Testimony of Ruth Wattenberg, June 26, 2016
Bills 23-0046 and 23-0239, on at-risk and school budget transparency
Thank you Councilmembers for holding this important hearing. My name is Ruth Wattenberg, I am the Ward 3 member of the DC State Board of Education.
- Proper use and reporting of At Risk funds
First and foremost, I want to add my voice to others who are calling on the Council to assure that at-risk funds are used to supplement, not supplant, other funding and to create reporting categories and requirements to assure that. The reality of misuse of these funds is most recently and precisely shown in the new report from the DC Auditor. The misuse must stop and enforcement must begin.
It is also critical that the transparency we require of our DCPS schools, including the ability to FOIA, be required of our charters as well.
I also want to support the comments of Danica Petrocious in calling for immediate answers and long-term transparency about sexual assault in our schools.
The DCPS budgeting system is strewn with problems. I greatly appreciate that Chancellor Ferebee is committed to revising it, and I appreciate that the Council is looking at it as well. I will make a few additional points on budgeting–and on transparency.
First, on school discretion—
Schools—meaning, principals along with their Local School Advisory Teams–need greater discretion. There was a good reason for the Comprehensive Staffing Model—it helped to assure many years ago that curricular offerings at more and less affluent schools were comparable. The goal is still right. But, the approach has proven too rigid, denying schools the ability to move dollars around in ways that make sense for student learning.
–The lack of discretion is exacerbated by what seems to be a lack of coordination of priorities at the DCPS level. For example, a school might be told to staff a CTE program in a certain way, professional development in a certain way, sped in a certain way, and ELL in a certain way. It all makes sense, except that when all these mandates along with scarce funds hit the school, it requires the school to shortchange—meaning, overcrowd!—its core classes. That’s not helpful for students.
–Plus, really great ideas—both about what a given school’s kids really need and how to make the scarce dollars do double-duty–flow best from dynamic conversations at the school level. Right now, these ideas can’t get funded. Some greater discretion must be allowed.
–This isn’t black and white. I don’t think school discretion should be unlimited. But, neither should Central Office decision-making. Plus, the over-centralization of programming helps drive the unhealthy, excessive Central Office spending. I hope the Chancellor will shift this balance—and that the Council will insist on it and follow up.
Second, on Central Office spending:
That’s my next quick point: It’s now well known that our Central Office is excessively staffed relative to comparable districts. The budget reporting rules need to help us understand where these dollars are going. A new report from the State Board of Education’s Task Force on ESSA has made recommendations about line items that should be included. We will pass on that report.
Third, Program Evaluation: Whether it’s the LEAP professional development program, Impact, DCPS’s curriculum units, our pre-k program, how we teach early reading, or any of the dozens of initiatives that have been introduced over the years: There is no public evaluation of these efforts. They go on forever, absorbing millions and millions of dollars. They are all well-intentioned–and may be effective–but we don’t know. Moreover, programs aren’t born excellent. They growto excellence, as they learn from their experience—and benefit from feedback, from those who use the programs and from independent research. Are their ways to strengthen these programs? The Council should insist that key programs undergo periodic public evaluation. I hope such evaluations will be a focus of the new Research Practice Partnership. That also is a recommendation of our ESSA Task Force.
The use of “additional targeted research,” “to ensure equitable Outcomes” conducted by the new RPP as well as by smaller networks of schools, is another recommendation of the State Board of Education’s Task Force on ESSA, which has just released its report, and which I will pass on.
Fourth, differentiated funding for–and disaggregated reporting of–different At-Risk categories. We should consider increasedat-risk funding for those at-risk students with the most at-risk factors. What I mean: Roughly 45% of our DC public school students are at-risk—some 40,000 students. In any category this large, there’s a lot of diversity. It includes students whose families are on SNAP, meaning an income of no more than roughly $48,000 for a family of 4. But about half of our at-risk students are from homes where the income is significantly less; these students are homeless, in foster homes, or in families on TANF, meaning an annual income for a family of 4 of less than roughly $8,000. The students in the latter categories are likely to need much greater support. And, especially, if a given school has a high concentration of students in these latter categories, its need for greater resources will likely be much larger than schools whose at-risk population has fewer students in these categories.
Speaking about transparency: We should also report our test score data and school progress according to these categories. Specifically, the State Board of Education has asked OSSE to disaggregate its at-risk data in its reporting. That is, we shouldn’t just report how the whole diverse at-risk group is faring. We should report how different subgroups are doing—or, at least—and likely more realistically– separate out a category of those who are most at risk so that we know whether certain policies are potentially working with part of the AR group but not the other. In particular, it will help us better understand the effects of the most devastating poverty and the greatest concentrations of such poverty—and help us adapt our programming appropriately.