Exterior of D.C. School
Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

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Council Chairman Phil Mendelson could be forgiven for feeling a bit lonely when he convenes a committee hearing on D.C. schools.

That’s not to say that his colleagues don’t join his education hearings. At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson attends pretty regularly, while At-Large Councilmember Robert White and Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George swing by a decent number of hearings too.

But, technically, all 13 lawmakers are responsible for overseeing the city’s sprawling education system, ever since Mendelson abolished a stand-alone schools committee in favor of the Committee of the Whole, which (as the name suggests) includes the whole Council. Yet many lack either the fluency with education issues to make an impact or the stomach to tackle such politically explosive matters, leaving Mendelson (who controls the powerful panel) largely to his own devices over the past two years.

“When everyone’s in charge, no one’s in charge,” Scott Goldstein, executive director of the teacher advocacy group EmpowerEd, tells Loose Lips.

Despite plenty of agitation from progressive quarters, Mendelson opted to keep the current committee setup for the next two years and leave the stand-alone education committee dormant. But schools advocates like Goldstein are hopeful that things on the Council will change in the new year.

That optimism stems chiefly from the two new additions on the dais in 2023: Ward 3 Councilmember Matt Frumin and Ward 5 Councilmember Zachary Parker. Both have extensive experience on education policy issues—Frumin spent many years working in the trenches on school matters as a D.C. Public Schools parent, while Parker served a term on the State Board of Education before jumping up to the Council—and have expressed an early willingness to focus on schools.

“Following the pandemic, we just need to be a lot more attentive to how we’re supporting our schools,” Parker tells LL.

Ward 5 Councilmember Zachary Parker Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Perhaps most importantly, both will have lots of time on their hands. As freshmen, they’ll sit on committees but won’t chair them, giving them an ability to pop into various meetings instead of waiting out every single person on a witness list to testify. Henderson herself remembers having “a lot of energy” in her first two years in office and using it to become ubiquitous at even sleepy committee hearings (much to her colleagues’ dismay, at times). She’s hopeful that Parker and Frumin will adopt the same approach and become “fixtures” at education discussions, particularly as she devotes more time to her new duties chairing the health committee.

“From an oversight perspective, I do feel like we’ll have more eyes on some of the minutia within the education cluster,” says Henderson, who ran the education committee back in her Council staffer days and is broadly seen as the only lawmaker Mendelson might trust to chair a new one someday. “Hopefully, it could allow for some divide and conquer, because some of the issues are just quite meaty.”

Frumin and Parker both tell LL that they’re anxious to live up to Henderson’s expectations in this regard. And there’s a broad expectation among D.C. politicos that they’ll be willing to challenge Mayor Muriel Bowser’s officials in oversight settings after each won their campaigns with the backing of the District’s more left-leaning organizations. The fact that both chose to cast symbolic votes against the D.C. Housing Authority reform legislation championed by Bowser and Mendelson late last year also did not go unnoticed by Wilson Building whisperers.

“Councilmember Frumin has already done a lot of work trying to track down how much the city is investing in charters versus how much DCPS is getting for its facilities and whether that’s enough, and I really think those conversations will keep happening this year,” says Qubilah Huddleston, an education policy analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. “And Councilmember Parker was on the SBOE as they were having conversations about school governance and mayoral control. A lot of that got put to the side because of the pandemic, but I feel like that’s going to come back.”

The pair will also have a big role to play come budget time, which kicks off in earnest when Bowser releases individual school budgets sometime in early February, and both have pledged to seek funding levels that meet school needs. The city will likely need to spend down federal funds tied to pandemic recovery before they disappear at the end of fiscal year 2024, Frumin notes, setting up a variety of big debates.

Plus, Bowser has pledged to once again budget money to keep school resource officers in classrooms, despite the Council twice voting to gradually pull police from schools. Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto, the new public safety and judiciary committee chair, tells LL she is “very open” to supporting funding for SROs as she helps craft MPD’s budget, so it may well take a vote from the full Council to remove that money. The Council succeeded in doing so last year on an 8-5 tally, with Frumin’s predecessor, Mary Cheh, one of the votes on the losing side.

But it’s probably unwise to expect Frumin and Parker to lead the charge in passing a slew of school-related bills just yet. Henderson cautions that the chairman “has never been one to move a lot of bills” out of his committee and “doesn’t necessarily feel like education is the area with a lot of legislation.” So she’ll be “interested if he changes on that” but isn’t expecting a major shift, even with her two new colleagues pushing. Mendo says she’s right on the money.

