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Maudine R. Cooper, Chair
Emergency Transitional Education Board of Trustees
Testimony to the House Committee on Appropriations
Subcommittee on the District of Columbia
June 24, 1998




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Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

Good morning. I am Maudine Cooper. Chair of the Emergency Transitional Education Board of Trustees — and in my other full-time job, President of the Greater Washington Urban League. I appreciate this opportunity to discuss with you the Fiscal 1999 budget request of the DC Public Schools.

Since this is my first appearance before this Committee in my new role as Chair of the Trustees. I’d like to begin by saving what I have seen so far, and where we are headed.

Early Accomplishments. We are now 20 months along in the life of the Emergency Board of Trustees. It has not been a tranquil voyage so far. But the very real accomplishments of the Board and Administration may have been obscured by some of the headlines. If you look at the charge we were given by the Control Board in November of 1996, you will find that substantial progress has been accomplished:

  • New evaluation systems, based on student achievement. are in place for all principals. and Superintendent Ackerman is developing plans for comparable systems for teachers.
  • New promotion policies will assure that students master essential skills and knowledge before proceeding to the next grade — and new “safety net” activities, including the massive Summer STARS program will give every student the best possible chance to move ahead.
  • The number of central administrators has been drastically reduced, and resources have been focused on the classroom.
  • We have rid the school system of virtually all outstanding fire code violations — more than 2000 since November. 1996 — and have a process in place for addressing new ones as they occur in our ancient school buildings.
  • We have made significant headway on the estimated $2 billion capital improvements needed for 21st century learning.
  • We’ve already approved about $10 million in sales of excess school buildings, with the revenue going toward improvement of buildings still in use. A number of sales and leases have been to new public charter schools.
  • Finally, and most important, a strong new focus on high standards and academic achievement, led by Superintendent Ackerman, has begun to turn this system toward excellence. Stanford-9 scores are up across the board — and that is the bottom line.

Upcoming Challenges. So we bring good news, and we believe that this record justifies optimism. But this is not a simple story, and we are not ready to declare victory. We still have a long way to go, and there are steep hills just ahead. Parents, taxpayers. and members of this Committee are watching for tangible results in the following areas:

  • For all its logistical challenges, summer school has got to run smoothly, and produce strong academic progress so that retention in grade is held to a minimum.
  • Schools must open on time.
  • When school opens. textbooks and supplies have to be ready.
  • The food served in our schools must be safe. nutritious, and appetizing — whether we prepare it in school cafeterias or through outside contracts.
  • We have to have decisive improvement in the performance of school personnel. That means ample professional development — but it also means that principals who can’t lead a school toward academic accomplishment must go, and teachers who cannot inspire young minds should find another line of work.

These wII be visible, immediate signs of progress, that will further bolster the confidence of our community that DCPS is on the right track. The Trustees have every expectation that Superintendent Ackerman will deliver on these points. She knows what a good school system looks like, and she’s providing strong, effective leadership in getting us there.

But she will need our help, and yours, in some critical areas — and each has important budget implications.

First, we need massive, rapid improvement in personnel and finance systems. We cannot afford to alienate veteran teachers, and to disillusion new ones, because it takes weeks or months to process a personnel action and cut a paycheck.

Second, the same applies to student information systems. Superintendent Ackerman is trying to lead DCPS into a new era of accountability. But this is an overwhelming task when data on student attendance, enrollment, and achievement are scattered through incompatible and unwieldy systems.

Third, we continue to face a critical facilities problem. It is gratifying that we will be able to spend $80 million this fiscal year to continue the job of renovating and repairing the DCPS physical plant. But in a system whose average school building is 60 years old, a significant, long-term resource commitments will be needed to produce safe, healthy learning environments for every student.

