The provisions of the Public Education Reform Amendment Act (PERAA) were designed to respond to serious, long-standing concerns about school quality and student outcomes in a way that fits the unique circumstances in the District of Columbia. To understand what the city chose to do, how the officials charged with implementing the reforms went about it, and the significance of the observations we can make now about what has happened, it is important to understand their context. The Phase I report (National Research Council, 2011) provides a historical overview of D.C.’s public schools and their governance, and the circumstances surrounding the enactment of PERAA. It also discusses the national reform context in which PERAA was designed, as well as first impressions of the initial implementation of the law in D.C.
In this chapter, we discuss the context in which the reforms were implemented. We first look briefly at how the basic characteristics of the students and schools have changed in the years since the law was passed. We then review the marked growth in the number of charter schools and the percentage of public school students enrolling in those schools. The rest of the chapter focuses on the issue of mayoral control of public schools: we consider how this action was expected to improve D.C.’s schools and how this approach has been implemented in some other urban districts. We also examine the challenges of establishing definitively what effects can be attributed to mayoral control and discuss what can be learned about D.C.’s implementation of PERAA from considering those issues.
was enacted. In assembling basic descriptive information about the school system and its students for this chapter we requested data from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), and the Public Charter School Board (PCSB) and searched city websites and other sources. We did not receive or find all the information we had hoped for (see Appendix A), and the data supplied by city agencies was in some cases difficult to reconcile, as we discuss below.
The city’s public schools serve a population that is predominantly black and low-income. D.C.’s overall population has been growing since PERAA was enacted (to 658,893 in 2014),1 and its racial composition has changed. The population is now less than 50 percent black, down from 60 percent in 2000.2 The percentages of black students in both DCPS and the charter schools have also decreased, but they remain higher than in the general population. In 2013-2014, 71 percent of DCPS students and 79 percent of charter students were black, compared with 81 and 84 percent, respectively, in 2006-2007.3
The city also reports that the public schools are serving an increasingly low-income population: data supplied by OSSE show that between 2006-2007 and 2013-2014 the percentage of all public school students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches increased from 45 percent to 66 percent: see Table 2-1. For DCPS, OSSE reported an increase from 47 to 56 percent, and for the charter schools an increase from 41 to 54 percent. However, the percentages across these years are not comparable because in 2012-2013 the city changed the way eligibility for free and reduced-prices lunches was determined. Under the new definition, in public schools in which 40 percent or more of the student body is defined as at risk,4 all students are automatically eligible, regardless of family income. Consequently, the number of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches is likely to be much larger, so it is not possible to tell from the OSSE data whether there was an actual increase in students who would be eligible because of low family income.
The committee examined poverty data available from the American Community Survey to see whether the changes reported by the city could
1See http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/11000.html [April 2015].
2The city was 70 percent black in 1980.
3Data supplied by OSSE. The percentage data available on the DCPS website and supplied by PCSB were different.
TABLE 2-1 Characteristics of Students Enrolled in All D.C. Public Schools
|Characteristic||DCPS||%||Charters||%||Total Across Schools||% Across Schools||DCPS||%||Charters||%||Total||Total%|
|Students, Number and %||52,632||73||19,388||27||72,020||100||46,393||56||36,564||44||82,957||100|
|Special Education Students||7,091||13||2,178||11||9,269||13||6,614||14||4,429||12||11,043||13|
|Recipients of Free or Reduced-Price Lunches||24,596||47||7,853||41||32,449||45||26,177||56||19,597||54||44,774||55|
NOTE: The information in this table does not exactly match the information that is available on the DCPS website (see http://dcps.dc.gov/DCPS/About+DCPS/DCPS+Data/DCPS+at+a+Glance [June 2015]) and the Public Charter Schools Board website (see http://focusdc.org/data [June 2015]).
