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Mayor Adrian Fenty's proposals to take control over school governance in Washington, D.C., have substantial appeal because many citizens, parents, and elected leaders are frustrated with the District of Columbia Public Schools' long history of poor performance. But every governance reform has pitfalls. And mayoral control is no panacea. I want to discuss seven potential pitfalls—seven deadly sins, if you will. They are not arguments against Mayor Fenty's proposals, but issues the mayor and council must consider while embarking on this round of governance reform if it is to positively impact student achievement.
- Failing to create clear lines of authority and accountability: Currently, a host of government officials and agencies—the superintendent, board of education, chief financial officer, city council, mayor and Congress—have a say in decisions about public education in Washington, D.C. This results in competing priorities, a lack of accountability, constant policy churn, low morale and waste.Mayoral control is one way to cut through complex oversight and governance arrangements and create clearer lines of accountability and authority. But mayoral control doesn't automatically achieve this goal. Mayor Fenty's plan would give him control over the District of Columbia Public Schools, but it would still retain the current board of education in an altered role, expand the city council's role in budgeting, and create a complicated structure of new education offices within the mayor's office. These provisions could further complicate, rather than simplify, decision-making. The council and the mayor must not create a new system more complicated than the old one, and they must ensure that the roles and lines of authority and accountability are clearly defined for all players.
- Exacerbating policy churn: Many urban school systems suffer from seemingly endless cycles of new reforms that are introduced with great fanfare but soon abandoned. Researcher Frederick Hess calls this "policy churn." In contrast, effective school systems maintain sustained focus around a coherent strategy to improve teaching and learning.
- Forgetting a quarter of our students: DCPS is no longer the only game in public education in the District of Columbia. One in four of our city's children attend public charter schools, and that number is growing. One of the big challenges facing public education in the District of Columbia is to better coordinate across DCPS and the public charter schools so that we have a coherent city-wide system that provides high-quality options and serves children well in both charters and DCPS.
- Ignoring lessons from elsewhere: The District of Columbia's governance arrangements are unique, but we are hardly the only city to consider mayoral control. Several previous speakers have discussed the lessons we can draw from other cities that have gone down this road. The mayor and council should heed those lessons. Inevitably we will make our own mistakes, but we shouldn't replicate those of other cities.
- Being constrained by existing examples: One of the most promising provisions of Mayor Fenty's plan expands the SEO's role to create a full-fledged State Education Department. But we shouldn't just replicate other states' education departments, because most of them are mediocre. In a time when education policy is increasingly focused on accountability and performance, state departments of education remain focused on compliance. Many lack competence in data, assessment, turning around low performing schools and other key priorities of the accountability era, and they lack a performance and innovation mindset. The District of Columbia has an opportunity to build a new breed of state education agency that is focused around performance, data, and accountability and can be a supportive partner with DCPS and charter schools in improving student achievement. This new breed of state education agency would make the District a national leader and significantly enhance our ability—whoever has governance control of DCPS—to achieve the educational performance everyone in the District wants to see from our schools.
- Confusing governance reforms with real improvement: Real school improvement is a long-term, laborious, time-consuming process that requires day-to-day changes in teaching and learning. Superintendent Janey's administration has made some promising steps, but much more remains to be done. Governance reforms are not solutions in themselves, but when governance arrangements are an obstacle to improving student learning—as they are in the District of Columbia—governance changes can create the space and the lines of authority and accountability that allow educators to make and carry out decisions that will improve student achievement.
- Putting adult politics over kids' learning: Governance reforms are controversial because they threaten adults' power. But these decisions must be based on what's good for kids, not adults. There's a temptation to seek compromises that maintain everyone's power. But since one of the key obstructions to improving DCPS is the sheer number of emperors, some of them need to let go of power. Similarly, we must not let the board of education's historical significance blind us to the fact that the greatest threat to self government and democracy in the District right now is the poor education we provide so many of our young people, effectively rendering them socially, economically, and politically disenfranchised.
The District of Columbia Public Schools have experienced plenty of churn—three different governance schemes and six superintendents in the past 10 years alone. Shifting to mayoral control would mean further churn. That doesn't mean it should be rejected. But mayoral control will fail if it's just more churn without sustained changes in day to day teaching and learning. Any new governance arrangement must maintain promising reforms implemented under the current superintendent and board of education and must provide DCPS the stability to implement and focus on one reform strategy for a sustained time period. Mayoral control could help provide that stability, but there is no guarantee. New York, for example, has seen numerous reforms implemented and then abandoned under mayoral control.
The mayor must be the mayor of all the children and all the public schools—including charters—in the District of Columbia. Is it possible for the mayor to be in charge of DCPS and still be the mayor of all our city's public schools and their students? The mayor's plan addresses charter school authorizing and oversight, and you've heard from the charter community about their concerns with some of those provisions. But we need to look more closely at the role of charters in reforming DCPS. The District of Columbia must consider how the mayor can use chartering strategically—as have mayors in Indianapolis, Chicago and New York City—to serve children better. We must build more links and cooperation between DCPS and public charter schools. We must ensure the new facilities authority treats school buildings as public property for the benefit of all our children, not just DCPS. We must provide parents with good, comparable information about the educational options available for their child in both DCPS and charters. We must give the mayor chartering authority, like Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson has used very effectively to create more high quality schools in his city.