There are quite a remarkable number of post-secondary institutions within DC. Under somewhat different circumstances, the nation's capital could become known as a "university town". However, the educational institutions managed by the District of Columbia areall heading downhill, and plagued with insufficient funding.
Public Education consumes fewer funds than the safety and justice category but also includes two components not normally associated with inner city functions (the university and law school should probably be transferred to adjacent state--or private--jurisdictions). Public education functions (including the public schools, University of DC, and library system) have consumed on average only 17% of DC's budget over the past 11 years ('87-'97), and some 36% of its total funded personnel. Its share of the budget has dropped about 1.5% since FY87. Its approved personnel levels for FY 97 are about 11,000 "FTE's", although the inability of the DCPS to manage--or even count--its employees is a continuing source of embarrassment. UDC remains a major drain on DC education resources.
In addition, public schools have now established several "charter schools". All four components are currently in trouble:
TOTAL POST-SECONDARY INSTITUTIONS IN DC
(adapted from INDICES)
Enrollment for 1994-1995 school year was as follows:
* Corcoran School of Art; DeSales School of Theology; Dominican House of Studies, Oblate College, Southeastern University, Wesley Theological Seminary
These students represent well over 10% of the total population of DC, with a gradual trend towards fewer undergraduate and more graduate students.
All of the colleges within DC, and a few in the nearby suburbs, participate in a Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area (CUWMA) in an attempt to draw both academic and fiscal benefits from regional cooperation.
(adapted from INDICES)
UDC has two academic colleges: Arts and Sciences, and Professional Studies. As of fall 1996, it offered 76 programs; 22 associate; 45 baccalaureate, and 8 master's programs and one juris/ doctors program. It also offers a number of specialized programs through the Cooperative Extension Service, and its Division of Continuing Education.
In fall 1996, tuition for DC undergraduates was $1850 annually, and $3850 for DC resident graduate students. Tuition is $6734 per year for non resident graduate and undergraduate students. Tuition at the Law School is $7000 for residents and $14,000 for non-residents. About 11% of UDC students received some form of financial aid, averaging $1300.
The FY96 university budget was $76, 287,000 including federal and private funds, tuition, intra-DC sales, as well as a $38.5M DC appropriation. UDC employed 811 administrative and professional employees, with 383 full-time and 232 part-time faculty members. In 1995, UDC awarded 253 associate/certificates, 587 bachelor's, and 123 master's degrees to a student body in excess of 10,000 students (83% of whom are DC residents). The university is under great pressure to improve its operational efficiency and financial accountability.
UDC's operating costs remain a heavy drain on the DC budget, "losing" an average of $70M annually. Its student body has been dropping--from 6900 in '91 to 4700 in '97. The per full-time student costs have reached $18,500 per year--with $14,000 of that funded from general revenues. Pressures are growing from the Control Board for the UDC to balance its books without DC subsidies. There is little question that a financially better arrangement could be developed sending deserving DC college students to neighboring jurisdictions, or converting UDC to be the DC campus of various growing neighboring state colleges.
The Control Board's Assessment of UDC Problems and Progress
In August of 1998, Andrew Brimmer, departing chairman of DC's Control Board presented his views on the future of UDC. The complete text of his speech can be read at "DC Watch" , and is only summarized here. In essence, he reviewed the recommendations of the Control Board study of UDC completed earlier in the year, concluding that he found some progress in some areas, hesitation in others, and no progress in some areas. He revisited all five of the reports major areas:
First, the "Authority", as he formally--and correctly--calls the Control Board, concluded that there was a "strong present and future requirement for a public university in the District of Columbia", but that UDC would not succeed if it remained the "same old UDC of recent years". He now concludes that some members of the UDC community still do not appear to comprehend the need for change, particularly in increased fiscal responsibility.
Second, the Authority had concluded that UDC must revise its core mission. He concludes that they have begun to make some moves in the right direction by undertaking a new (but as yet unavailable) "mission statement".
Third, the Authority had concluded that the current academic structure of UDC does not reflect its revitalized mission. Some streamlining is underway, with the elimination of three programs no longer deemed necessary: mechanical and civil engineering technology; geography, and philosophy.
Fourth, the Authority concluded that UDC needed to develop a new "education environment", more closely related to the realities of UDC college students. It had recommended the provision of vocational and technical training, remedial education, and courses for the Associate level college degree. Although the university has made some efforts to reach out to the business community that might hire its graduates, Brimmer concludes "there are few signs from UDC which show that it is seriously committed to (such) fundamental restructuring."
Fifth, in a masterful understatement, the Authority concluded that the Trustees and past presidents of UDC had not always governed and managed the university effectively. He still sees insufficient involvement from the Trustees, and few better oversight mechanisms.
Turning to financial viability, Brimmer concludes UDC clearly remains vulnerable to ineffective financial controls, and that little has been done to resolve the problems pointed out earlier in the Authority's report. Turning to management reforms, Brimmer finds that "management is one of the principal problems facing the university", acknowledging gratuitously that "issues of management deficiency confront every part of the District government."
Brimmer concludes that UDC most needs a period of stability in which to rebuild, with a firm and realistic funding level, and a strong--if more limited--academic program. He asserts that "the period in which the UDC can provide a college education in virtually any field is over" and that "hunkering down, attempting to wait out the financial storms, will not work". To date, he summarizes, "not enough change has been forthcoming".
NARPAC, Inc. concludes that the ex-Control Board chairman is more than likely whistling into the wind, and seriously questions the notion that DC has a "strong requirement" for a fully independent university of its own, particularly when there are perhaps two dozen financially and academically successful college-level institutions in the metro area.
Help for Higher Education
In an interesting move in early 1999, Chairman Davis of the DC House Operations subcommittee proposed that DC public high school graduates be given the opportunity to attend state universities in Maryland or Virginia at state resident tuition rates, while the federal government would make up the difference to the out-of-state rate.
DC activists raised two objections: 1) this would further jeopardize the future of UDC; and 2) this benefit should also accrue to DC resident kids graduating from private schools (to keep DC's middle class family residents).
As usual, the Davis proposal comes at no cost and some benefit to the neighboring states. Both Maryland and Virginia could easily pick up these trivial costs within their current surpluses . And more to the point, these universities, with suitable state--and federal--incentives, could convert UDC into the urban campus of a regional educational consortium devoted to developing the requisite skills for all types of regional jobs, not just hi-tech at one extreme or minimum wage at the other. One more opportunity to level the regional playing (and working!) field while relieving DC of another very poorly performed non-municipal function.
[In yet another unpublicized DC problem area, David Reed writing for "themail" indicates that DC's efforts at job training with Federal funds ($13M per year) have also failed miserably. While the spending per trainee is close to national standards, the job placements were only one-third the national average. Yet another reason NARPAC would place such training in the hands of some more skilled regional group, or possibly make it an alternate mission for UDC.]
On the 12th of November, 1999, and after many Congressional gyrations, the President received and signed a separate bill approving the use of $17M in federal funds to underwrite out-of-state college tuition differentials so DC high school graduates can attend Maryland and Virginia state universities at in-state rates. This is a substantial step towards leveling the higher education playing field throughout the metro area. It is not yet clear, however, whether this new opportunity will benefit DC's disadvantaged kids as much as it will the better-off DC parents of kids routinely sent to out-of-state colleges. Whether or not DCPS graduates will meet state college entrance requirements remains to be seen. How much this new choice will decrease attendance at UDC is also problematic. But the net impact should be an increase in the total fraction of DC high school graduates going on to college-- now an embarrassingly low 25%.
To add to uncertainties at UDC, Mayor Williams failed to appoint new members to the UDC board before the majority was obliged to rotate off, resulting in emergency legislation from the DC Council allowing the board to operate with only 9 rather than 15 members. Following the pattern towards smaller boards proposed for the DCPS, it is quite likely this smaller board could become permanent.