SOURCE: Information provided by Office of the State Superintendent of Education and available at http://osse.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/osse/publication/attachments/SY13-14%20Enrollment%20Audit%20Overview%20%282.26.2014%29%5B1%5D.pdf [February 2015].
be corroborated. The data in Table 2-2 show that, overall, the percentages of children living at the poverty level or below 185 percent of the poverty level have stayed fairly stable over the past 14 years. The percentage of children living in or near poverty in Wards 7 and 8 has fluctuated more and was larger in 2014 than in 2000. However, this increase is not large enough to explain the differences in the percentage of low-income students reported by OSSE.
Nevertheless, the public schools serve many low-income families, and economic and other disadvantages are not evenly distributed in the city. As city residents know, D.C. has eight wards, which are political districts that each elect a representative to the D.C. Council: see Figure 2-1. The wards are comparable in population but vary in their economic and racial characteristics.
Tables 2-3 and 2-4 summarize data showing some of the differences across the wards. For example, the poverty rate in Ward 8 is 36 percent, and 49 percent of its children live in poverty. In Ward 3, the poverty rate is 7.9 percent, and 1.9 percent of its children live in poverty. Wards 5, 7, and 8 have the highest percentages of black residents, while Ward 3 has the lowest. Wards 7 and 8 also have the highest percentages of children in their overall populations, 24 and 30 percent, respectively, as compared with 4.8 percent in Ward 2 and 13 percent in Ward 3, for example.5 A 2011 analysis of risk factors for children by ward showed the greatest risks in Wards 5, 7, and 8 (Child Trends, 2011). D.C.’s persistently wide achievement gaps are likely the result of interactions among race, poverty, and disparities in school quality across the city, an issue we discuss in other chapters (DC Action for Children, 2012; see also chapters in Duncan and Murnane, 2011).
The Schools and School Enrollment
Obtaining a definitive number of public schools in the city was not straightforward because agencies use different means of counting schools.6Table 2-5 presents school counts from the website of Neighborhood DC, a project of the Urban Institute and Washington DC Local Initiatives Support Corporation; these counts do not precisely match the counts posted on the DCPS and PCSB websites.
Approximately 83,000 students were enrolled in DCPS and public charter schools in 2013-2014. Figure 2-2 summarizes trends between 2001
5See http://www.neighborhoodinfodc.org/wards/Nbr_prof_wrde1.html [March 2015].
6In response to our requests, OSSE provided a list of DCPS and charter schools that serve each grade level. Different schools serve different and multiple grade levels, and these data did not include a total number of individual schools in each sector or in the city. The DCPS and PCSB websites each post a count of actual schools in their respective sectors, by type.
TABLE 2-2 Percentage of Children Classified as Living in or Near Poverty in the District of Columbia
|In Poverty||At or Below 185% of the Poverty Level|
|Year||All Children Ages 5-18||Public/Charter Ages 5-18||Wards 7-8 Public/Charter Ages 5-18||All Children Ages 5-18||Public/Charter Ages 5-18||Wards 7-8 Public/Charter Ages 5-18|
SOURCE: Values calculated using microdata available at the website for the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series, see http://usa.ipums.org [April 2015].
and 2014. A historical analysis shows that enrollment in the city’s public schools began declining in 1969 and decreased in most years from then until 2010.7 That analysis also shows that total public school enrollment had declined to 70,919 in 2008-2009 (after PERAA) but has grown since then. The growth is primarily accounted for by the charter schools. According to information provided by OSSE (see Table 2-1, above) enrollment in public charters grew from 19,390 in 2006-2007 to 36,564 in 2013-2014. Enrollment in DCPS continued a multiyear decline between 2006-2007 and 2009-2010, but it has stabilized since then and was 46,393 in 2013-2014.8
8As another comparison for context, private school enrollment declined between 2008 and 2010, from 15,789 to 13,170. See https://www.census.gov/hhes/school/files/ewert_private_school_enrollment.pdf [March 2015]. We could not locate more recent data.
FIGURE 2-1 Ward map.
