As a former teacher, and a mom with a fast-growing daughter, I think about our public school system a lot. Both of my parents attended public schools. They were fortunate to build great careers, and by the time they had to make a decision on my schooling they probably could have afforded to send me to a private school like many kids in our neighborhood. They enrolled me in public school because they wanted me to grow and learn in - and from - a culturally, racially and economically diverse community like they did. Of course, they were right, and to this day I am grateful for their decision.
My personal experience included seeing classmates struggle to focus and thrive in school because they didn't have access to the resources or stable home setting that many of us had. It's one reason I joined the Peace Corps and went to Guyana to teach literacy to low-income children. Most of my students didn't have running water at home, let alone books to read. Many came from homes where food was scarce and domestic violence was prevalent, so they were not positioned to be successful when they arrived in the classroom each day. I’m sure the performance metrics in our community wouldn’t have looked great if measured by a standardized test, but everyone worked hard, and worked together, to drive toward real improvement.
DC public schools are receiving less funding in real dollars today than they were ten years ago. They are funded using a formula that is based on the number of students in a given school, without regard for whether a school is low-performing and needs additional attention, so when students in one neighborhood attend schools across the city it becomes a zero sum game that ends with local public schools losing access to funding. We need to increase the funding formula we use for our schools, and in addition we need to dedicate mandatory funding to special education and language access programs so all of our students have the resources they need to be successful.
Parents, teachers and advocates have worked very hard, and our schools have improved. We can, and should, talk about that progress while also acknowledging that there’s a lot more work to do. Even before the recent scandal broke, we knew the graduation rates at Eastern, Dunbar and Cardozo are approximately 70, 65 and 50 percent, respectively. We know we can do better.
As a former teacher, I know teachers and administrators accomplish amazing things with limited resources, and in fact are often spending their own money on classroom supplies so students have what they need. In speaking with parents and teachers, the theme I hear is that while DC officials show up for meetings, they aren’t necessarily there to take input from the community and adjust their plans accordingly. Many teachers find themselves asking for the same resources year over year, and never receiving them. Many parents see overcrowding, high teacher and staff turnover, and a lottery system that doesn't seem to be giving everyone the same shot at access to a high-quality neighborhood school, but have trouble getting clear explanations or solutions.
We are also in the midst of a series of scandals that have made many neighbors rightly nervous. We should begin by questioning the leaders on our DC Council, who have oversight authority yet had to learn of these scandals from reporters. The job of our legislative body is to solve problems before they become crises, and in this instance they failed to do so because they were asleep at the wheel. When failure means harming the future of our city's children, it's not acceptable. You can count on me to be proactive when it comes to looking out for the future of our city's children.
That’s ultimately where we've gone wrong: leaders don't wait for crises to emerge, and ignore calls for faster progress. Leaders proactively reach out to all corners of the community - particularly those we know are underserved - to identify the issues, listen for the solutions, and make them happen.