(adapted from INDICES)
The DC School of Law was established in 1987 by DC Law 6-177 with the mandate of representing low-income DC residents and enrolling persons from racial, ethnic or other population groups traditionally excluded from the legal profession. The student body is more than 50% from minority groups. DCSL operates as an independent agency of the DC government with a five-member governing board. In 1995, it began to merge with UDC. It offers a three-year clinically based academic program leading to the Juris Doctor degree. All students are required to participate in legal clinics where they work on cases with clients. This clinical program provides legal services to DC residents who could not otherwise afford representation.
As of fall, 1996, there were 226 students in three classes--it graduated its sixth class of 68 students. The 1995-96 tuition was $2882 for residents and $9502 for non-residents, and 72% of the student body received financial assistance, drawn from institutional funds and private donations. The FY95 UDCSL budget included $3,891,000 DC government appropriated funds and $1,630,000 in other funds, including tuition. UDCSL has an 18 member teaching faculty. At present, its accreditation is in question, and due to financial pressures, Congress might terminate funding, essentially closing down the school. There are, of course, other law schools in the Washington metropolitan area, but none as devoted to minorities. Daily headlines show the problems plaguing this young institution.
Charter schools are the latest fad in "public education". They operate under a separate nominally five-year "charter" with local school boards, using public funds, but organized and managed outside the regular public school system. In the main, however, they are obliged to operate within the same "code" as those public schools. In some cases, they are run for kids with special problems (from poverty to lack of language skills) that do not do well under the system-wide standards of behavior, curriculum, or teaching methods. But in others, they are being set up to provide alternate school opportunities within poorly performing school districts. Legislation on the books would allow the District to authorize as many as 20 new charter schools for each of the next five years. The DC Public School System has recently approved a policy for the disposition of "excess properties" to charter schools (with valid charters). Charter operators will receive a 15% preference on leases or sales of properties valued above $1 million, and 25% for all lesser properties. According to recent news reports, 26 proposals have been submitted to DC authorities for additional charter schools.
Closely related to these charter schools is the relatively new notion of providing "vouchers" to needy parents who wish to remove their children to alternative schools--often parochial schools. Again, this effort to "compete" with the public school system has contributed much controversy. Congress initially added a controversial rider to the 1999 DC Budget bill offering $3200 each for some 1800 underprivileged DC kids to get out of the DC public school system. Advocates say it would provide a valuable, if experimental, alternative for getting better education for at least some DC kids, while presenting a visible challenge to the current dilapidated system. Detractors argue that it is more important to retain the current concepts of public education, and simply (?) get on with fixing DC's school system. NARPAC, Inc. sides with the advocates in this case. Congress eventually passed a separate bill providing the vouchers, and as expected the President vetoed it as "unfair". Oddly enough, a majority of black parents who would have most benefitted from the vouchers believed they were a good opportunity for their kids.
So far, experience nationwide with these schools and vouchers has been encouraging for many, but a disaster for DC. As seems to often the case, the new Marcus Garvey School appears to have been operated by persons not only without academic qualifications, but with criminal records. A resulting brouhaha triggered by a visit of a white journalist has been widely reported in the press (see headlines and caused yet another DC educational component to come under close scrutiny. But a recent study by the Heritage Foundation--a conservative "think-tank"--finds a considerable body of research to support the fact that the children do better, and the school systems they left behind also gradually become better. It also concludes that the notion that the "one size fits all" approach necessitated for the large public schools may not be appropriate in many situations where either the single parent, or the two working parents, cannot provide the home support often necessary for balanced child development. In many cases, they also find that these smaller specialty schools are also able to attract more attention and cooperation from those parents.
According to a report by the Washington Post (5/4/98), a total of 17 new charter schools are due to open this fall in DC, even as DC's most contentious one (Marcus Garvey) has recently had its license revoked. Most of these new schools lack the minimum funding needed to get started right, are using personnel with no prior educational experience, and will get inadequate oversight. The (elected) DC Board of Education has acknowledged it lacks the resources to monitor all of the schools whose charters they have now approved. These schools will take another 3800 out of the public school system, and average some 240 students each (excluding adults).
These charter schools run the gamut from one for 800 part time students which will focus on adult education, to a "residential school" for 40 students in grades 6 through 12. Some are for low-performers, special education kids, and "adjudicated students" (already in the court system), while others will specialize in higher skills such as math, science, technology, the arts and international relations. Only one appears to qualify as a vocational school--preparing youngsters for specific jobs in the hospitality industry. According to the Post, some 800 charter schools are now in operation nationwide, 500 of which have opened within the last two years,--and with very mixed results from outstanding to already failed. Clearly, the jury is still out on the utility of this new approach to competing with the "normal" public school system.
One interesting indication of the increased stature of charter schools
in DC in the summer of 1999 is the inclusion of a separate line item for
funding charter schools in the DC FY2000 budget, as well as projecting
a significant drop in public school enrollment -- due to transfers to the
One of the most interesting concepts in public or charter schooling
is the notion of setting up "boarding schools" for underprivileged kids
whose home environment is clearly not conducive to learning. This notion
first came to NARPAC's attention through the Urban
Family Institute . Apparently unrelated, The Schools for Educational
Evolution and Development (SEED) opened in Northeast DC near Union Station
in September, 1998 with five teachers and 40 7th Grade kids. It is funded
half each by DCPS and by private donations and grants. SEED intends to
add a new class each year until it spans 7th-12th grades. Its executive
director spent two years in DC's Junior Village foster care center, before
eventually becoming a teacher at Harvard University and later UDC. The
students appear to be responding well to their more structured environment.
So far, so good.
DC PUBLIC SCHOOL SYSTEM
All three of these factors could well be related to the greatest "abnormality" in DC statistics compared to other large school districts (i.e., those over 20,000 students): a students- per-school ratio of below 450 rather than above 700. (The average for Montgomery, Prince George's, and Fairfax is 650.) The fixed costs of operating 35% too many schools could partially account for these other off-average statistics. If so, the solution is not simply in reducing staff, but in reducing (and modernizing) the school physical plant. Furthermore, the District pays 97% of its own public school bills, whereas the national average is only 43%--with 49% coming from state-raised revenues (and the rest federal). 43% of Virginia's school costs, and 21% of Maryland's are defrayed by state taxes.
Some of these seemingly excessive school costs may reflect common problems among declining institutions. Most institutions with relatively fixed facilities suffer when "variable" costs (students and teachers) decline, and "fixed" costs (management and maintenance) remain unchanged. The accompanying simple diagram and table demonstrate the statistical impact on a typical school "pyramid" when the student body at the base either expands (like the suburbs) or shrinks (like the inner city) while the fixed plant at the top stays relatively unchanged. The patterns duplicate those found between DC and its neighbors, but do not fully explain the very poor share of costs for "instruction" which seems to reflect special student needs beyond the classroom.
Two School Boards: One Elected, and another Appointed to Do its Job
One of the Public School system's most serious problems has been what has generally been considered as a near-worthless elected school board. Temporarily supplanted in 1996 by an Emergency Board of Trustees, it was agreed that powers would be returned to the elected board by mid 2000. Alice Rivlin, the new Control Board Chairman took the first limited step in that direction in October, 1998, by ordering the newly elected board (whoever they may be) to begin advising the Control Board on matters of future school closings and student discipline. NARPAC, Inc. is skeptical that the elected board will find the stomach for either of these jobs, particularly when even the Washington Post has raised questions about the dubious caliber of the candidates running for school board positions.
