Education is an equalizer. Regardless of one's socioeconomic status or background, a strong education can provide an individual with the opportunity to succeed. And providing kids with a better education is also a strategy to combat so many of our social justice problems.
As the Chairman of the Council, I have made education my highest priority—pressing the District government, including both DCPS and the District's public charter schools, to move quicker and harder to improve the quality of public education.
In 2021 alone, I held more education-related public oversight hearings under the Committee of the Whole than the former Committee on Education held during all of 2019 and 2020. I meet monthly with the heads of the various education agencies to identify improvements to the District's public education system, and I have shepherded through the Council, and funded, important pieces of legislation.
Yet our work in the District is not done. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the achievement gap - both racial and socioeconomic. Addressing the myriad of issues that contribute to the achievement gap requires strong, consistent, and experienced leadership. I will continue my focus on the following areas:
Improving literacy. A student's ability to read by the end of the 3rd grade is critical in his or her ability to succeed in later grades and graduate from high school. A long-term study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that students who were not proficient in reading by the end of 3rd grade were four times more likely to drop out of high school than proficient readers. Thus, improving our early literacy rates in the District is crucial to closing the achievement gap.
What I have done: I have consistently included funding in the Office of the State Superintendent of Education's (OSSE) budget for early literacy grants to proven organizations such as Reading Partners and The Literacy Lab. Additionally, I wrote DC Law 23-191 ("Addressing Dyslexia and Other Reading Difficulties Amendment Act of 2020") to require schools to train their teachers to recognize reading disorders and to learn the science of reading. This could be a game changer because roughly 20% of students have reading disorders like dyslexia that inhibit their learning. And many other students don't know they need eyeglasses, so I also pushed Law 23-60 ("Children and Youth Vision Screening Amendment Act") to simply allow non-profit organizations to provide free vision screening and prescription eyeglasses to children and youth in all DC schools.
Ensuring budget stability for our public schools. Funding at the school level has been a tremendous frustration to parents, teachers, and principals for years, and under my leadership the Council is taking action to change this. I have introduced Bill 24-570 ("Schools First in Budgeting Amendment Act") to put schools first - before Central Administration - in the budgeting process. In general, every DCPS school will receive in the next year a budget equal to, plus inflation, their budget for the current year. No longer will schools be told, as they are each spring, that they will have to cut teachers and staff. Leftover funds (which are substantial) would then be allocated between Central Administration and school support at the Chancellor's discretion. The goal is to promote stability in our local schools. I am working with principals and education councils to ensure there are no unintended consequences, and I intend to mark up this bill this year.
Equity in funding. Beginning next year (school year 2022-2023) I have created a new funding mechanism for local schools - both DCPS and charters - that have a high concentration of "at-risk" students. Schools that educate at-risk kids do heroic work and need extra help. This funding will go directly to DCPS schools (not to Central Administration) and to Charter LEAs and will be a permanent part of school funding going forward. Specifically, schools whose enrollment is 40% or more at-risk will receive additional funds, and schools at 70% or more will receive even more - on a per pupil basis. In my view, the additional funding is modest at first (Hendley Elementary School will receive $131,000 extra dollars) but finally schools with a large number of at-risk students will be getting extra dollars, and year after year this will grow. This will be a game changer.
Reducing principal and teacher turnover. Teachers and school leaders are the foundation of a quality education, and they are vital to the success of our students and our schools. And yet the turnover rate of DCPS principals and teachers is higher than the national average - the highest in the country according to the advocacy group EmpowerEd. Besides losing the value of experience and stability, this turnover is expensive: EmpowerEd estimates DCPS could have saved $40 million over the past five years by not having to so frequently hire and train new teachers and principals. Unfortunately, turnover is a management, not policy issue, so there is not a quick and simple legislative fix.
What I'm doing about this: Already I have held several oversight hearings, and will hold more, to bring a spotlight to this problem and thereby pressure DCPS to improve. Second, I am pressuring DCPS to adopt a universal exit survey to get a better understanding of why teachers/principals leave. Third, I support professional development for principals on shared leadership, teacher wellness, and working conditions. Fourth, I support improvements to teacher evaluations and professional development that take a growth-based approach and give greater emphasis to peer-assistance and review. Fifth, I support more paraprofessionals, social workers, and psychologists to take the burden off classroom teachers. Sixth, I will urge DCPS to be more determined to provide mentoring and similar support for new teachers.
Improving student attendance. While many education experts and schools view attendance purely from an educational perspective, I also look at it from a public safety perspective. During my time as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee I came to realize that school attendance is an early warning indicator for children at risk of ending up in the criminal justice system. Moreover, truancy often is a sign of larger familial issues that require intervention. Thus, focusing on student attendance has twin benefits: improving educational outcomes as well as keeping kids from risk of delinquency.
What I have done: For over a decade I have pushed the Executive to address school attendance and truancy. Specifically, I have: 1) authored legislation requiring the creation of school-based student support teams (SSTs) to address each student’s attendance issues, which may include social-emotional issues; 2) established in the budget truancy intervention programs through the Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants and the Department of Human Services; 3) served as a member of the Every Day Counts! Taskforce, which is a multi-agency taskforce focused solely on reducing chronic absenteeism and truancy; and 4) held numerous oversight hearings on attendance and truancy. Because of these efforts, the Deputy Mayor for Education and the LEAs have made attendance a priority and developed various pilots, such as Kids Ride Free and the micro transit program in Wards 7 and 8, to make it easier for kids to attend school and have safe passage.
The problem is far from solved, however, and I will continue to push the Every Day Counts! Taskforce to be more creative; to try innovative strategies; to find a solution for the SSTs in some schools that are overwhelmed; to prioritize the chronically absent; and for schools to distinguish between “tardiness” and “absence.”
Addressing the social-emotional needs of students and teachers. Students with special needs and from at-risk backgrounds often come to school with social-emotional issues that interfere with learning. This is why I am a strong supporter of having mental health professionals such as social workers or psychologists, in every school. With the Fiscal Year 2023 budget just adopted by the Council, this should finally become a reality. With the new at-risk funding (point 3 above), schools with high concentrations of at-risk students may be able to employ more than one mental health professional.
Prioritizing the entire education continuum. In order to close the achievement gap, the District must view education in the context of birth through adulthood. Research shows that much of a child's brain development happens by the time a child is five years old, with a vast majority of the development happening by the time a child is three years old. Thus, while the District has universal pre-K for all three and four year olds, this is not enough to close the achievement gap. Instead, we must begin educating our children as infants and on through the toddler years. This, in turn, means that we can no longer view the care of 0-2 year olds as daycare or babysitting but rather as early childhood education.
What I have done: I supported and moved through the Council the "Birth-to-Three for All DC Act of 2018". And because I recognize that our early childhood educators must be compensated accordingly, I included legislation in last year's budget that called for an Early Childhood Educator Compensation Task Force—which I appointed. Based on the recommendations from that Taskforce earlier this year, I've moved legislation to provide direct payment stipends to early childhood educators in the District. I am currently working with OSSE to draft permanent legislation to effectuate the recommendations of the Taskforce so that the District's early childhood educators receive the pay that they deserve.
If there is one issue that I have been focused on more than any other over the past few years, it has been improving the quality of public education for the students of DC I believe that public education is the great equalizer, and that every student deserves a high-quality education regardless of the ward or zip code in which they reside.
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