SOURCE: Mollenbeck (2014). Reprinted with permission from Andrew Mollenbeck/ WTOP.
TABLE 2-3 Percentage of Population and Race and Ethnicity by Ward, 2010
|Ward||Total Population||Black Non-Hispanic||White Non-Hispanic||Hispanic||Asian|
SOURCE: Data from website of Neighborhood DC, a project of the Urban Institute and Washington DC Local Initiatives Support Corporation; see http://www.neighborhoodinfodc.org/wards/Nbr_prof_wrde1.html [March 2015].
TABLE 2-4 Social and Economic Characteristics of D.C.’s Eight Wards
|Ward||Poverty Rate/% of Children in Poverty (2007-2011)||Average Family Income (2007-2011)||Violent/ Property Crimes per 1,000 People (2011)||% Unemployment Rate (2007-2011)||% of Persons Without HS Diploma (2007-2011)|
|1||15.0 ± 1.5
22.0 ± 13.0
|$99,428 ± 9,338||14.0/50.0||7.2 ± 3.6||16.0 ± 4.1|
|2||15.0 ± 1.5
8.5 ± 35.0
|$222,345 ± 27,879||9.4/67.0||3.9 ± 4.1||6.3 ± 5.2|
|3||7.9 ± 1.0
1.9 ± 14.0
|$240,044 ± 17,393||1.5/21.0||3.5 ± 4.0||2.9 ± 4.8|
|4||12.0 ± 1.6
15.0 ± 8.8
|$115,482 ± 8,206||7.5/30.0||11.0 ± 4.5||16.0 ± 4.7|
|5||20.0 ± 9.6
26.0 ± 9.6
|$79,153 ± 6,850||13.0/46.0||15.0 ± 4.1||18.0 ± 4.5|
27.0 ± 14.0
|$129,674 ± 9,983||12.0/49.0||7.5 ± 4.1||10.0 ± 4.4|
|7||26.0 ± 2.5
41.0 ± 6.5
|$57,387 ± 4,757||17.0/42.0||19.0 ± 6.5||17.0 ± 5.3|
|8||36.0 ± 2.7
49.0 ± 4.3
|$43,255 ± 3,558||19.0/38.0||22.0 ± 6.4||19.0 ± 5.3|
NOTE: Source used ± to indicate range of certainty about the data.
SOURCE: Data from website of Neighborhood DC, a project of the Urban Institute and Washington DC Local Initiatives Support Corporation; see http://www.neighborhoodinfodc.org/wards/Nbr_prof_wrde1.html [March 2015].
TABLE 2-5 Schools in Each Ward, 2013
SOURCE: Data from website of Neighborhood DC, a project of the Urban Institute and Washington DC Local Initiatives Support Corporation; see http://www.neighborhoodinfodc.org/wards/wards.html [April 2015].
FIGURE 2-2 Public school enrollment trends in the District of Columbia, 2001-2014.
SOURCE: Data from Office of the State Superintendent of Education (2014e).
Growth of the Charter Sector
In giving the mayor direct control of the public schools, PERAA implicitly included the public charter schools in that charge (D.C. Official Code § 38-191), and the law’s designers expected that the charter sector would grow. In 2005-2006, charter schools served just over 20 percent of students, and was predicted that the percentage would grow to 35 percent by 2015-2016 (Parthenon Group, 2006). Yet by 2014, the percentage was 44 percent. PCSB reports that there are approximately 100 individual charter schools, governed by 61 chartering organizations, which function as school districts, or local education agencies (LEAs).9 D.C. has one of the largest percentages of a city’s students enrolled in charters nationwide, and D.C. is viewed as a leader by proponents of charter schools.10
The first charter schools opened in D.C. after the District of Columbia School Reform Act of 1995 (an act of Congress), which defined charters as public schools (P.L. 38-1802.01). This law also specified that public charter schools be exempt from “statutes, policies, rules, and regulations established for the District of Columbia public schools by the superintendent, Board of Education, Mayor, District of Columbia Council, or Authority” (P.L. 38-1802.04(c)(3)(B)).