“I can’t think of any bill that would actually affect quality of teaching and quality of learning in the classroom,” Mendelson says. “There are plenty of other ideas that folks have, but most of those ideas are distractions from the core issue of focusing on the classroom.”

Nevertheless, Goldstein and his allies plan to try. He says they’re shopping around a “comprehensive bill on teacher retention” aimed at reversing the city’s recent troubles keeping educators in classrooms (a recent study backed by the SBOE found D.C. has one of the highest rates of teacher turnover in the country). The exact legislative language is still taking shape, but Goldstein expects the legislation will focus on giving teachers more flexible scheduling options, offering them additional mental health and professional development resources, and increasing pay for teacher aides and paraprofessionals (who specifically work with kids with disabilities).

“Education leaders have alternated between denying there’s a problem and not addressing the problem,” Goldstein says. “So we’re pushing councilmembers to not trust that they’re going to fix this on their own.”

Goldstein isn’t willing to say just yet who might introduce the legislation as discussions continue, but Frumin and Parker are both obvious targets for support. Both say they’ve already had conversations about the issue with advocates, but Frumin seemed particularly keen on taking up the issue (and specifically cited EmpowerEd’s work in a recent interview with LL).

“The idea that we have turnover at the level that we do, it’s like trying to run into a hurricane,” Frumin says. “How do you make the schools better if the teachers are only there for two or three years?”

Ward 3 Councilmember Matt Frumin

Goldstein is optimistic that these ideas have broad support on the Council, and hopes to earn Mendelson’s support for many of them. The chairman, however, doesn’t seem to think much of the bill thus far.

“We need to know: What is the [DCPS] chancellor doing about reducing turnover, and reducing absenteeism, and achieving grade-level literacy throughout primary grades?” Mendelson says. “We can’t legislate that, but we can do oversight and press on that.”

He is more interested, however, in addressing some of these matters through the budget, like the question of flexible scheduling. Henderson agrees with that approach and argues that this might be the simpler way for lawmakers to address the issue, rather than legislating a solution. For instance, she thinks the Council could set aside money to help schools pilot different scheduling approaches, like letting educators returning from family or medical leave come back to work on a reduced schedule (while hiring part-time staff to fill in the gaps).

But those are all generally smaller changes that leave the elephant in the room unaddressed: the impact of IMPACT. The Michelle Rhee-era teacher evaluation system has been one of the most persistent sources of conflict between public school teachers and administrators since its creation back in 2009, with multiple studies finding that it’s racially biased against non-white teachers. IMPACT’s exact effects on teacher turnover are still hotly debated, but the Washington Teachers’ Union, Goldstein, and a variety of other prominent voices have called for urgent changes to the evaluation system as a key first step in reducing attrition rates.

Yet it seems unlikely that the Council will take up any changes to IMPACT as part of its legislative work in this two-year period. For starters, Mendelson is opposed to the Council meddling with the issue, even though he has concerns about how Chancellor Lewis Ferebee has responded to IMPACT’s failings: “We should defer to the expert with responsibility for this, rather than stepping in as if we understand education and educating kids,” Mendelson says.

Henderson similarly believes that there’s no simple way to legislate a fix to IMPACT, since she finds it unlikely the Council will design a new teacher evaluation system all on its own and then require DCPS to enforce it. A more reasonable change might be something like Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White’s bill, which would allow the WTU to negotiate over IMPACT as part of the collective bargaining process (something the union is currently barred from doing). He’s twice introduced legislation to that effect but it hasn’t made much progress; White’s office didn’t respond to LL’s questions about whether he plans to revive the bill in the future.

But Parker and Frumin seem keen to keep pressing on the issue, even if they don’t find success this year. The Ward 5 lawmaker is more circumspect when LL inquired about the matter, saying that “whether it’s IMPACT or another system, we must have a fair accountability system for our teachers.” But Frumin is more direct. For a soft-spoken politician that has styled himself as a consensus builder, the strength of his feelings on this issue speaks volumes.

“It is hard to argue that IMPACT has not had a negative effect on teacher retention,” Frumin says. “We need to rethink IMPACT so that it works in terms of accountability, but it does not drive teachers away and have the phenomenon where teachers in higher-income communities, where the children may be easier to manage, succeed under the evaluation system, and teachers in communities where children have more challenges have a harder time succeeding.”