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D.C. Council holds hearing on independent education research group

September 19, 2018

The D.C. Council is considering legislation that would wrest some control of city schools from Mayor Muriel Bowser by creating an independent research group to analyze education data and report directly to lawmakers.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson opened a hearing on the legislation Tuesday, saying he had heard “rumors” the mayor is moving forward with a plan to create her own education research group whose funds and data she would control.

But Ahnna Smith, interim deputy mayor for education, dodged lawmakers questions about Miss Bowser’s secretive plan, sticking to what Mr. Mendelson called “careful” talking points throughout the three-hour hearing.

Interim schools Chancellor Amanda Alexander and Hanseul Kang, state superintendent of education, both had been invited to the hearing, but Miss Bowser did not allow them to attend. That didn’t “sit well” with Mr. Mendelson, he told The Washington Times after the hearing.

“It feels to us that they want a collaborative [relationship] without having to work with the council,” the at-large Democrat told The Times. “The way they’re going about it is not very trust-inducing.”

Earlier Tuesday, Council members David Grosso, at-large independent, and Mary Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, introduced bills that would make the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) an independent agency within the Office of the D.C. Auditor, outside the reach of the mayor’s office, and that would prevent the mayor from hiring or firing the state superintendent.

“The students of the District of Columbia can ill afford misguided education legislation that moves our city backwards more than a decade and undermines the hard work of our teachers, administrators and staff,” the deputy mayor said, reading from a prepared statement. “We need to be working collaboratively in the best interest of our students, and ensuring that the Office of the State Superintendent of Education and our schools have the resources they need to make every day count.”

The OSSE oversees federal funding, education standards, and enrollment and graduation data for the D.C. Public Schools system. The mayor has sole authority over the school system and the OSSE, and can hire and fire the chancellor, superintendent and other schools officials.

The OSSE and the lack of oversight by the council’s Education Committee have come under criticism and scrutiny following a series of scandals that have rocked the school system over the past year. The scandals included former Chancellor Antwan Wilson, a Bowser hire who resigned in February after flouting his own policy on school transfers to allow his daughter to attend a popular high school.

Mr. Grosso, chairman of the Education Committee, said he was “baffled” that the mayor would move ahead with her plan when she knew the council was designing it own program after meeting with lawmakers several times during the summer.

Ms. Cheh noted that lawmakers sought to create a watchdog data program because parents “feel they cannot trust their schools’ data” following revelations of widespread residency fraud and inflated graduation rates last school year.

The independent watchdog plan garnered so much public support that lawmakers earmarked $500,000 for the research group in the 2019 fiscal budget.

According to testimony and documents submitted to the hearing, the Democratic mayor plans to work with the nonprofit think tank Urban Institute to create her education research group. No public meetings have been held on the plan, and no other research or advocacy groups were invited to apply for the mayoral partnership.

Ms. Smith repeatedly evaded questions from Ms. Cheh and Council member Robert White, at-large independent, about a timeline for finalizing the partnership with Urban Institute.

But Matthew Chingos, director of Urban Institute’s Education Policy Program, testified Tuesday that finalizing a partnership would take at least “several months.” He told the lawmakers that institute leaders would be “hesitant” to sign an agreement without “seeing what you all are going to mark up next week.”

“Some things became evident with regard to sincerity or veracity,” Mr. Mendelson told The Times after the hearing.

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