Fourth, and most signifcant, we must get control of special education spending, which could take up to $156 million of our FY99 budget. It's no secret that DCPS has historically done an inadequate job of educating students with special needs. But due to outdated court decisions that predate the enactment of protections for disabled students? our special education program has become a full-employment program for lawyers. No question about it. we are asking for adequate funding to cover the current costs of compliance. But we also need your support for a legislative change already endorsed by the DC Council. that will put us on the same foaling as other jurisdictions. and give us 120 days in which to complete evaluation and referral processes.

DCPS and Charter Schools. I would like to say a few words about the complex relationship between charter schools and the DC Public Schools. I am proud that the Urban League is helping to create charter schools in a number of cities. And as chair of the Trustees, I believe Superintendent Ackerman and her staff deserve praise for helping to improve the working relationship between charters and DCPS in a number of areas — streamlining grants management offering an array of options for housing charter schools in excess DCPS facilities, and attempting to work out difficult legal questions about provision of special education and other services.

But I must report that my colleagues and I share some misgivings about the unexpected impacts of the new charter law on our public schools — and more important. on children. We have already seen one charter school fail. While the adults argued. children were scattered to different sites. And in the final analysis, those children became the responsibility of DCPS — and Superintendent Ackerman and her staff spent long hours trying to straighten out the mess.

This episode illuminated some gaps in the framework of fiscal accountability for charter schools. It was the clear intent of the DC School Reform Act that dollars should follow students. But in its current form. the law is a one-way street. When a charter school receives 75% of its annual payment in October then collapses in midyear, it’s not clear who has the power to recover funds that may be misspent — or even w hether this is an exercise in futility.

Given the extraordinary lengths to which DCPS has gone to establish credible enrollment numbers — now confirmed in the recent audit by Thompson, Cobb, Bazilio & Associates — we should expect routine scrutiny of charter enrollments as well.

We suggest that some dialogue is in order about how to ensure greater accountability in charter funding. We might look at processes used in other jurisdictions — for example. disbursing funds on a quarterly basis, with adjustments for actual, audited changes in student population.

But I think we also need to catch our breath and take stock of this entire phenomenon.

With the best of intentions, this city is about to launch more than a dozen new charter schools. Several charters have prudently decided to wait a year before opening; but we are concerned that others may be opening prematurely. We understand that charter schools ask to be held accountable for outcomes rather than inputs: but we also think that parents are entitled to know whether qualified teachers and other adults of good character are in place before they send their children to a new school — the same kinds of concerns that should be raised about any environment to which children are entrusted.

We ask that you consider a pause in the rush toward charters. Let's make sure that accountability is clear, that the fiscal issues are resolved, and that we are all on the same page with regard to knotty questions like who provides special education services.

Most of all. let's see how the charter law can support the overall effort to reform education in our city. Remember. the DC School Reform Act was drafted when the regular public school system was at rock bottom. Now, as the system is starting to improve, we need to see how charters and DCPS can collaborate toward the goal of education excellence for all children in the District of Columbia.

Paying for the Past. Finally, I know that this budget appears to request a large increase from the FY98 level — and in raw numbers, that’s true. But as Superintendent Ackerman will detail. a substantial portion of this increase is court-mandated, and the rest is essential to our reform efforts — such as support for a second year of summer school. and fundamental redesign of the system’s lowest-performing schools.

But we were required to build this request on a baseline that did not actually support the number of people in place this fiscal year. Drastic reductions in administrative and support personnel have been necessary to end the year in balance without cutting classroom teachers. I want to emphasize that these are not just changes on a spreadsheet. By and large, these cuts impacted on good people doing honest work — people who were hired into an organization that had lost control of itself. And now these people are paying for the mistakes of the past, and for the archaic systems still in place.

We can’t afford to have too many employees on staff — but in human terms, we also can’t afford to play games with people’s lives. That’s why it is so important to support the reengineering this Administration is undertaking.

I hope that you will consider our proposals in light of the remarkable early progress already achieved. And I hope you will agree with me that pursuing our Superintendent’s vision of an exemplary school system is the best investment we can make in the future of our children.

Thank you. and I look forward to your questions.

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