Erin Palmer’s Plan for Public Education as a Right
All DC residents are entitled to high-quality, equitable public education. Our government must support the entire ecosystem of public education so that every student at every age can grow, learn, and succeed. Yet, we’ve seen repeated failures to support our public schools, including a lack of school nurses and librarians, school closures, and unsafe school buildings. Instead of conducting robust oversight over our schools, the current Council Chair unilaterally dissolved the standalone Committee on Education. Year after year, our current Council Chair waits for education issues like funding for our public schools to be in crisis before dealing with them. Despite the hard work of many Councilmembers, the DC Council is limited in considering education holistically and across government agencies, negatively impacting safe and healthy school buildings. We all pay the price for these failures, particularly families in Wards 5, 7, and 8 that have the majority of public school students in our city.
Our leadership can treat education as a right — not a business or expense. Driven by the values-based proposition that every DC resident deserves high-quality, equitable public education, the proposals I outline below will improve outcomes for students, families, and school staff by fully and equitably funding our public schools; engaging in real education oversight; and ensuring safe and healthy school buildings.
Washington Metropolitan High School is a prime example of our city’s heartbreaking failures in public education and the current Council Chair’s complicity in the lack of investment in our public schools combined with his failure to do any real oversight.
Washington Metropolitan High School was an alternative school that offered the chance “to be nurtured, cared for and loved while working through various traumas.” In November 2019, school staff were told the school would close because of underperformance. Yet, DC did not provide the school with critical resources, including needed social workers, a school librarian, or supplemental funding targeted for students classified as “at-risk.” Faced with the Mayor’s decision to close the school, At-Large Councilmember Robert White tried to keep the school open through legislation, noting “Washington Met has no librarian, no art teacher, no sports team, no extracurricular activities. There has been a deliberate disinvestment by the city.”
The current Council Chair voted to close the school, ignoring fierce student advocacy and data that school closures negatively impact students and schools. He also failed to do any due diligence and therefore never noticed that what the students were saying was true: Washington Metropolitan High School did not have the lowest graduation rate and served more students in need relative to other alternative schools. The current Council Chair then shamed students, telling them this was not a school to be proud of, despite his and the city’s failures to invest in their school. After the school closed, the Washington Metropolitan High School students joined too many DC students in falling through the cracks of DC’s school system, and the current Council Chair has not required the DC government to implement the data systems required by law to keep track of students.
We have deeply failed these students, and we all suffer as a result. DC deserves leadership that holds at its core the value that education is a right. This idea isn’t novel: it was enshrined in DC’s 1982 Constitution and a 2006 proposed amendment to the Home Rule Act that would have removed DC’s dubious distinction as the only “state” without an obligation to education in its governing document. As Chairwoman, this guiding value would strengthen my work to better DC’s schools. Below, I outline three critical areas where we can put that right into practice to improve our public schools in support of students, families, and school staff:
- Fully fund our schools. Year after year, DC has failed to adequately fund our public schools. This means that schools have lost staff and resources or had to take money from other places — like targeted funding for students classified as “at-risk” — to fund basic needs. We must first adequately fund our schools and then ensure equity by enforcing the law that requires targeted “at-risk” funding to be supplemental.
- Conduct real education oversight. DC schools are under Mayoral control, which means the Mayor and executive agencies have significant authority with regard to school governance. This governance structure only works with meaningful, consistent oversight from the DC Council as a co-equal branch of government — not deference to the Mayor or oversight that is currently weak by design.
- Support safe and healthy schools. DC students and school staff deserve safe and healthy learning environments. Yet, many school buildings are in disrepair, as DC struggles to timely and equitably modernize and maintain school buildings. The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of safe and healthy school buildings, as well as the city’s longstanding failures to provide air filtration and temperature control systems. DC has made piecemeal progress rather than systemic investments in safe and healthy schools.
The time has come for the DC Council to stop sitting on the sidelines when it comes to our critical education needs and lead to build the brighter future that we all deserve.
