Testimony Before the Council of the District of Columbia Committee of the Whole at the Hearing on Bill 24-080, DC State Education Agency Independence Amendment Act of 2021 and Bill 24-101, Office of the State Superintendent of Education Independence Amendment Act of 2021

Oct 26, 2021

Good morning, 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 all students in the District receive the great public education they deserve.

On behalf of the DC charter school community, I’m grateful for the opportunity to speak with you about the two proposals before you today to make the Office of the State Superintendent (OSSE) independent from the Mayor.

Now Is Not the Time for New Bureaucracies

I want to begin by saying clearly up front that while there may be a need at some point to review OSSE governance structures, now is not the right time to consider such sweeping changes. We are still actively in the middle of a pandemic, one that is changing every day. Right now, OSSE plays a critical role in making sure all our schools provide safe in-person learning opportunities and follow DC Health’s health and safety protocols. This should continue to be OSSE’s focus—not preparing for changes to its bureaucratic structure.

Frankly, our school leaders, who would be responsible for their schools’ responses to shifts in OSSE’s structures, have enough on their plates. They are in totally uncharted territory, having to be both educators and public health officials. They are exhausted and understaffed, but after 18 months of responding to this pandemic and its shifting demands, they remain dedicated to showing up every day to ensure students are safe and receiving the education they deserve. The last thing they need right now is unnecessary change, more upheaval, and more bureaucracy.

Consistent and Coherent Governance Are Critical to Progress

Significant progress has been made in our public education system thanks to the reforms of the 1990s, including instituting mayoral control. DC schools were ranked among the worst in the country. But a recent study of the impacts of school reforms in the District found that school choice and coherent governance have driven DC school progress in student achievement.1 And a critical part of that governance is a strong state education agency.

And while it’s undeniable that we have more work to do, particularly in supporting students at-risk of academic failure who have fallen even further behind their peers during the pandemic, we should look to build on the progress we have made and focus on solutions that will result in improving student outcomes. Changing OSSE’s structure does not accomplish that goal.

We Need Streamlined Bureaucracies & Increased Coordination

Neither of the bills before you take into account the complex nature of OSSE’s work. OSSE administers and oversees federal grant making, conducts annual enrollment audits, disperses funding to public charter schools, creates uniform curriculum standards for teaching, and trains school staff on key topics that affect teaching and learning in the District’s classrooms—just to name a few of their responsibilities.

We strongly oppose the DC State Education Agency Independence Amendment Act of 2021 (Bill 24-080). OSSE should be removed from politics as much as possible. Moving the agency under the elected State Board of Education (SBOE) rather than keeping it under the Office of the Mayor will only add even more politics into the work. We believe that democratically elected leaders should have oversight of government agencies, but moving OSSE from the Executive Office of the Mayor to SBOE doesn’t accomplish that goal. In fact, OSSE is already subjected to significant oversight by the entire Council. Moving OSSE under SBOE would subject the agency to oversight of both elected bodies. Not only is it unnecessary, but it’s also burdensome and distracting. The bottom line is that we need to streamline bureaucracies—not make them worse.

Making OSSE an independent agency within the DC government, as the Office of the State Superintendent of Education Independence Amendment Act of 2021 (Bill 24-101) would do, would separate it from other agencies that it is deeply interconnected with. For example, OSSE and DC Health work closely together on a number of issues relating to the ongoing pandemic and need to be able to make coordinated decisions. OSSE simply needs the support and collaboration of every city agency to best accomplish their work.

An Alternative: The District of Columbia Education Research Practice Partnership

There may come a time when we will need a serious examination of our education governance system. But any changes made should be done carefully, with significant stakeholder input on implementation. Instead of changing OSSE’s structure and oversight in isolation—without regard for how such changes could upset public education in the District—the entire ecosystem needs deep study. Fortunately, the Council, in partnership with Mayor Bowser, has already created a mechanism for such a study.

In March 2019, this Council created the independent Research Practice Partnership (RPP) to “conduct independent education-related research that will support improvement in the District’s public schools” (DC Code § 38-785.02(b)). We encourage the Council not to abandon a structure it established just a couple years ago in favor of upending OSSE’s governance during a pandemic. Instead, we strongly urge the Council to allow the independent RPP, which is removed from politics, to undertake studies to inform any shifts in OSSE’s structure that the Council considers. As an alternative to the bills before you, the Council should focus on ensuring that the RPP is operational and operating to achieve its critical mission on supporting improvement in the District’s public schools.

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