Ruth’s Testimony to City Council on School Budgets 2016

Testimony to Education Committee

April 14, 2016

Ruth Wattenberg

Ward 3 member, DC State Board of Education


Thank you Chairman Grosso, Councilman Allen, and staff:


I am Ruth Wattenberg. I am the ward 3 member of the DC State Board of Education. I have spent my career in education policy.

I’d like to add my voice to others who have raised 5 particular concerns:

  1. First, Murch: As you know, the Murch community, like some others, has been through the wringer, and most recently, after finally getting approval on a plan, and finally getting a cost estimate, and finally getting approval of a budget to match the estimate…. The rug was pulled out from under them again when it turned out that the budget estimate was not realistic. I urge you to do your best, as you have in the past, to help them.
  1. On Fillmore: I know, Chairman Grosso, that you’re committed to expanding arts education–because it is key to a well-balanced education and because it’s key to a good education for traumatized students, a topic discussed earlier this week at a terrific session that you spoke at. I loved your optimistic conversation this morning with the Arts and Humanities Collaborative about the expanded arts programming that they’re looking at.

As you look, please look at Fillmore. I hadn’t seen Fillmore at work before its elimination was announced. Like many others, I guessed that it was probably an overly expensive model—and that as good as it might be, something very similar probably could be and probably was provided in other schools.

But my visit blew me away.   The quality of the art that these elementary students had undertaken was stunning. The diversity of programming was incredible—digital art, animation, sketching, painting, instruments, etc.–truly something to catch the interest of every child.

I know there are some schools that provide a terrific arts program. I also know there are many that don’t. It is required, so, it is usually, offered. It is very often, based on my anecdotal observations and conversation, an afterthought.


DCPS says that Fillmore costs much more than the average arts program. But how much more is unclear. And what of the low cost that DCPS says art costs at other schools. What are kids getting for it?

To my knowledge, there’s been no systematic study. What are the effects? Is it adequate? Are there discrepancies across neighborhoods… Do we know? The issue of equity has rightly been raised around Fillmore’s quality programming. But the question is how to resolve it. Do we level up or level down? I hear from you–and across the city–a huge desire for better arts education. If we should level up, Fillmore is a gem to be studied and maybe copied. Before it is eliminated, before its staff is dispersed and we lose it as a beacon and a model, we should systematically learn from it—and maybe find that it should be replicated not torn up.

  1. On LEAP: Many schools are losing staff that directly serve kids in order to cover the costs of staffing DCPS’s new LEAP professional development program. LEAP may be a great improvement over master educators—or not. I don’t know. The case has not been made. I’m not sure what the argument for the change is or whether this professional development model will last and accomplish what’s necessary.

What I do know is that in many places it is displacing well-regarded staff development programs and needed services to students–programs that have been thoughtfully developed and implemented. School communities are again being asked to topple programs they’ve built in favor of programs that are mandated. I feel growing cynicism and disenchantment from parents and staff—a sense that it may not be worth their investment of effort and creativity to develop the programs their schools need. Because whatever they come up with, regardless of its quality and usefulness, the floorboards get knocked out from under them.   This is not the way to build good education.

I hope you can use your influence to restore these services and encourage DCPS to work and plan more closely with their school communities.

  1. On Supplement Not Supplant:

You are aware of the new research from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute that confirms what has long been talked about: that the council’s at-risk dollars are very often used to supplant not supplement the regular DCPS budget. It’s not fair and it’s not right. Thanks to Soumya Bhat and Mary Levy for digging into this.

I echo Soumya Bhat ’s call for greater budget transparency and Mary Levy’s point that general education funds are distributed in a way that makes no sense and contribute to making the budget so opaque.

5.–An Independent Research Entity

Finally: I thank you Mr. Chairman, for your interest and support—including from your staff– so far in standing up a robust, independent education research operation to support improvement in DC schools, as recommend by the National Academy of Sciences.  I want to echo and endorse and support the many points that Mark Simon made earlier. Further, if we had access to such research, we would likely be in a better place to resolve some of the issues above.

Two weeks ago, when a conference was called on this topic, 150 people came. The resonance of this issue is great. People want to know more about what’s going on in their schools, they want to know what’s working, and they believe that with better data and rich research, we could make greater progress. And I agree. I will submit fuller testimony in favor of the creating an education research consortium that I’m also submitting to the Committee of the Whole.