Fully fund DC’s public schools
We have consistently failed to adequately fund our public schools. Often, schools do not have textbooks, needed technology, and essential staff like school nurses. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated gaps and increased the baseline of what students and schools need to thrive, worsening our existing failures to meet needs. Our leaders have continually failed to be sufficiently ambitious in per-pupil funding. The current Council Chair proposed increasing school funding for next year at significantly less than the rate of inflation — in effect proposing a cut in funding for our schools. In addition, for years, our school system has misspent millions of dollars designated to help DC’s most vulnerable students, directing money that should be dedicated to students classified as “at-risk” to instead cover day-to-day costs. After years of challenges from the Covid-19 pandemic, now is not the time to decrease school resources or do the bare minimum. Unlike the current Council Chair, who was the only Councilmember to vote against librarians for every DC public school, I believe every student deserves a school that can provide a joyful education including arts, music, and libraries.
The Council can adequately and equitably fund our public schools to meet needs by:
- Providing adequate per-pupil funding for our public schools, as defined in the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education’s 2013 education adequacy study, to increase yearly with an inflation index relevant to DC so that students and schools thrive and schools have adequate funding to support English language learner students and special needs students;
- Including additional funding for school-based mental health services to guarantee highly-qualified professionals caring for our students and out-of-school-time programming to support students beyond the school day and ensuring equitable access to quality programming, especially during this critical time when lives have been disrupted;
- Including additional supplemental funding for students facing two or more risk factors, as recommended by the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula Working Group of advisors, for more equitable funding, as well as funding an updated adequacy study conducted by independent experts in school finance every 5 years;
- Ensuring that targeted funding for students considered “at-risk” is supplemental and not used to cover day-to-day costs, including requiring DC Public Schools to provide detailed school-level budgets that clearly demonstrate compliance with the “at-risk” funding law;
- Building a school budget model based on student needs, not just enrollment, to invest in schools holistically and make sure every school has the resources and staff necessary for success, and recognizing that enrollment-based funding will never achieve equity in education as it fails to prioritize student needs and risks more school closures that undermine student stability;
- Fully funding and implementing the Birth-to-Three for All DC Act so that no DC family spends more than 10% of their income on child care and supporting revenue increases (in contrast to the current Council Chair) to provide a long-term, stable pay increase for early childhood educators;
- Making community college at the University of the District of Columbia free for all DC residents by expanding the RISE (Recovery, Intervention, Support, and Engagement) program to reduce the financial burden of college through free tuition and housing, scholarships, books, and electronic devices; and
- Ensuring that no publicly-funded school continues to pay below living wages for teachers and staff, including requiring charter schools to remain neutral when teachers choose to unionize, so all teaching jobs in DC are good, family-supporting, long-term jobs.
Engage in real education oversight
DC Council oversight of education is deeply flawed. DC is the only jurisdiction where education governance is almost completely controlled by the Mayor, including our state education agency (the Office of the State Superintendent of Education). This structure means that Council oversight and independent data collection are essential to ensure any level of accountability. Yet, we have a Council that is under capacity by design as the current Council Chair dissolved the standalone Committee on Education as part of a petty fight with another Councilmember. Even prior to dissolving the Committee on Education, we saw the results of weakened education oversight, including the loss of millions of federal dollars for programs like Head Start and Americorps. Education monitoring and oversight must be consistent, proactive, and well-staffed so the Council is no longer stuck in a cycle of too little, too late.
Unlike the current Council Chair, who was the only Councilmember to vote against librarians for every DC public school, I believe every student deserves a school that can provide a joyful education including arts, music, and libraries.
