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DC-CORE Member Laura Fuchs' Testimony on OSSE Independence + Oversight by the DC SBOE

Testimony before the DC Council

By: Laura Fuchs – Teacher at HD Woodson HS, Secretary of the Washington Teachers Union, Chair of the WTU Committee on Political Education, Chair of DC Caucus of Rank and File Educators, Recording Secretary of the Ward 7 Education Council, Treasurer of Empower DC, Member of the Senior High Alliance of Parents, Principals and Educators (SHAPPE), Ward 5 Resident

Given: Tuesday, October 21, 2021

Good afternoon. My name is Laura Fuchs and I am a proud teacher at HD Woodson SHS and a resident of Ward 5. I began teaching at Woodson in the fall of 2007, so I have experienced the full weight of what it is like to have the Mayor control every agency that has to do with education. Over my 15 years of teaching in DC, I have testified countless times on issues big and small that plague DCPS and the education system as a whole in front of the DC Council, The DC State Board of Education and DCPS itself sometimes bringing students along with me to testify. Colleagues, students and I have attended countless town halls, community and union meetings where DC officials are present, worked on initiatives in various offices and the SBOE around education and done all we can to try and make voices from the classroom heard.

But when it comes down to it, the main issue with the current system is the complete lack of true checks and balances when it comes to our schools which allow problems to continue unabated in a propaganda machine that has less than zero connection to the reality that students, parents and educators face in our schools. Every official has an excuse or someone else who has “authority” or some overly simplistic reason why, despite being in power, they can’t make the changes we want to see.

Accountability, depoliticization and efficiency were some of the purported reasons that that the Council voted to establish a system of mayoral control of education. Some said, and continue to say, that voting on something more “important” than a school board, like a mayor, would mean that there would be more accountability for that one individual. That by removing a school board somehow we would take the “politics” out of education (ummm the mayor isn’t political? But I digress), and that by having decision making in one person’s hands we could make quick and effective decisions. But the fact is that one election every 4 years has not achieved even one of those goals and it is time to find a new pathway forward so that our students get the services they deserve.

OSSE is one of the agencies that has been deprioritized by the mayor as well as politicized. A one-two punch that has led to the department languishing with limited staffing, inefficient protocols, and little to no public input or accountability. OSSE has a few areas that are crucial that they must do, and then there is all the oversight that they could be doing, if there were any interest in actual oversight. This is especially important for the areas of the School Report Cards/Data, Special Education services, English Language Learners and those applying for DC-TAG, just to name a few.

OSSE does not have a stellar track record on any of these areas. From late busses, to students not receiving their special education services, to ELL money being reprogrammed by schools to meet basic staffing needs, to homeless students being actively discriminated against in DC-TAG there is almost no way to hold those officials accountable.

Then there is all the potential for greater accountability that could be had if OSSE were truly independent of the mayor and under the purview of the DC SBOE. Currently DCPS is so slow in processing FMLA requests that educators are going on leave without pay for weeks before it is rectified, adding increased stress on their health and safety. We have the testing, school and attendance scandals that have plagued DCPS and the Charter Schools with no agency willing to look in to what happened, lest it shine a bad light on their immediate boss. We have systemic issues from teacher turnover, to the closing of schools, that have been swept under the rug and played down since it does not fit the narrative that 3 consecutive mayors have used that DC has “the fastest growing district in the nation” – thanks again Arne Duncan for that zinger that has zero basis in reality. If elected politicians who are accountable to the community had more influence over OSSE it would provide guidance on the issues being brought to them by the community to ensure that DCPS and DCPCSB are held accountable to Federal Laws and the citizens they serve.

By putting OSSE under the SBOE there would be 8 elected representatives and regular public meetings where peoples’ concerns could be heard and addressed. It wouldn’t be just one person’s perspective who drives our education system, but a host of different perspectives from education reformers to those who actually value our neighborhood public schools. While not perfect, it would provide an avenue of accountability that would have reason to hold the District accountable instead of reasons to cover up what is going on. One that is based on democracy and debate, not a dictatorship.

Under the current system, when asking for feedback on policies, it is usually right before it is going to be implemented, is done in a format that shuts its doors on most people and does not feel like an actual chance to change anything. In fact it usually feels like a PR stunt to say that key stakeholders were involved. If we were seeing results, I might be OK with this. But the fact is, OSSE by its own beloved metrics has not improved enough to warrant the Mayor’s complete control over all oversight of our schools.

It is not enough to elect a mayor once every four years. It is not enough to have the occasional town hall. And it is not enough to have ‘community engagement’ people who attend local meetings and provide a mouthpiece for the mayor.

By authentically including all key stakeholders in the decision making process both big and small, we can provide adequate checks and balances to mayoral control. We need to focus on the process of how decisions get made in our schools. Right now they are being made in a bubble from on high, with limited opportunities for real input from those of us directly impacted by the policies themselves. My suggestion is not the only way to achieve this. The point is: focus on the process. Create a system of true checks and balances that allow for authentic input from all key stakeholders and hold us accountable to it.

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