Meanwhile, the elected school board is beginning to make other demands of its own, sure to further complicate school system oversight. It is requesting that school system chairman Ackerman start attending the board's monthly meetings. As of October, Ackerman has not responded. NARPAC, Inc. cannot help but wonder if school system rejuvenation--if possible at all--would be more likely to succeed under full-fledged receivership, like DC's Housing Authority.
It is difficult to look at the terrible condition of the DC School System without wondering what role has been played by the elected School Board in this debacle. In fact, this board has been known for its fractious and disharmony for years. It came into being through an act of Congress in April of 1968, and was really the first step in the current exercise of "home rule". In fact, it precedes by six years the first elections for DC mayor and Council. It was the measure that established the current eight ward system at a time when the city had a population of over 800,000, of whom close to 300,000 were children.
The Board was to be comprised of an elected member from each of the City's eight Wards, plus three members elected at-large. A past president of the neighboring Montgomery County's school board (Harriet Tyson) was recently quoted in the Washington Post as saying that:
"There has been constant bickering and fighting among school board members that has gone on for a very long time, and I ask myself if there is some structural reason that this is the case. I think that there is and unless they fix it, nothing will improve."In essence, she believes that a) the eleven-member board is too large, and that it might work better with only seven (as the case in Montgomery County). She further points out that by having the majority of the members represent their own wards, factionalism is bound to result as members clash to achieve benefits for their own constituents. A third reason seems to be the DC Board's habit of referring all its substantive business to committees, whereas most other boards across the country deliberate as a single body. "This board does not even conceive of itself as a deliberative body". She considers the committee structure to be a recipe for disaster.
Circumstances on the Board are not helped by two other considerations: first, the DC Council's Education Committee has found itself unable or unwilling to exercise meaningful oversight and its current chairman seems to accept Board behavior as some sort of "normal" outcome of the democratic process. To make matters worse, there are no run-off primaries for school board seats, and a large number of marginally (if at all) qualified residents run for office. In the 1998 elections just held, 30 people ran for the five available seats. In fact eight people (plus "write- in") ran for the single at-large seat and the winner culled only 25 percent of the vote, which totaled less than 76% of those who turned out to vote in this election, which in turn amounted to about 40% of the registered electorate.
Elected School Board representatives speak for a remarkably small share of DC 342,000 registered voters. The average votes received by each winning Board member representing a ward was 6800; while the winning at-large seat received 26,100 votes. By comparison, the average Council seat was won with 12,500 votes, whereas the Council at-large seats represent about 54,300 voters.
NARPAC, Inc. very seriously doubts the wisdom of keeping this school
board structure, which would appear to be virtually incapable of rejuvenating
a school system they have helped to destroy. NARPAC's views on Reinventing
DCPS were developed for the DC
Center, and by the middle of 1999, Councilmember Chavous had announced
his intent to make major changes in the DCPS Elected School Board, based
largely on the customarily thorough Appleseed report. NARPAC recommended
an appointed board (by elected officials), while Appleseed took no position.
Chavous has subsequently come down on keeping a smaller elected board which
quickly gained the support of a majority of councilmembers. As of early
December, 1999, no final Council position has emerged.
The DC Public School System may not be the worst major 'inner city' school system, but it is surely not the best, nor a match for the suburbs around DC or elsewhere.
Current Test Scores indicate DCPS management and oversight are not bad enough to destroy DC's several competitive schools, but not good enough to rebuild its many deplorable schools. For many years, DCPS will keep turning out thousands of kids ill suited for life in today's socioeconomic milieu.
Salvaging DCPS requires major long-term efforts from fully experienced, tough- minded, hard-driving leaders cooperating across the School Board, Superintendent's office, and individual schools--with help from experts elsewhere in the DC government and region.
NARPAC believes an appointed board can bring to bear far more expertise and wisdom from a much broader regional and professional base than direct local elections. Its proposed board would be appointed by elected DC government officials (based on an expert search); approved by the elected DC Council; and comprised of specialists from all sectors that influence the 'output' of DC schools.
The DC Council has decided otherwise, and proposes smaller changes in the current board representational election process, fewer board members, and better delineation of the board's duties, to include giving up its role in approving charter schools. But meanwhile, it wants DC's Control Board to delay reinstating the existing dysfunctional elected board until the first (of two) new election has been held. The issue boils down to whether the school board should be constituted to represent community interests or to provide professional leadership.
For the Chavous scheme to succeed in electing a board with professional skills, all the following conditions need to be met:
The odds against success are daunting: as mathematicians like to demonstrate, a 90% probability of success in each of the seven categories above still yields only a 48% chance of overall success when the factors are compounded. 80% odds of success in each yields only 21% for the total.
NARPAC therefore urged (without success) that the new Council School Board Election Bill encourage present/recent school principals to run for, and be paid to serve on, the Board without forfeiting current position, seniority, or salary. They could run from any ward they chose, regardless of residence or school location within the metro area, but their school's test scores would have to be in the upper quartile.
After a rancerous debate between the Mayor and the Council, a compromise alternative to the current all-elected school board was forged, and submitted to a citywide referendum during the summer of 2000. By a very small margin, the city decided to adopt a "hybrid" board, partially elected, and partially appointed. An analysis of the School Board Referendum is presented as part of a larger discussion of DC election practices under issues of DC Governance.
The seemingly endless discussions about the restructuring of the DC School Board appear to have overlooked useful comparisons with other school systems around the country. Useful insights can be gained by exploring the state profile data presented by the Nat'l Ass'n of State School Boards. With regard to whether the board should be elected or appointed, it should be noted that states have two levels of oversight: each school district has its own locally-elected school board, and these local boards are overseen by a state Board of Education which in almost 80% of the states is either all- or partially-appointed by the Governor, sometimes approved by the state legislature. How does this impact on DC?
The table below provides some representative data for the US in toto, DC alone, the average for the neighboring states of Maryland and Virginia, a composite average for five typical small states, and another composite of six large states. These samples show the same trends as has been indicated in other NARPAC analyses: DC's per student costs are relatively very high--56% higher than the national norm--while teachers per student are 17% higher and students per school are 16% lower.
What is new in these data, however, is how small the average American school district is in terms of both students and schools per district--and hence in terms of students and schools per local (elected) school board. DC's single school district was 26 times larger than the national norm in the mid-'90s; 7 times larger than the combination of Maryland (which has all-countywide school districts) and Virginia; 28 times larger than a sample of small states (which DC statehood enthusiasts would like to emulate); and 17 times larger than a sample of large states.
While these smaller districts are clearly driven in many cases by geography, they could as well be driven by demography and/or community preferences. From these data, it surely would not be out of line for DC to break its single school district into several smaller ones (hopefully not as many as there are wards!) with elected district school boards for each that fine tunes the particular educational needs of their communities 'from the bottom, up'. These could then be overseen by an appointed DCwide Board of Education, which would focus on citywide education standards 'from the top, down'. The latter would also press the mayor to eliminate the underlying causes of a) poor student performance--the blighted neighborhoods which spawn dysfunctional kids; and b) excessive per-student spending--the fixed costs of poorly utilized, antiquated school facilities. The combination would provide more democratic inputs at the community level, and a set of checks and balances from a somewhat less democratic group at the top level--as practiced by a majority of American states.
Literacy is a difficult capability to measure, and simple reading tests are clearly inadequate. In 1988, the Congress directed the Department of Education to carry out an extensive assessment of the literacy skills of American adults. The results of the National Adult Literacy Survey were published in 1993, comparing national, state, and local estimates, by the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL). The analysis placed all adults into one of five literacy levels, with Level 1 as the least capable, based on an overall definition of literacy provided by the Congress in 1991:
"An individual's ability to read, write, and speak in English, and compute and solve problems at levels of proficiency necessary to function on the job and in society, to achieve one's goals, and develop one's knowledge and potential."For instance, an individual with Level 1 literacy proficiency can usually:
Since DC's unemployment rate is well below 10%, this means that roughly one quarter of DC employed residents are functioning at Level 1, and another quarter at Level 2. A reasonable share of these are doubtless working for the local or federal governments. Nationally, less than 10% of adults that desperately need improvements in their literacy skills are currently being helped. The number being helped (or "recycled", as NARPAC likes to say for effect) in DC is much lower than that. It is a key factor in the continuing unbroken cycle of poverty in the nation's capital city.