We discuss what PERAA indicated about the governance and oversight of these schools in Chapter 3, but note here that the charter landscape in D.C. has evolved since PERAA was written and enacted. When the city’s first charter schools opened, they were comparatively small in scale and few in number, with many intended to serve particular needs (Henig et al., 1999). Today, not only are nearly half of D.C.’s public school students enrolled in charter schools, but many of the charter LEAs are management organizations with ties outside the city, such as Friendship Public Charter School (6 D.C. campuses; 2 in other jurisdictions); Imagine Schools (2 D.C. campuses; 71 nationwide); and KIPP (15 D.C. campuses; 162 nationwide). Several of the charter LEAs are run by for-profit companies (Brown, 2014a).11
The growth of the charter sector has significantly altered the challenge of governing D.C.’s public schools, and the school system today is different from the one for which PERAA was designed. The role of charter schools
9Charters are granted to LEAs, some of which encompass multiple school campuses.
10For example, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools rated D.C. 10th of 43 states; see http://www.publiccharters.org/get-the-facts/law-database/states/DC/ [January 2015]. Friends of Choice in Urban Schools describes the Act establishing charters in D.C. as “one of the strongest charter school laws in the United States.” See http://focusdc.org/school-reform-act [January 2015].
11The companies are Imagine Schools, Inc., Academica, Community Action Partners, and Basis Educational Group (Brown, 2014a).
in public education has sometimes been controversial. Our committee takes no position in favor of or opposed to charter schools, but we do consider questions about governance and accountability for the students enrolled in charters as a key aspect of our evaluation. As some scholars have observed, a primary consideration in legislation to support or expand charter schools is the degree of flexibility given to charters and the degree of accountability to government expected from charter schools (Henig, 2013, p. 137 and authors cited there). Whether managed by a for-profit enterprise or not, whether a “mom and pop” operation or part of a national network, a charter school is a public school. Charter schools are funded with taxpayer dollars and they exist to serve the educational needs of a jurisdiction’s students.
Thus, it is important to consider how education leaders satisfy themselves and city residents that a full range of educational opportunities is available to all students in both charter and traditional schools.
The most prominent image of PERAA and education reform in Washington, D.C., over the past 7 years has been as a city where the mayor has direct authority over the public schools. The committee wanted to understand the change to mayoral control in the contexts both of the national menu of reform strategies and of the unique historical and political circumstances in the nation’s capital. We commissioned a paper to explore the ways mayoral control is intended to work, the challenges in identifying the effects of this reform, and some comparisons with other cities—ones that have and have not adopted mayoral control (Henig, 2014). We draw on that paper and other research relevant to this topic to discuss the context of the PERAA reforms.
Mayoral Control as an Education Reform Strategy
Mayoral control is essentially a governance reform that shifts how responsibility and authority for the public schools are structured. Although the specifics vary from city to city, the overall effect is to move policy decisions about schools from single-purpose governance, overseen by an elected school board, to inclusion within the city government led by the mayor. Proponents of mayoral control typically offer four basic rationales for what it can accomplish. The first rationale stems from frustration with the chronic poor performance of urban schools: a need “to do something” and a belief that vesting decision-making authority in one elected official is a more promising option than the status quo of governance by amateurs
on an often divided school board.12 A second, related rationale is that when the schools are better incorporated into city government, there will be greater coordination across youth-serving agencies, including those responsible for children’s health and welfare, youth employment, after-school activities, and cultural opportunities.
A third rationale cited by proponents of mayoral control is that a school district, as a single-purpose agency, is isolated not only from other government agencies, but also from private-sector groups and institutions. Research on urban school reform in 11 major U.S. cities, including the District of Columbia, has shown that its effectiveness depends on the schools being able to forge ongoing relationships with disparate groups, ranging from business elites and labor unions to grassroots community activists, and to draw on broader civic capacity (the ability of different sectors of the community to work together to solve problems) (Stone et al., 2001). Mayors may be in a better position than school boards to mobilize civic capacity on behalf of the schools because their own electoral and governing coalitions are broad and cross multiple sectors.
