How Mayoral Control Can Work Better, 2018 testimony to DC Council

Testimony of Ruth Wattenberg to

The DC Council Education Committee Roundtable on School Reform, March 19

Thank you for having this important discussion.

The argument for mayoral control is that greater, focused accountability leads to greater results.

Well, if that was true, it wouldn’t have been a young reporter from WAMU who told us the truth about our grad rate.  The mayor would be in a competitive election defending–or revising–her educational plan.

It has not worked as hoped. I am not for “going back.” But I am not for staying a course that is not working for our kids.

Minimally, this particular form of mayor control and this particular form of education reform are not working as we hoped.  It need not be all or nothing. There are things that can be fixed in the short term; others in the longer term.

I have 4 points around governance:

  1. Mayoral control of school districts is NOT the norm. Of the thousand largest school districts, only 15 are under mayoral control. Almost nowhere is this regarded as desirable.
  2. We are unique even among mayor-controlled districts for the unchecked power we give our mayor, over policy and information.

Every other such district is part of a state. These districts are supported and overseen by politically independent state education agencies run by politically independent state superintendents, overseen by State Boards of Education.  The state superintendent is named by and responsible to the Board, governor or some combination of the two—not to the same mayor who appoints the district chancellor.

Under our structure—and only ours–there is no independent entity that vets data or conducts independent evaluation. Data can be spun, go uncollected or unreported; investigations can be partial or slow walked.  Information lives in a silo.

It is no slight on the integrity of any individual to acknowledge the conflicts this creates in reality and perception. We have no checks and balances.

At the very least, data, evaluation, investigations should be spun out of the mayor’s orbit. I hope the Council will insist on establishing an independent research entity, perhaps like the Chicago Consortium on School Reform, that will help us understand what works and what doesn’t.

  1. We are unique in the lack of voice for DCPS parents and residents. In virtually every other mayoral control district, there is still a school board. It may have limited or broad powers.  Members may be wholly or partly appointed by the mayor, county exec, or governor. But there is a board.  It meets regularly, publicly.  In some places, it has the same powers as any other local school board. The chancellor reports on key issues. Data gets reviewed. Board members ask questions. Parents, teachers, and students testify. The media covers it. Skepticism gets a voice. Issues get vetted. Policy discussions break out of the silo.

DCPS families have no such local school board forum. Despite great efforts and intent, a small number of education committee hearings a year on general issues are no replacement for a chancellor regularly, publicly facing stakeholders and board members on a full range of issues.

If we had such regular, public scrutiny, it is inconceivable to me that the mass promotions and graduations of unready kids–and the pressure on teachers and principals that led to it–would have happened as they did. Nor would the high levels of turnover and unfunded, cookie-cutter mandates be tolerated.

  1. Finally, we are unique in that the rules governing the coordination and competition of our charters and traditional schools were largely imposed on us by a Congress that we did not elect. And our elected officials, apart from the mayor, have virtually no say in how this two sector system functions. Most people in this city appreciate that we have charter schools—which can provide innovative options and alternatives. But most people also, maybe more fervently, want a system of strong, neighborhood, by-right schools.  In other mayoral control cities, the council, voters, parents have a way to influence rules of competition between charters and neighborhood schools that can assure the viability of both. We don’t–and the neighborhood system and neighborhoods are suffering.

We have made progress. We don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. But let’s recognize: some of that bathwater is very dirty. Absolute power is not healthy.  Silo’ed information leads people to believe their own good PR—and not undertake the evaluation, discussion, and modification that is necessary in any school reform. We need checks and balances. We don’t need to go back to the past. But it is irresponsible to stay put and still when so much is not working as we want.

Finally, I hope that in addition to any legislative work you do, you will insist in the short term on a citywide discussion about the direction of DCPS in connection with the selection of a new chancellor.