DC public schools are also faced with a difficult situation in trying to satisfy the needs of their large number of kids requiring special education. It has been recognized for many years that there were serious problems in this part of the school system, and they often come to light in the daily headlines , though little seemed to be done about them.
Problems within the DCPS special education program are finally surfacing through a FBI probe of fraud at the Charles McLeod School, still under investigation by the US attorney's office. The probe concludes that this school was doing little more than baby sitting their 10-20 "students", with little indication of school room teaching of any sort. One former employee acknowledged that "classes often didn't get started to 11:00 AM, and pretty much stopped by 11:30". For this the DCPS was supposed to be billed $170 per day per student, but bills exceeding twice that were submitted and paid without question. According to an article in the Washington Post in late July, 1998, the DCPS Deputy Superintendent Elois Brooks "there are many McLeods out there" often due to threats to sue from parents insisting that their kids receive promised attention. It is also interesting to note that this investigation is by the FBI, and not by either the DC IG or the DCPS IG. According to earlier articles, the FY99 DCPS budget of $545M earmarks $125M for the 8179 special ed students--almost $15,300 for each, and almost twice as much as spent per capita in the suburbs. That leaves only $6100 per regular student. To make matters worse, there is apparently a backlog of some 4500 more kids who may qualify for special ed treatment. If switched into special ed this year, there wold only be $5400 left for each regular student. It is difficult to believe that there are not serious problems in this sensitive area of the public school system.
A summer, 1998 article in TIME magazine drew national attention to the rising costs of special education in public schools nationwide. Entitled "Lost in the Middle", it discusses at length the fact that, in their words,"while America's schools focus on the needs of high achievers and the learning disabled, average students are falling through the cracks". In the past 20 years, the number of students classified as learning disabled has risen from 800,00 to 2,600,000 and they are costing $9 billion per year--or $3460 per student in marginal costs. The net result is that nationally, the share of public school budgets devoted to "regular education" has fallen from 80% in 1967 to 58.6% in 1996. In all likelihood, DC's statistics are even more extreme as costs have continued to escalate without control.
In October, 1998, the DC School System Superintendent Ackerman hired Frieda Lacey to help overhaul this troubled special education problem. Lacey served on Ackerman's "transition team" earlier in the year, and has been the director of equity assurance and compliance for the neighboring Montgomery County School System. Ackerman acknowledges that DC's special ed program "has failed thousands of children and has become so expensive it is blocking other education reform efforts in the city."
In yet another embarrassment for the Public School System, the new head to the Special Education division was placed on administrative leave in November, 1998, while there is a probe of improprieties and possible conflict of interest in recent contract awards. This was followed in December by the discovery that many of the 300 bus drivers in the special education program may lack proper commercial licenses for their jobs, and may lack other qualifications as well.
In February, 1999, a federal District Court Judge excoriated the DC Public School officials for their "woeful failure" to respond in a timely manner to several dozen cases involving requests for special education services. Hundreds more cases lurk as well (see above). He announced that he was appointing a "special master" to help resolve cases quickly where "irreparable harm to a child's well-being is at stake." The "special master" he appointed has been acting in a similar role in response to another class action suit on other DCPS issues, including transportation, and non- payment of private schools and others providing services to DC school kids. By May of 1999, a new Director of Special Ed was named from an elementary school within the DC school system, and in late June, Superintendant Ackerman announced settlement of the suit over the backlog of hearings, promising resolution within three months.
Controversy continued to swirl around DC's very expensive special education programs within DCPS during the fall of 1999. The new director was able to report in October that the backlog of old cases requiring resolution re student special ed qualifications was down 78%. Nevertheless, the backlog of new cases still to be addressed has risen from 2000 to 3900. Meanwhile, the mayor decided to stop wasting energy supporting the Superintendent's recommendation to put a cap on legal fees that lawyers can charge for pressing special ed cases.
Troubles within the special ed kids' transportation office continued as an exasperated Ackerman decided to require all 70 drivers to reapply for their jobs, letting it be known that few would be accepted back.
In a more serious, but unfinished story, DCPS had, by mid-November, 1999, been unable to confirm the DC residency of a large number of the special ed kids placed in private schools in the area. Some 178 of the 238 kids attending live-in private schools (at a cost to the city of some $50,000 annually) have yet to prove that they live in DC, and another 890 of the 1795 kids in private day-schools (at about $30,000 per year) remain in the same boat. DC spends over $100 million annually on outside-DC special-ed schools, and a major new effort--including some new federal exploratory funds--will be devoted to trying to "mainstream" more kids in regular classrooms, despite what appears generally accepted as their disruptive influence on those classrooms. NARPAC has yet to find a thoughtful piece on the root causes of these learning disabilities which seem to afflict nearly 10% of all American kids, and possibly somewhat more in DC. For some data, see below:
There is a strong tendancy to look the other way when it comes to probing into what is actually wrong with the kids that are in the Special Ed program, even though almost 9% of all American kids between the ages of 6 and 21 have disabilities which qualify them for special treatment--and often federal support. The graphics below were assembled from data in the 22nd Annual Report to the Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) entitled "To Assure the Free Appropriate Public Education of All Children With Disabilities".
As shown on the graphic below, the special ed cohort has grown from about 7.3% of the school- aged population in 1988 to 8.8% in 1999, primarily because of the greater availability of funds now available for their education under IDEA. It should be noted that DC's percentage of 8.6% is somewhat below the national average. Roughly 90% of the problems involve learning disabilities, speech and language difficulties, mental retardation and emotional disturbances. The other 10% run the gamut from blindness and deafness to orthopedic impairments, autism, and traumatic brain damage. DC appears to have an unusually low number of kids with speech and language disabilities, but more classified as suffering mental retardation and emotional disorders:
There seem to be some significant differences between the races, with black kids again coming out on the wrong end of the stick--presumably due to the deeper levels of poverty among black parents, the relative lack of pre-natal care, and to some extent, the greater level of substance abuse. In fact, however, DC's disability distribution does not follow the national racial pattern or level for reasons unknown:
Finally, it is of some interest to see where these kids are educated (below). As many as 35% of younger kids (6-11) are taught in separate public or private facilities and only about 25% spend more than 60% of their time in regular classes. At the older ages, regular classtime reaches 60- 70%, and the use of special facilities falls to 10-15%. Unfortunately, NARPAC has no equivalent numbers for DC's special ed cohort, but finds it difficult to understand why the average costs of special ed are so high (see previous section) if so few kids require separate educational arrangements.
In the late fall of 2001, DCPS discovered a large, unexpected budget deficit, primarily as a result
of the failure of the school system to get Medicaid reimbursement for large past special ed cost problems.
To compensate for the shortfall, DCPS and the School Board proposed shortening the school
year by seven days, and the mayor stepped in to provide some additional funding. Shortly
thereafter, Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher provided his views on DC's special-ed
dilemma, and NARPAC abbreviates them here:
STUDENTS STILL TAKING THE FALL FOR DC SCHOOLS
There is a persistent myth that if the "output" of the schools is inadequate, more money and better qualified teachers are all that's needed. But the fact of the matter is that kids of school age are conscious and learning at least something for about 6000 hours a year, although they are only in school for perhaps 1400 hours a year. Even if they attend pre-Kindergarten they will have been learning from their immediate environment (even before birth, many experts say) for another 25,000 to 40,000 hours. So the schools start behind, and only achieve 20% of the kid's attention if he stays through 12th Grade. By rough NARPAC estimate, your 18-year old will have been conscious for about 100,000 hours by the time he graduates from high school (well, maybe not yours), and about 22,500 of those hours will have been school-related. In other words, three-quarters of what your kid has absorbed was outside of the school environment. And there is no way for an American public school to greatly change that percentage. How then can they alone be held accountable for the end product?