The fourth rationale that proponents of mayoral control offer is that it increases democratic accountability for schools’ performance. Instead of holding school boards to account in low-turnout elections, voters can hold the mayor, a high-visibility public figure, accountable (Wong and Shen, 2013).13 Furthermore, because every mayor’s constituencies cross sectors, the scope of political debate is broad and more voices with opinions about the schools are likely to be considered.
Critics of mayoral control point to the distance between city hall and the world of individual schools and classrooms: they argue that centralizing authority in a mayor’s office makes education governance less democratic because in practice the public has fewer outlets for expressing its concerns than it does under a multimember school board (especially one elected by wards or subdistricts). They also argue that decision making is often less transparent as a result because authority and influence are concentrated in a single executive. Analysts also note that the goals of mayoral control may not always relate to improved educational performance, and in some instances have primarily focused on resolving financial problems or altering labor–management relations. Similarly, changing the governance structure to encompass a larger constituency does not necessarily ensure more competent school leadership (Meier, 2004). As we found in our interviews and
12Henig and Fraser (2009) characterize this rationale as a push factor, describing the movement toward mayoral control as the latest in a series of reforms motivated by the belief that any change would have to bring improvement.
13In contrast, critics have argued that mayoral control blurs democratic accountability because it is difficult to determine whether voters, in judging mayoral performance at election time, are considering their records on schools or on other policy areas (Gold et al., 2011).
public forums, perceptions about whether mayoral control makes governance more or less democratic and competent vary significantly. Opinions on this question may depend in part on how an observer views the value of administration by experts, as compared with a perhaps less efficient but more democratic model in which the public participates more actively in decision making.
Whether the rationale for mayoral control rests on arguments about greater coordination, civic capacity-building, resources, or accountability, proponents expect that a change in governance at the top of the system will result in enhanced learning opportunities and outcomes for students. The logic is that a school system will be “jolted” through new institutional rules and structures. These new structures will affect patterns of influence over policy decisions and in turn, the distribution of resources, the recruitment and management of personnel, and choices about school organization and curriculum. Together, these changes will then lead to a fundamental shift in how educators teach and students learn.
For a number of reasons, a positive relationship between governance changes and improved student outcomes is by no means assured. As a governance reform, mayoral control may be implemented differently over time and place, depending on the leaders who implement it and the choices they make with regard to personnel, curriculum, and other student supports. A change in governance structures does not deliver educational results on its own; it requires an infrastructure through which policy decisions can be translated into school and classroom practice (Cohen and Moffitt, 2009). That infrastructure is shaped not just by the person a mayor chooses to lead the day-to-day operations of the school system, but also by how much attention a mayor chooses to devote to the schools and how he or she interacts with the city council that typically shares budgetary authority over city agencies. In addition, even a major jolt such as mayoral control is not introduced in an institutional or programmatic void. Some policies and basic structures, such as the number of schools, how they are organized, and what they teach, will persist at least in the short term, and these features may be quite resistant to change. Consequently, the result may be a hybrid system with newer mayoral priorities layered onto traditional elements (Henig, 2013).
Further complicating the relationship between governance and student outcomes is that mayoral control has most recently represented one strategy among several on the national agenda, or, as Henig characterizes it, “one arrow in a quiver of … reform ideas” (Henig, 2013, p. 14). Consequently, it has generally been implemented at the same time that other reforms, such as school choice and standards-based assessment and accountability, are also under way. For example, New York City is well known for having implemented other reforms at the same time its mayor was given control
over the public schools. Yet cities vary significantly in their approaches. Not all mayoral control school systems have adopted reforms such as those in New York City. Several cities—including Jackson, Mississippi; New Haven, Connecticut; Boston, Massachusetts; and Trenton, New Jersey—have long operated under mayoral control, but only New Haven’s recent programmatic choices include reform strategies such as contracting with a diverse group of providers (portfolio management) to manage low-performing schools. Yet New Haven has also forged a collaborative model of school district and union interaction, in contrast to more contentious strategies that have characterized some mayoral control cities, such as Chicago and New York.
