Testimony Before the Council of the District of Columbia Committee of the Whole at the Education Agencies Performance Oversight Hearing

Mar 2, 2022

Good afternoon, Chairman Mendelson and members of the Committee. My name is Shannon Hodge, and I am the Founding Executive Director of the DC Charter School Alliance, the local non-profit that advocates on behalf of public charter schools to ensure that every student can choose high-quality public schools that prepare them for lifelong success. I’m here today to share thoughts on the performance of the District’s education agencies.

Before I begin, I want to express my gratitude for everyone in the charter school community—school leaders, teachers, staff, families, and students. It’s been nearly two years since we closed our physical doors for the first time amid COVID-19 fears. Since then, we’ve asked a lot of each other to make sure our students continue to get the education they deserve. It hasn’t been easy. We know everyone’s exhausted, and that we’ve been forced to settle into a new kind of normal that we never anticipated.

That’s what makes these conversations so critically important. We must recognize all the hard work and dedication everyone involved in educating students has put in, and match that recognition with action. Today, I’m going to focus on what schools need from the District of Columbia’s agencies and officials to accelerate recovery and serve our students better than we ever have before.

Bold and Targeted Financial Supports

First, now more than ever, we need a budget that demonstrates commitment to adequate funding for our schools to continue providing the opportunity for every student to acquire the knowledge, skills, and values necessary to be successful and find fulfillment in their lives. Our city’s most under-resourced and vulnerable students need full investment for a full recovery. That starts with at least a 5.9 percent increase in the UPSFF foundation level. While we’re grateful for and encouraged by Mayor Bowser’s announcement of such an increase, we need to do even more to keep up with rising costs in the city, as the Social Security Cost-of-Living Adjustment for 2022 will also be 5.9 percent.

The City must also support continued, increased, and equitable investments in public education in the following ways: 

  • Ensure critical funds are directed to students most in need of targeted interventions and support by fully funding the at-risk weight at .37, the level recommended in the 2013 DC Education Adequacy Study. While increases to the foundation level are critical, failing to adequately support students designated as at-risk only disserves them.
  • Increase the charter facilities allotment by 3.1 percent so that charter schools can continue to receive the funds needed to secure and maintain school buildings. 
  • Increase funding for the Department of Behavioral Health’s School-Based Behavioral Health Program by $2.4 million to stabilize community-based organization grant funding, support the Community of Practice, and assist schools with effective implementation.
  • Create housing and tax incentives as educator retention and recruitment tools, particularly as costs of living in the District continue to rise.
  • Increase adult school funding to the level recommended in the 2013 adequacy study and provide support for at-risk adult students. 

We know that we all need to think boldly about the future of public education in the city. That’s necessary to create a truly equitable system that provides a high-quality education for every student.

Better Coordination and Communication with City Agencies

Beyond just adequate funding to support our students, we need city agencies to better coordinate and communicate with school leaders. We’re happy to report that under the leadership of new State Superintendent of Education Christina Grant, we’ve started to see stronger collaboration between OSSE and other city agencies. But we believe that greater coordination and communication between city agencies and charter schools is both possible and critical—and a relationship that can benefit both.

I’ll start with the DC Department of Health (DC Health). As we continue to deal with the ongoing pandemic, meaningful engagement with DC Health is critical. First, our schools need greater clarity around what they can ask school nurses to do and an equitable distribution of nurses that considers the number of students they will be serving. And, as we testified last week, schools need accurate, user-friendly data from DC Health on immunization compliance, especially now that the COVID-19 vaccine has been added to the list of required immunizations students must receive to attend school (“No Shots, No School”). Third, to have a functioning test-to-stay program and keep students and educators in school buildings while we continue navigating schooling during COVID, charter schools need DC Health’s help to administer COVID-19 tests onsite. DC Health can help organize doctors or labs to support robust test-to-stay programs. And finally, we ask DC Health to collaborate with charter schools when drafting new guidance. Incorporating input in advance will make implementation smoother, enabling schools to focus more on instruction, rather than interpreting guidance.

Next, I’ll turn to the DC Department of Transportation (DDOT). As the news headlines can attest, traffic safety is a critical issue in the city (1) and that definitely affects schools. We’re encouraged that the Council is considering legislation for improved traffic safety around schools along with transit subsidies. In addition, we really need effective DDOT planning that considers all the needs of our students and communities and finds solutions. We must consider the problem holistically – the current approach is not working, and the compounding problems are taking a toll on our most vulnerable students.

Next, we encourage the Office of Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) to develop and engage schools in a citywide solution for high-quality internet access. While charter schools were especially nimble when COVID-19 first forced their physical doors to close, quickly sending home laptops and providing assistance in finding internet services if needed relatively quickly, the reality is that the pandemic revealed and exacerbated a deep inequity in our public education system that had long been lurking just beneath the surface: the digital divide.

The pandemic taught us just how important access to the internet is, and all the ways families that have reliable wifi also have access to information and programs that those who don’t are excluded from. Lack of wifi access is a key structural equity issue for our students and their families – that’s why the city must make a plan to ensure every resident has internet access.

Rethinking Accountability

That leads me to my final point. Charter schools’ autonomy have allowed them to be nimble during the pandemic in responding quickly to needs, and frankly, a lot of those needs had nothing to do with school. Whether it’s getting students from Point A to Point B because public transportation isn’t working or finding low- or no-cost internet service for families who can’t afford it, charter schools have gone above and beyond to serve their students. And while they have been able to fill those gaps because of their autonomy, they’ve done so at great expense.

If we’re going to address all the equity issues that the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated, charter school leaders need to have a meaningful role in the discussions around accountability and what recovery looks like going forward. And let me be clear—we don’t anticipate recovery will happen overnight. It will be a multi-year process, and we will need the space and opportunity to innovate in a way that not just gets students back to where they were, but accelerates their learning and prepares them for success in life. But that only underscores the need to work together—across agencies and with school leaders—and to orient our entire accountability system around equity for our most vulnerable students.

Moving Forward

As I’ve said before this Council many times before, DC’s public charter schools are nimble, responsive, and innovative. Each charter school has a different model to create unique and responsive learning environments for their students so each one can choose a high-quality public school and receive a great public education that prepares them for lifelong success.

We’ve learned a lot during the last couple of very difficult years. But we still have work to do. We know that we all share the same goal—to build a truly equitable system that provides an education for all our students. We at the DC Charter School Alliance are ready to work alongside the Council and the City to ensure we are providing the education our students deserve.

Thank you for your time and attention to this matter, and I welcome your questions.

(1) Traffic fatalities have now reached a 14-year high, with wards 7 and 8 accounting for nearly half of road deaths in recent years.