington

grier3..gif (4209 bytes)

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

Back to top of page

All of the suburban discrepancies were positive for school enrollments, which could be partly due to Census undercounting in some suburbs, but probably is due mainly to growth. The discrepancy in Prince George's County is of particular interest. It is plus 3.4 percent, and is the second largest suburban gap. If a significant percentage of Prince George's County children of school age were in fact going to school m the District, then wouldn't this percentage be smaller or even negative?

I have sometimes been quoted as saying that the correct enrollment of the D.C. Public Schools is somewhere around 67,000. I have not said that. By the same token, after this testimony I might be quoted as saying that the enrollment change since 1990 was minus 13 percent, or a loss of about 10,500 students, rather then 3,600. I haven't said that either. I do not know what the correct enrollment of the D.C. Public Schools is at this point, and I do not believe anyone else does either. It is highly unlikely, though, that the actual enrollment is even close to the current official figure. The discrepancies are simply too great.

We had to tell Dr. Franklin Smith, who was Superintendent of Schools at the time we found these discrepancies, that lacking better enrollment numbers than his staff could provide we could make only the most tentative projections of his future enrollments; and that, quite frankly, they wouldn't be worth the paper they were printed on. He made some efforts to straighten things out, but they didn't solve the problems, and three years later not much has changed. So at this point in time we still could not produce projections that we considered reliable.

I do not know all of the reasons for whatever differences may eventually be found between the current counts and the numbers that will eventually emerge, but many of than have to do with inadequate procedures. The GAO study deals with this topic, and Ms. Blanchette can speak to it much more effectively than l. But I would like to note that these problems are far from new.

As long ago as 1990, after a scandal about the failure to reveal changes in the enrollments, the accounting firm of Deloitte and Touche performed a management audit of the D.C. schools. They had intended to do so by drawing a random sample from existing computer tapes that they had been told contained detailed enrollment information for several past years. They found that the tapes were not accurate enough to serve this purpose. When they asked to have hard copies instead, they found that these were virtually non-existent except for the most recent year. The computerized student information management system (SIMS) was found to be seriously deficient. The report identified numerous procedural inadequacies. Five years later, I ran into most of these same problems. As far as I know, most are still there. Mr. Wenning has made some useful changes, but the basic procedures are still pretty much in place, and they're as full of holes as ever.

I do know, however, that it is not impossible for a large city school system to collect accurate enrollment numbers. My firm prepares the annual enrollment projections for the New York City Public Schools, a million-pupil school system. We have done so since 1988. On a one-year basis, our projections have generally proved accurate within less than one student in 1,000. We use pretty sophisticated methods, but we could not do this well without having good data to start with.

You may have noted that New York City's discrepancy was the second lowest among the for cities – only 1.2 percent. And this amount could be due to growth, since New York City has been growing. New York City audits its enrollment counts with extreme care, and it conducts surprise head courts in randomly selected schools. The final fall numbers are not available until the following March or April. There's a lot of understandable carping about this from impatient administrators anxious to get out projections, but in my view it's worth the wait.

I haven't accused anyone in the District of cheating, ant I won't. But I think that it's important that we accept the fact that ad human beings are fallible. That's why banks audit their funds very carefully. Auditing students is more difficult, but it's equally important. Well-run school systems like New York manage it, and it pays off.

Auditing procedures designed for financial purposes will not necessarily catch the kinds of things that often cause enrollment counts to be wrong, usually on the plus side. A teacher may not have seen Johnny for a couple of months, or maybe not since last year, but she's hoping he'll come back so she keeps him on the roll. A poorly designed computer program may be so hard for people to use than they may delay removing students from the rolls when they leave m the middle of a semester.

Because of faulty procedures, students who move within the District may turn up on the registers of two schools at once. For a long while the computer system of the District schools had no way of detecting this and correcting for it. I under stand that Mr. Wenning has been working to fix this, but the procedures themselves have to be bullet-proofed. In other cases, students who move out of the city may remain on the rolls. In a city where 61 percent of households are renters, student mobility is very high, and the errors that result can be substantial unless foolproof procedures are in place.

Even worse, changes people faithfully enter into the computer may not take. I've been told that at least until very recently, the District's system had a default that put students hack in the year after they had been taken off the rolls unless the user pushed just the right buttons.

The real danger point in the process, however, is at the point where students are actually counted, and that is in the classroom when the teacher counts them. If that count is not correct, no procedural safeguards after that point can insure that it will be caught. Teachers can be told to sign a statement that the roll is correct, and principals can be told to verify it, but if people don't believe that serious consequences will result if it isn't, then the system is not safe. Only if they do, and this is reinforced by stern actions when errors are found, will it ever be safe. Even in New York, deliberately padded enrollments were recently found in a large high school. The principal was immediately transferred to the Chancellor's office, and a legal case is being prepared against her. The school system made sure that this was reported in the press as a warning to others. She could go to jail, since enrollment padding is fraud.

New York City is well aware, as the District apparently still is not, that inflated enrollment counts can cost real bucks. Schools are expensive facilities to build and maintain, and they're becoming even more costly with increasing knowledge and concern about environmental hazards to the health and safety of children. Fixing up a school that's seriously under-enrolled may cost much more than moving the remaining kids to another under-enrolled school

Good teachers aren't cheap either, and a teacher who has a class of eight or ten when (s)he could easily handle 20 or 25 is not being well utilized. There have been a number of reports of situations like this from concerned parents. But let's face it – since student counts translate into jobs, some people who know that a correct student count could threaten their future well-being may not care much about whether the numbers are right or not, or whether they're teaching as many as they could. They won't unless they know that serious consequences may follow.

Back to top of page

Until we are reasonably sure that we know the precise enrollment of the D.C. Public Schools, broken down exactly by school and grade, it will be impossible to project what the enrollments will be five or ten years from now with any reasonable degree of certainty. Without knowing that, it will be impossible to develop a sound and affordable plan to improve and maintain the schools for the coming century – which will be upon us in less than two years.

The problem is not solely one of the future, however near. It isn't even possible to determine with any certainty right now which schools are seriously under-utilized, ant could be shut down immediately in order to re-direct scarce funds to places where they are really needed. Effective allocation of human resources becomes impossible too. Too many half-empty buildings and too few people fully employed will quickly mount into many millions of dollars of taxpayers' money wasted.

I think it's significant that the District's schools are the only system in the nation where the Board and Superintendent don 't have to report to a higher authority – or at least hadn't until the Control Board came along. The Superintendent is his own State School Officer. There is no independent oversight, and hence no incentive to make meaningful changes.

With that higher authority now in charge, there is an opportunity to impose the discipline necessary to make the schools an effective mechanism for the education of the District's future citizens and workers. Over time, that discipline can become internalized.

That will take time and effort, and both will be substantial. But many other things will then become easier. It will be possible to plan ahead, and to foresee the future consequences of present actions with some reliability. But if the opportunity is lost, it may never be regained. In that case, the D.C Public Schools may remain forever a system out of control.

Back to top of page

Send mail with questions or comments to webmaster@dcwatch.com
Web site copyright ©DCWatch (ISSN 1546-4296)