Furthermore, learning or the lack of it--is surely compounded from one generation to the next. Though many brilliant kids have fought their way out of the slums and will continue to do so, the vast majority will not. It is hard to visualize an illiterate mom teaching her kids to read, or even keeping them out of trouble. Surely they cannot help devise an appropriate school curriculum. It is quite possible for a drop-out from the Class of 1990 to have an early grandchild in the Class of 2018. The cycle is a strongly biased towards repetition.
To quantify the problem as NARPAC is wont to do extrapolated DCPS statistics indicate that over 20,000 kids will have dropped out in this decade (see charts below). Compared to the 10-year 9th Grade enrollment (between 1991 and 2000) of 46,040 kids, only 58% will have been enrolled in the 12th Grade three years hence (25,900), and considerably less than that will have earned diplomas. Even fewer will be considered to have basic understanding of English or math. An even larger number of drop-outs should have accumulated over the prior decade.
At the other end of the line, although the average life expectancy of black males in DC is troublingly low, black women enjoy long lives. The residue of the unsuccessful education process is thus likely to persist well over 50 years. The fine for "dumping" drop-outs back into the community should be substantially higher than the $5000 currently posted on signs at DC's McKinley High School (closed for the past five years).
To NARPAC's delight, the new DCPS Business Plan for Strategic Reform calls for a "systemic" rather than an ad hoc solution to the basic problems of the school system. Instead of treating education as a linear production process of "kids in, add money, grads out" (see diagram), this broader approach would involve treating the entire "universe" that impacts on learning receptivity.
More than just words, Superintendent Vance has selected (though not yet named) 24 schools in which he hopes to integrate other human services functions. This announcement was made in conjunction with the School Board chair, and has the full support of the Deputy Mayor for Children, Youth, and Families. Recognized as a first step, it is intended to move towards a systemic solution providing "a seamless web of support for our children".
NARPAC feels strongly that the systems approach to providing a future for DC's kids, must involve providing a future for their disadvantaged parents, most of whom are recent drop-outs from the same school system. Vance ran an extensive adult education program in Montgomery County: an even more basic one is needed in DC. On the one hand, the female drop-outs often return to the projects for life, many of them already pregnant. On the other hand, the male drop-outs almost invariably get crosswise with the law, as many as half of them doing time in jail or prison at least once. As shown in the crude diagram below, the education system must recognize the need to embrace the miserable quality of life which many of its students cannot avoid bringing to school with them (and then return to) as well as the subsequent prison life which does little to provide male drop-outs with a second chance.
means that the resources should be available for adult education.
Movie theaters in the DC area are currently running a public service ad amongst their various commercial come-ons. In essence it shows a young, bright-eyed, promising teenager along with the quote: Stay in School....Break the Cycle. Indeed, break the cycle of drop-outs spawning drops-outs.
But DC officialdom must acknowledge that those who have already dropped out do not disappear. They are not biodegradable waste. Many remain essentially wards of the state for another sixty years. It is just as important to give these adults a second- chance at a decent life as it is to give the kids a first chance at a decent life. A separate public service ad is also needed that says: Go Back to School ...You Can Still Break the Cycle.
In fact, the Class of '90 needs as much help as the Class of 2010 in the hopes of greatly improving the Class of 2020.
The DCPS management was stunned in September, 2001, to learn that their own finance office had accumulated some $80 million in unreported overspending for the FY01 budget year. This amounts to about a 10.5% overage on a total FY01 DCPS school budget of $784.9M. It included the following items:
Buried in this highly embarrassing discovery are some problems peculiar to the school system and other problems that impugn DC's financial competence across the board. DC's Chief Financial Officer, Natwar Gandhi, admitted in his recent testimony to the DC Council (9/24/01) that "there is no way to put a good face on this". Other comments of his are quoted below, as NARPAC tries to explain public education's basic budgeting and spending problems:
1. A centralized financial office was instituted by the Control Board because of the city's demonstrated inability to handle finances at the agency level. Unfortunately, this approach (which NARPAC fully supports) is no better than the reporting and recording system (SOAR) which identifies expenditures as they are made and compares them to those anticipated. In this case, a newly installed DCPS CFO "discovered that approximately 3800 invoices had not been posted in a timely manner".
2. Federal revenues make up a very substantial share of many agency budgets, so that "overruns" can result from the failure to collect expected federal payments. In this case (as in many others) more funds were projected from the federal Medicaid program, which pays a very large share of DC's special education costs. Only now is Gandhi promising to add "an improved Medicaid revenue estimating and tracking system" to each agency's monthly reporting requirements. Almost 20% of the city's overall operating budget relies on Medicaid payments for which DC must apply. As Gandhi explains:
One of the most difficult challenges with Medicaid is the timely processing, collection, and reporting of accurate data. By the time paperwork is processed, a significant amount of time has passed, and Medicaid routinely denies claims because of inaccurate information or because the claims were not filed in a timely manner. This loss of revenue results in an unbalanced budget.
3. Special education funding 'requirements' are essentially out of control in DC, including the special ed busing system required to deliver over 3500 of DC's 11,545 special ed students to their schools (at an average annual cost of nearly $10,000 per student!). These problems are exacerbated by DC's lack of public special ed schools, and a federally-mandated dependency on private schools (many outside DC city limits) for providing private care where it is not available publically (some at an annual cost of $70,000 per student!). As is discussed in the section on special education problems, many aspects of this program deserve a very extensive audit and public airing.
4. The ability to plan ahead in most DC agencies appears to be virtually non-existent. As noted by Gandhi, "special education is facing $25 million in 'spending pressures' (Gandhi's euphemism for overruns) in FY01 largely "due to a higher-than-budgeted number of students and increased attorneys' fees for a greater number of special education cases than projected". ('Referrals' to the special ed program are frequently gained by legal action, not testing.) These underestimates also spill over into additional spending for busing. Not only were the FY01 estimates inadequate, but the FY02 budget (discussed below in gross terms) extrapolated last year's optimistic projections for Medicaid payments, and made no allowance for growth in the special ed student population either.
5. DC's inbred local bureaucracy remains highly resistant to professional performance, still trusting the outdated mantra that city jobs constitute a right, not a responsibility. Perhaps the brightest spot in this debacle is that "three senior individuals have been terminated or removed and are being replaced with seasoned professionals...and 22 employees within the financial cluster at DCPS have been dismissed in order to restructure that office to be more vigilant and effective". A few short years ago, such actions would have been unthinkable in DC.
NARPAC has avoided producing a detailed analysis of the FY02 DC budget because it differs so little in content from FY01. However, the difficulties arising from the recently identified overruns in the FY01 DCPS budget (see above) suggest that some analysis might be helpful, particularly from the standpoints of the federal contributions, and the predominance of the special education component within the public education budget.
First it is necessary to understand that DC taxes only pay for about 54% of DC's total annual expenditures. Over 25% comes from federal grants and "entitlement programs", and another 13% comes from private and other sources (see green/blue bar to the right). These outside revenues become a part of almost every major DC spending category (except for financing DC's debt which equates to 9% of gross spending, 15% of locally funded programs). The two right hand bars show how the funds are spent, gross and local. The red areas denote the shares spent on public education (19% of gross funds, 25% of local funds), compared to the relatively large amounts spent on Human Services + Safety and Justice (48% of gross funds, 44% of local funds). These are very large allocations compared to other local jurisdictions. So is the federal contribution, primarily because of DC's inordinate number of people below the poverty line.
