Credit: Darrow Montgomery

In a one-party city with a civic focus on education, an advocacy group like Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) sounds as wholesome as Mom and apple pie. Everyone in D.C. is a Democrat, right? Who isn’t in favor of education reform?

Aided by such safe assumptions, the New York-based PAC recently injected itself into a complicated school debate when it employed phone banking that connected D.C. residents with their respective school board members.

Residents around the city received calls on behalf of DFER to tell them that the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) is proposing to “hold schools accountable not only for the academic achievement of students but also for the growth that students make on their achievement at whatever level they start out.”

Sounds like a winner, right? 

The callers then offered to direct residents to their representative on the D.C. State Board of Education to “let them know you support this proposal.” They then asked, “May I put you through?”

What the campaign does not tell citizens is that the proposal presents the school board with complex decisions in an ongoing policy debate that is central to a virtual culture war over public education reform in America.

Nor does it disclose that Democrats for Education Reform is a PAC that raises money from corporations, foundations, and influential philanthropists to back political candidates who favor standardized testing and the Common Core standards—and apparently seeks to directly influence elected school board members on contentious policy issues.

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OSSE’s draft plan is based on the federal “Every Student Succeeds Act,” which requires states to create a new school accountability system beyond the standardized math and reading tests of “No Child Left Behind.” The idea of Every Student Succeeds is to provide states with flexibility to also measure performance in science, social science, art, and other indicators of school quality.

Under the plan DFER is promoting, 80 percent of school accountability for elementary and middle schools is based on standardized tests  in reading and math and a complex formula meant to determine student “growth.” (Most of the remainder is based on attendance and re-enrollment.) The accountability system not only rates schools relative to one another but also sets guidelines that will influence educational and administrative priorities.

Proponents of the plan, such as DFER’s D.C. director Catharine Bellinger, believe that a school rating system should be based on single test scores that reflect performance on college and career-ready exams, such as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). 

“By and large, the D.C. parents with whom we speak have made clear they want a single, summative school rating that primarily reflects student academic outcomes,” Bellinger testified to the state school board on Feb. 17.  

Critics contend that OSSE’s plan does little to expand No Child Left Behind and impedes progress for at-risk and low-performing students. They say it locks students into standardized tests and discourages attention to subjects other than math reading. A City Paper investigation last year showed that D.C.’s lowest-performing schools as determined by the PARCC exam lag behind schools with fewer at-risk students, creating a substantial achievement gap that has vexed school officials for years.

According to Ward 3 school board member Ruth Wattenberg, the proposal takes too little advantage of the new law’s flexibility and retains too much of what was wrong with No Child Left Behind. In a recent op-ed in the Northwest Current, Wattenberg writes that most of her constituents and parents and teachers across the city are concerned the plan does not encourage “well-roundedness.” 

“Let’s go beyond reading and math and add a measure of academic well-roundedness,” she writes. “Do all kids get adequate exposure to science, social studies, arts? Does the school offer dual language immersion or an International Baccalaureate program? By counting these in our rating system, we can signal to schools that these efforts matter.”

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Ward 1 resident Mark Simon, a former D.C. Public Schools parent, educator, and education policy associate at the Economic Policy Institute, received a DFER call recently, and he was outraged. That’s because Simon is steeped in the nuance of policy, something that the phone-banking effort desperately lacks. He characterizes Bellinger as “a functionary whose job is to channel DFER money to policies or candidates that support a narrow worldview” and who wants the state board to “rubberstamp [OSSE’s] decision to keep standardized testing as the overwhelming single indicator of school quality.” 

Bellinger did not return calls. Ward 8 school board member Markus Batchelor received a number of voicemails but says he wasn’t aware of who was behind the calls. “Most have been pretty vague, ‘making sure all schools have high standards,’” Batchelor says of the messages he’s received. “I’ve gotten a few voicemails to support the OSSE plan.”

Batchelor finds the 80 percent dependency on standard tests too high, overly focused on outcomes and not enough on school curricula. “Why don’t we hold them accountable for things that spur achievement?” he says.

Other members gingerly sidestep questions and insist they are still in “listening mode.” “Folks get confused about the system because it is so complex,” says state school board vice president Jack Jacobson, who represents Ward 2. “There are multiple advocacy groups engaged on the issue. I would not want to characterize those agencies.”

At-large member Ashley Carter, the lone Republican on the board, says she has received between 50 and 100 calls that express myriad views. “I’ve had a number of calls from community members,” Carter says, “but I can’t say that all of them live in the city. A number of people would not tell me where they live.”

Likewise, Ward 6 member Joe Weedon notes a disconnect in the calls he has received. “When I get calls, I try and have a conversation,” he says. “People have expressed strong support for the [OSSE] plan, but then in conversations they have expressed a preference for multiple measures and less reliance on standardized testing.”

That’s because DFER could be misleading residents and school board members alike, Simon says. “Most of the informed public education parents, supporters, and activists have been very critical of the plan that keeps schools being evaluated 80 percent based on a standardized test,” he says. “That was certainly true of those who turned out at the hearings. If anyone called without much substance but just wanted their board member to know they supported the plan, they were probably prodded to do so by the DFER call.”

Cathy Reilly, a Ward 4 resident and executive director of the Senior High Alliance of Parents, Principals and Educators wrote to DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson with similar concerns about the calls. “I don’t think [the calls] were comprehensive about what is a complicated issue,” says Reilly, who finds that Ward 4 residents are upset about the amount of standardized testing that avoids multiple measures of proficiency and school growth at the expense of at-risk students and English-language learners. “If that is what DFER is all about,” she says, “to push people into a lobbying-like decision, then that is a problem and does not get us to good education policy.”

UPDATEAfter this story ran, Catharine Bellinger, D.C.’s director of Democrats for Education Reform, responded to critics of her organization’s phone banking effort. Bellinger says it was a paid effort to reach constituents who chose to be patched through to their D.C. State Board of Education members. “The bottom line is these people [contacted by DFER] are constituents, and board members may not like or agree with what they heard, but these are the people they represent.

“Typically, we at DFER hear from advocates like Mark Simon who have been active in the teachers union that charter and public schools should be held to the same high standards. It’s ironic then, when a common rating system is proposed, that advocates like he and Cathy Reilly want [school] accountability watered down, with schools held to lower standards of academic rigor that includes indicators unrelated to the preparedness of D.C. students for college and careers.”

Bellinger adds: “The D.C. charter sector currently rates their schools 80 percent on students’ academic outcomes as measured by academic assessments such as the one administered by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.”