The Council can engage in meaningful, consistent oversight, strengthen our current education structure, and compile and use data in support of schools by:
- Reconstituting the Council’s standalone Committee on Education with dedicated, nonpartisan support staff to support consistent and dedicated oversight of and attention to DC’s public schools (as discussed in my DC Council Accountability Plan) and ending DC’s distinction as the only “state legislature” without a standing education oversight committee;
- Expanding the Council’s institutionalized support to conduct education oversight by re-instituting a comprehensive, nonpartisan, and objective research service; enhancing and increasing use of the DC Auditor’s Office; and expanding the work of the Council Office of Racial Equity to help the Council better target public funds toward programs that work and respond to deep racial inequities in our city (as discussed in my DC Council Accountability Plan);
- Ensuring that Council education hearings are inclusive of and accessible to educators, families, and students, by creating a clear, centralized website to share hearing notices, witness lists, and testimonies; permanently implementing virtual and hybrid options for Council proceedings; scheduling hearings with day, evening, and weekend options; and using timed panels and outreach to witnesses when it is time for them to testify (as discussed in my DC Council Accountability Plan);
- Calling for additional hearings (if necessary), reading, and a vote on two bills to increase the independence of the Office of the State Superintendent of Education and clarify its responsibilities so DC can move forward with an improved system of checks and balances in public education;
- Broadening education authority and governance to increase the authority of the State Board of Education and, similarly, to codify the role and responsibilities of DC Public Schools Local School Advisory Teams (LSATs) in law, including requiring that DC Public Schools provide LSATs with individual school budgets at least one month in advance;
- Ensuring that the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education and the Office of the State Superintendent for Education respond with DC-wide policy adjustments to the recommendations in the Annual Reports of the DC Office of the Ombudsman for Education, as intended in the Public Education Reform Amendment Act of 2007, in particular to the many pending special education recommendations motivated by years of family complaints and requiring ample justification for recommendations they choose to not implement;
- Requiring the Office of the State Superintendent of Education to report and publish data, as well as engaging with that data, regarding student academic success (absenteeism, achievement levels and growth, postsecondary enrollment), supportive school environment (mental health professionals and wellbeing, support for students with disabilities, English language learner supports, school climate survey data, and teacher retention and satisfaction), and community factors (student perceptions of safety and parent and caregiver satisfaction) that is not currently regularly collected and reported publicly for all students; and
- Introducing legislation that would require a recurring percentage of education funds are set aside to build our local evidence base around what is working in public education in DC and for whom, managed by the Council research service office and committee staff, using best practices documented by both the National Conference on State Legislatures and the Pew Foundation’s work on evidence-based policymaking.
Support safe and healthy schools
Every student in DC deserves a safe and healthy learning environment, but for years the District has struggled to deliver on that promise. From lead in water and playgrounds to mold in school buildings to lack of air filtration and temperature control, every parent has seen the same issues repeatedly and without fixes. In my neighborhood, schools have repeatedly fought for the same basic needs year in and year out — like advocating to remediate mold and lead and fixing unsafe streets. Worse yet, as children returned to school buildings following virtual learning and the Covid-19 pandemic — a situation requiring a high level of trust and confidence from parents and school workers — we were inundated with reports of faulty HVAC systems, missing HEPA filters, and lack of basic PPE, while parents and community members resorted to a series of self-help measures. Meanwhile, the current Council Chair continues to allow DC to fail to meet the requirements of the law requiring a planning document for school facilities that would address issues including facility conditions, siting, overcrowding, and vacant buildings. It’s time to require cohesive, coordinated, and collaborative plans to make sure all of our schools are safe and healthy.
The current Council Chair proposed increasing school funding for next year at significantly less than the rate of inflation — in effect proposing a cut in funding for our schools.
The Council can make sure all students are learning in a safe and healthy environment by:
- Engaging in coordinated oversight of DC government agencies across Council committees to require proactive implementation of school safety measures by multiple agencies that affect the health and safety of our public schools, including the District Department of General Services for school facilities, playgrounds, and other public recreation spaces; the District Department of Energy and Environment for environmental hazards like lead and mold; and the District Department of Transportation for safe passage to school and traffic safety infrastructure;
- Expanding the District Department of General Services dashboard for tracking school facilities work orders to provide greater accountability and transparency, as well as enable stronger Council oversight;
- Requiring the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education to submit an annual Master Facilities Plan that meets the requirements of the law to document and address school facility needs to ensure the vitality and success of all DC public schools, and if it again fails to meet the law, requiring that the Council disapproves the plan and requires resubmission;
- Requiring the Public Charter School Board and DC Public Schools to consider student safety in locating new schools or programmatic expansions including mechanisms for road and traffic safety and accelerated school zone safety improvements, and requiring the District Department of Transportation to conduct annual audits to certify school safety measures remain in a state of good repair;
- Engaging in oversight to ensure school modernizations are delivered efficiently and on budget and are not significantly more costly than other jurisdictions by requiring the District Department of General Services to develop a method to enforce cost control mechanisms for its projects and to include cost standards for school modernizations in master planning documents so more schools and students have access to modernized facilities;
- Including both accessibility and health and safety issues in the Capital Improvement Plan prioritization matrix for DC public school modernizations so that schools that are not ADA accessible or routinely face mold and lead challenges are prioritized for renovation and requiring regular audits and assessments for issues like accessibility and exposure to lead and mold in schools; and
- Requiring the Department of Energy and Environment to convene a taskforce and deliver a report with standards and recommendations on indoor air quality for schools and other public buildings that incorporates evidence on aerosol transmission of viruses in addition to pollution and other environmental toxins.