The three charts below parse the red segments above. The total proposed FY02 all-sources budget for public education reaches almost $115 million, of which $895M comes from DC sources. Over $185M comes from federal sources much of which are "expected" Medicaid payments (see prior section). The center bar shows the allocation of these funds between DCPS schools; the two sets of charter schools now funded collectively at over $140M; the DC Libraries ($27M); and UDC ($85M). It also shows the share of each provided by federal funds (crosshatching). The right hand bar, by contrast, shows the functional allocation of public school funding between administration and O&M (vertical lines); the special ed component of both the public schools and the charter schools (double crosshatching); and the "state education office". This "SEO" is an administrative entity with 45 people and a $47M budget charged with taking on common problems of the public and charter schools, such as revising the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula; improving instructional services; checking accuracy of student enrollment; tracking student progress; and, of course, defining what else it should do.
NARPAC suspects this SEO could provide a useful function in long range planning the future course of public education in DC!
The "inner metro area", i.e., DC and its four contiguous counties plus Alexandria City, provide an interesting group of school systems that run the gamut from very rich to relatively poor suburban systems (Fairfax to Pr. George's Counties), and from very rich to relatively poor urban systems (Arlington County to DC). Unfortunately, no two systems prepares its FY02 budget in the same format, and it is next to impossible to easily derive comparable figures for comparative purposes. Although there has been an effort to provide comparable numbers through a Fairfax School System project called the Metro Area Boards of Education (MABE), it is of special interest to note that DC does not even participate, and the most recent data appear to be three years old (FY99). Nevertheless, this section takes a very rough first stab at comparing some 16 factors of interest among these systems (four at a time), and NARPAC would be delighted if this stimulated others to do a more complete and professional job.
School Basics and Student Costs
The first two charts, directly below, address some of the school basics (upper chart) and student costs (lower chart). The charts may be somewhat confusing at first because the parameters must be non-dimensionalized to achieve multiple comparisons in a condensed space. The vertical bars show how much each jurisdiction varies from the non-weighted average for each of the six jurisdictions for each parameter. To belabor the first parameter, the average number of kids per school varies from a low of 419 in DC (including the charter schools throughout) to a high of 917 kids per school in Fairfax County. The arithmetic average, not weighted for the relative size of the different systems, is 695, so DC reaches only 60% of the average, while Fairfax is 132% of the average.
In terms of students per total staff member (not just teachers) DC rates at 90% while Fairfax tops the scale at 116% of the average of 6.9. The more common inverse of that parameter indicates that there are more staffers per kid in DC schools than in Fairfax schools. Relative SAT scores (FY01) show DC somewhat below average and Montgomery and Fairfax Counties tied for 9% above average. Similarly, salary scales for school employees are 13% above average in Fairfax, and 12% below in DC.
In the lower chart above, four cost parameters illustrate the relatively higher costs within the urban school systems. In general, costs per total student (red), costs per non-special ed student (green), and costs per special ed student (blue) are all higher in urban schools as is the total share of special ed kids (yellow) amongst the schools' enrollment. However, the single parameter that changes the scale of this chart relative to the others above and below is the uniquely high average cost of a DC special ed student. At $22,500, it is 91% higher than the average of $11,800 across the inner metro area, with the other two urban systems, Alexandria and Arlington, spending the least--only $8,800 per special ed student. Clearly, DC is way out of line.
Poverty and Household Characteristics
The next pair of charts, below, address parameters dealing with poverty and household characteristics. The upper of the two compares: kids who do not receive free/reduced price school meals; median household income; percent of family households with married parents; and the percent of the households with kids. Not surprisingly, all of these trends move in the same direction. The single exception is that Prince George's has the largest suburban black population, and ends up faring worse than the two urban districts with higher than average white populations. Because there is an inescapable difference in black and white earning power, PG lags somewhat behind the other suburbs in these parameters.
NARPAC cannot help but wonder if DC should contract out its special ed kids to its neighbors. Properly negotiated, DC could save a bundle, and its neighbors could make a profit for their efforts, and their competence!
May 1998 Update of Federal DC Task Force
Through the initiatives of the Federal DC Task Force, several important kinds of assistance are being given to the DC Public School System (DCPS) by the federal Department of Education (ED):
o Improving student achievement : ED is providing $%M in 1998 and has requested $20M in 1999 to: 1) support summer programs for students performing below the basis level in reading and math; 2) hire reading specialists for every elementary school; 3) provide professional development for teachers and principals; 4) reform fledgling schools through comprehensive restructuring. In general, the ED funds support the DCPS reform plan, which ED helped develop. ED is also assisting the new Superintendent to refine the DCPS reform plan by selecting a small number of successful urban superintendents as advisors . ED also funds Temple University's work to turnaround six low-performing elementary schools.INSIGHTS INTO THE EDUCATION GAP
Most 2001 aptitude tests administered earlier this year have shown a persistent difference between different races, with blacks almost invariably faring the worst, and Asians often coming out at the head of the class. For those who want to believe that there are fundamental differences in aptitude between the races, or that performance is based on family income, there is plenty of superficial evidence to support those biases. Recent newspaper articles indicate that the gaps by color and/or wealth are not closing either in DC or its surrounding suburbs. Further afield, Cleveland's Plain Dealer reported that the test scores between black and white students in Ohio remain "wide, pervasive, and persistent". They cited that while 64% of white fourth-graders passed the reading proficiency test in '99-00, only 30 % of black kids passed, and in math, science, and citizenship, the gap was just as wide: 82% v 61% passing the tests.
Many people continue to believe that the gap is caused primarily by the difference between schools, with minorities being forced to accept public schools with poorer facilities and poorer teachers. More sophisticated analysts continue to place more of the blame on the conditions in the neighborhoods that provide the kids to be taught. In an interesting essay by Larry Cuban recently published by the Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL), he suggests that neighborhoods have such an important impact on the learning capabilities of kids that, in fact, urban school systems should be fundamentally redesigned to reflect the deep influences of the communities from which the students are drawn. And from the newspaper USA Today comes an unexpected analysis of DoD schools for military kids.
A ex-School Superintendent's Perspective
Professor Cuban urges American educators and the US Department of Education and the top leadership in the US to give up trying to devise and enforce a single standard school system for all US kids. In essence he claims that 10% of US school systems already exceed the high academic standards, another 40% already meet their state standards, while the remaining 50%-- mostly in urban and rural districts with concentrations of poor and minority families--are struggling. These latter districts, he suggests, have a far more complex mission: "to reduce the dire consequences of racial and ethnic isolation and the impact of poverty on academic achievement, while increasing the life chances of families and their children to succeed economically and to contribute to their communities". This he claims, cannot by done by schools acting alone, but rather requires the concerted inputs of "civic and corporate elites". In addition to recommending the commitment of more resources, devising special courses, and recruiting better teachers and principals, the author provides two recommendations which NARPAC finds particularly cogent:
1) Press the schools to go beyond vocational preparation for entry-level jobs: they must "equip the kids with the civic, moral, and personal skills and behaviors to live in a multicultural society"; and
2) Reframe urban school reform as a civic project wherein the larger community provides "social, medical, library, cultural and recreational services in and out of school that are rooted in principles of youth development".
The View from Ohio:
The Cleveland researchers suggested several possible causes for the racial gap: poverty, and everything that goes with it, including poor health care; less qualified teachers and funding in poorer schools; crowded classes; inadequate books and computers; and not only too little parent involvement, but too low expectations among both parents and teachers. Somewhat contrary to this, however, were the statistics for Shaker Heights, a relatively upscale district with a close balance of black and white kids. While both groups scored well above the state average, the gap was also above average: 93% v 50% in 4th grade reading, and 96% v 35% who passed all five proficiency tests in 9th grade.
The analysts concluded that both groups were trying equally hard and were just as interested in school, but that the black kids "had not been taught the same skills" and that some "had different learning techniques" (no elaboration given).
Of particular interest to NARPAC, however, were two other statistics. First, but probably less important, parental education in Shaker Heights was very high: 45% of black parents together averaged at least four years of college, compared to a whopping 95% for white parents. Second, and seemingly more important, 52% of black kids live with either one or no parent, while only 12% of white kids were so disadvantaged. There is, of course, a direct relationship between number of parents present and household income, and possibly even more important, between parents present and household income per child.
A Different Outlook for Military Offspring
October, 2001, also produced an interesting article in USA Today describing the success of US schools on military bases in educating 112,000 kids of members of the armed forces--in 70 elementary and secondary schools in the US, and 157 abroad. The student body is 40% minorities, and the primary gist of the report is that there is a minimal achievement gap between the races, according to their test scores. Test scores are well above the US national average, despite relatively low family income, high student transience, and above-average parental difficulties.
The basic reason offered is the "unique culture" on military bases. There is no question but that military communities are tightly knit entities where everyone helps look out for everyone else. It is also true that military families are probably somewhat better disciplined than their civilian counterparts, and they are certainly more devoted to improving their own careers through education. Furthermore, household economic status is quite modest, but essentially color-blind. Two other statistics were obtained by calling the Pentagon's education office. First, some 75% of all military parents have finished high school (only 4% have not), and about half of the remainder have completed four years of college. Possibly more important, however, is that only 7% of military kids are living with only one parent. If one compares these results with those from Ohio and Shaker Heights, the common determinant in school test scores is the presence of both parents.
Parental Educational Achievement
The graphic below shows how much variation there can be in the educational achievements of kids' parents. The three left-hand bars show the percent of parents with more than a high school education (blue), just a high school education (green), or less than a high school education for the most- and least-schooled wards within DC, and the overall DC average. Fourth is the overall US parental education level, and to the right, that claimed for active military parents with kids in DoD on-base schools.
The graphic below shows the average household make-up for DC (center), DC's suburbs (left), and both the US total, and the DoD sample (incomplete) on the right. There are, of course, several interesting points. First, DC has three times as many "non-family" households (gray bar) as either the suburbs or the US norm. This suggests, if nothing else, that there is an abnormally small fraction of households with a direct stake in educating kids. Second, on average, about half of all family households have no kids of school age (yellow bar). Third, DC has a huge number of single parent families (53%)(red bars) compared to the national average of 24%, and to the DoD fraction of 7%.
The final chart shows the 2001 SAT Scores for public school kids (blue bars) compared to a) the percent of households with kids that have both parents married and present (red bars); and b) the median household income for each group (green bars). The results are shown for the US, DC, and the same suburban counties as included in the chart above. Clearly at least to NARPAC the correlation is closer between SAT Scores and parents at home, than between SAT Scores and median household income.
Unfortunately data are not available for median income or SAT Scores
for the kids in DoD schools. In NARPAC's estimation, however, the median
income is quite probably lower than the US average, and their SAT Scores
(if applicable) may well be higher. The advantage of having two parents
at home for a kid's education may be higher than previously credited.
The importance of having two parents at home, and the importance of the level of their educational achievement are explored further in a separate chapter on education, poverty, and (parental) ignorance.
Each month brings additional headlines in the local papers about problems the city's education system. Click here to bring up a chronological listing of Washington Post stories about DC's schools and colleges for each of the past six months. It is a depressing assertion, if true, that no members of Congress currently have their children in DC public schools.
The first 18 months efforts of General Becton, the appointed DCPS CEO were anything but smooth--as indicated by the endless articles in the Washington Post . These have led to his decision to leave his post in June 1998. He is to be replaced by his handpicked Academic Officer, who was apparently told that she might be his successor when she left her high-level job in the Seattle school system in 1997. She may well be a better and more sympathetic match with the extraordinary amount of vociferous dissatisfaction surrounding the DCPS.
The first annual report of the emergency board gives some indication of the faith being placed in this new Academic Officer, but as yet there is little concrete progress to report.
GAO Report Explores High Costs of Summer Roof Repairs
General Becton, and his chief operating officer, General Williams, tried to demonstrate their ability to get things done rapidly by taking on the emergency repair of the roofs of many of the most dilapidated school buildings. Virtually everything went wrong, to the apparent glee of most of the activists under whose reactionary leadership most of the problems had accumulated. In any event, schools opened late, and more money was spent than might have been required under "normal" conditions. The GAO was hence called in and their report, made available in March 1998, has been summarized here by NARPAC, Inc.:
Several school activists took exception to the high costs of repairing the roofs of DC schools over the summer of 1997. As a result the GAO conducted a study to explore the reasons for the delayed start of the repairs, and the higher than "normal" costs of the expedited repairs. Despite attempts to suggest scandal, those who would like to disparage the efforts of the temporary school board will find little support in this report. Nevertheless, the lack of professionalism and the consequences of past performance do show through. Here are the report's "results in Brief": Italics are added by NARPAC, Inc. for emphasis:
"Sufficient funding was available to begin roof work when schools were closed for the summer on June 20, 1997. The District's records show that the Authority had about $18 million available in March 1997 for DCPS-managed roof work, with the available amount increasing to about $38 million by June 1997. "A series of events preceding the efforts to repair DC school roofs contributed to the delayed start. Although it was decided that DCPS would manage the majority of this work, DCPS was not prepared to start immediately because it had not completed sufficient planning , such as determining the scope of work on individual projects which would be the basis for seeking bids for that work. A contributing factor to this delay was the almost complete turnover in technical capital project staff during the school year. These problems were compounded by difficulties in securing bids, resulting in DCPS- managed work not starting until the third week of July. DCPS told us that at the time the long-range plan was submitted in February, 1997, it had expected to complete roof work by the end of October 1997 but accelerated it in response to a court order that roof work not be done while classes were in session. Consequently the work was accomplished under a highly compressed schedule.
"Our review showed that DCPS spent about $37 million for roof replacement/repair in fiscal year 1997. As discussed in this report, this included an extensive amount of work not only on the roofs, but also on the adjacent upper portions of the buildings to achieve structurally sound, watertight facilities. As a result, the costs were higher than what would have been incurred for roofing work only. Considering all of these costs, the average cost per square foot of roof surface replaced or repaired was about $20, with DCPS-managed contracts somewhat higher than those managed by GSA. Some factors that contributed to the cost difference between GSA- and DCPS-managed work include:
o GSA was able to issue task orders against its existing A&E and construction contracts , and did not have to seek bids when the market was saturated with roof work ;
o GSA-managed projects were done over longer time frames, calling for less overtime work; and
o GSA managed only flat roof work, not higher cost multiple roof areas and materials.
Insufficient data exist to ascertain with any certainty the added cost associated with the degree of deferred maintenance encountered in this extensive project. Years of neglect and inadequate repair and maintenance practices all served to increase costs over what could be expected in well-managed, adequately financed entities. Further, material suppliers would not provide or honor extended warranties unless prescribed roof-related and other preventative maintenance was completed concurrently with the roofing repairs or replacement. GSA, DCPS, and the A&E firm overseeing the work all agreed that this combination of factors precluded a more economical solution to the school roofing project in fiscal year 1997.
DCPS plans for fiscal year 1998 show additional roof work at up to 40 more schools at an approximate cost of $35 million. In addition, DCPS proposed Capital Improvement Program plan for FY 1999-2004 indicates that an additional $63 million is anticipated for roof replacement/repairs during this period. However, in yet another indication that the District, and its dysfunctional school system, cannot yet manage their own affairs, the Army Corps of Engineers has been brought in to manage 28 of this year's school roof repairs, under the control of a Mr. David Morrow.
If you would like to read the GAO report in its entirety , it is available for download in Adobe Acrobat PDF format ( download the file and read it offline with the free Acrobat Reader v.3 to access this document.)
NARPAC, Inc. had sided with General Becton in a strongly worded editorial in February 1998, urging him to persevere, using outside talent wherever appropriate, and continuing until he had also tried again to educate those cast aside (or wasted) by his predecessors. However, the stress and frustrations proved too much for him--and for his detractors!--and he unceremoniously retired at the end of April, 1998. We had made similar points in a letter to Chief Academic Officer Ackerman on acceptance of her job here in 1997. In May 1998 she was appointed by the Control Board to take over from General Becton.
To stir the pot even further, Control Board Chairman Brimmer, in one
of his final actions (before his tenure was extended 90 days to permit
a smoother transition), unexpectedly dismissed the head of the Emergency
Trustees Board, MacLaury, in May without explanation. To replace him, Brimmer
picked MacLaury's deputy, Maudine Cooper, who is also the president and
CEO of the Greater Washington Urban League and a former top aide to Mayor
Barry, with "vast experience in community and civil rights organization"
credited with the "right mix of community activism, business acumen, and
leadership abilities". True to form, the local school activists who continue
to express concern over the lack of progress in school reform, also complained
that these continued changes in leadership are disruptive.
In an effort to determine whether or not there is a cooperative approach between neighborhood and school revitalization (which NARPAC feels is essential), we have tried to probe this issue with responsible officials. It turns out that there is virtually no "systems integration" approach, which would couple, say, school rebuilding or relocation with public housing modernization (or removal). There is a realization that some school houses are simply too old to be modernized, and the design of at least eight or ten new ones is in the works.
On the other hand, although school authorities realize they have way too many separate school properties, and are beginning to understand the major cost savings associated with "economies of scale", the planned 10-year school plan is not yet far enough along to make specific decisions. However, it seems certain that school plans are in no way connected to major area redevelopment plans, such as around the Navy Yard, Howard University, the Convention Center on the new "NoMa".
The advantages of using regional purchasing and contracting are not exploited by the DCPS. The Corps of Engineers, of course, is free to get bulk supplies from federal sources, and some DC agencies take advantage of the GSA for supplies, there is no known plan to take advantage of combined regional purchases of books, school furniture, etc. There is also no apparent plan for "contracting out" various school maintenance and custodial services.
There is no apparent cooperation between regional school systems on a regular basis. However, it is interesting to note that DC's new Oyster School is using most of the specs and 'best practices' from a very recently built Montgomery County school.
A report released in early 1999 by a group of national education experts convened by Superintendent Ackerman concludes, to no one's's surprise, that the DC School System is still "troubled". The report makes several key recommendations including: changing the payroll system; reducing the large backlog in special education--and in school building maintenance. It also suggests (as NARPAC has) that the DCPS should work with experts from other school systems within the metro area, and hire more experts in various fields.
Starting the '99-'00 School Year
By the fall of 1999, there was still very little good news from DCPS: both essay capabilities among older students and reading proficiency amongst younger students remain way below other school districts in this region. But the good news is that DCPS teaching staff may be turning a corner: The '99-00 school year begins with 1100 new teachers out of a total of 5100, and the total number of uncertified teachers has dropped to 350. The schools opened on time, and only a few outrider cases of facility inadequacies (leaking roofs, etc.) have been reported. Furthermore, a new facilities director has been hired, and she has promised to provide a major multi-year facilities modernization program in the near future. Even the new special education director has reported progress in the backlog of legal cases, and the superintendent is in the process of replacing many of the personnel in special ed transportation. (See the superintendent's informal progress report.)
To everyone's surprise, the combined 1999 enrollment in the DCPS and DC Charter schools appears to have risen slightly (to 77,740) over last year's official tally: the charter schools have increased by some 3250 to 6980, while the public schools have declined by about 1130 for a new total of 70,760. In January, 2000, the school systems are still trying to assure themselves that all these students are DC residents: proof of residency seems to remain an unexpectedly difficult problem. Even 340 special ed students and their private schools are being threatened with loss of funding if they cannot prove where they live. Meanwhile, the final allocation of school funds between the two systems has remained in doubt, much to the consternation of Superintendent Ackerman--and all the school activist groups..
Throughout the metro region, new school construction is a key item, except in DC where there seems to be painfully little progress on getting rid of unutilized schools. In August, '99 Montgomery County MD announced plans for a major new program which will result in 185 schools for about 140,000 students six years hence. The building program would include three new schools and 32 new classrooms in exising schools--for $665M. The new schools will use new designs including flexible classrooms, media centers, community, health and after-hours centers, making these schools focal points for community activities.
By contrast, DC still retains 146 schools for 70,000 students, requiring substantially higher administrative and maintenance costs (see school costs "pyramid") associated with under 450 kids per school as opposed to over 750 kids per school. In August DCPS's newly appointed Facilities Director Kifah Jayyousi announced that a big plan would be forthcoming to close and sell old schools and build new ones. In November Council members Chavous and Ambrose in a letter to the Post urged that the almost 50 abandoned schools that remain unsold from '96 be promptly disposed of. In February, '00, the content of a draft report on DCPS facilities began to leak out. The report indicates that the current school capacity is about 92,600--for a utilization rate already down to 76%, and still declining. The report apparently makes two projections of enrollment over the next decade: a continuation of current net emigration trends would reduce DCPS school population to 45,100 by '10; a more "optimistic" outlook--in which departures taper off--would leave the school system with 53,500 in '10. These limit cases essentially bracket the NARPAC, Inc. recommended planning figure of 50,000 made almost two years ago--see long range solutions below). (It is not clear what the study assumptions are concerning shifts from public to charter schools, and in fact, the Control Board has questioned that.) As of Spring, 2000, NARPAC would lower its best guess on DCPS future enrollment from 50,000 to 40,000, based primarily on steadily dropping live births in DC (see below).
Copies of the DCPS Facilities Modernization Plan (FMP) finally became available to NARPAC in the Spring of 2001, and a detailed analysis of the FMP is now available. It has some excellent statistical information, but appears to forecast school enrollment over the next decade that may be too high by a factor of two. Much more work needs to be done on what hopefully should become a"rolling FMP".
In October, 1999, a Post article decried the sorry state of DCPS athletic facilities, indicating that three reports over the past 12 years had each shown that the locations, conditions, and equipment were well below par. Meanwhile, a several month brouhahah over the preemption of the Garrison school playing field as a parking lot for the prestigious Metropolitan Baptist Church (MBC) was settled by the mayor in favor of the school in October '99, and by January, '00 the MBC hierarchy was threatening to move to the suburbs (where many of its parishioners have long-since moved).
The first real rays of hope for major DCPS systemic reform have only appeared during the summer of 2001, with Superintendent Vance firmly in the sadlle, and publishing his Business Plan for Strategic Reform. Although it does not go nearly as far as proposed by NARPAC's "Reinventing DCPS", it represents an excellent start towards addressing DCPS problems on a systemic basis FMP.
The table below presents NARPAC, Inc.'s updated listing of functions and aims within this general category, offering simple goals and approaches for achieving them, and noting the progress (if any) to date. The tabulations and entries are clearly preliminary, but are intended to indicate the full range of steps needed to assure long-range solutions to the District's systemic problems.
COG = Council of Governments
CFO = Chief Financial Officer
UDC = University of the District of Columbia
CMO = Chief Management Officer
TF = Task Force
SBA = Small Business Administration