Other cities that do not have mayoral control have also pursued reform agendas. Some, including Denver, Colorado, and Los Angeles, California, have adopted policies (e.g., charter school expansion and the use of student test scores in evaluating teachers) that are currently prominent on the national reform agenda. In contrast, other non-mayoral control cities, such as Long Beach, California, and Aldine, Texas, have improved educational outcomes for their low-income students by focusing on locally developed curricular and instructional strategies rather than adopting more radical personnel and management reforms (Kirp, 2013).
These examples illustrate the difficulty of disentangling the effects of governance models from the programmatic choices made by city and school leaders. The task is particularly challenging in those cities that adopted mayoral control over the past two decades and implemented other reforms at the same time. When these things happen simultaneously, it is impossible to clearly determine the relative contribution of governance structures or particular policies and practices to student outcomes observed several years later.
Another factor that makes it difficult to attribute outcomes to mayoral control is the fact that reform under mayoral control is not a static process. The relationship between governance and student outcomes may change as new mayors are elected who have different policy priorities. Only a few cities have moved into the second and third generation of mayoral control, so there is very little systematic knowledge about change over time. However, Chicago, Boston, and Cleveland, which have seen significant continuity in policy direction through several mayors, are useful examples. In particular, Cleveland, with its third-generation mayor, exemplifies a relatively stable approach to governance and school reform. In these three cities—as in D.C.—the current mayors have generally continued the policy strategies and styles (whether incremental or more dramatic) of their predecessors. The election of Bill de Blasio in New York City presents a contrast because his policy preferences with regard to the schools differ sharply from those of his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg. Although it is too soon
to predict with any certainty, it may be that his administration will demonstrate that as a governance model, mayoral control can be adapted to a wide range of political styles and policy agendas.
In addition, the match between leadership style and policy choices may change as the governance reform matures and evolves in a local context. For example, a mayor who takes over the schools with the goal of comprehensive change in the form of market reforms, greater performance accountability, and increased reliance on data-driven decisions, may prefer a school leader who moves quickly, depends on expert counsel, and assumes a combative or distant stance toward those opposed to specific changes. However, in another context or where the policies and processes associated with the initial “jolt” are already in place, a mayor may decide that a different style will be more effective. In these cases, the mayoral style may look more like those of the late Thomas Menino in Boston, Massachusetts, or Brian Stack in Union City, New Jersey. Both of these leaders have been characterized as pragmatic politicians who focused on problem solving; were able to negotiate and compromise in building support coalitions; were willing to commit to a slow, incremental process; and were supportive of the school leaders they selected (Portz, 2004; Kirp, 2013).
The number of cases is still too few to draw any solid generalizations about the match between leadership styles and local context or timing. Nevertheless, multiple studies of political leadership support the idea that different times and circumstances require different kinds of leaders (e.g., Jones, 1989; Skowronek, 1993; Bennis and Thomas, 2002; Greenstein, 2004).
This brief overview of mayoral control as one component of a national reform agenda suggests three implications for assessing this policy in the D.C. context:
- Mayoral control may operate in very different ways, depending on the civic and school leaders who execute it, the programmatic choices they make, and how they structure the implementation process.
- These factors, along with the organizational distance between city hall and individual classrooms, make it difficult to identify a causal relationship between governance changes and student outcomes.
- Mayoral control may operate quite differently over time as it matures: new leaders arrive with different policy preferences and styles and both the city and the school system will learn from their mistakes and adapt to new circumstances.
Mayoral Control in the District of Columbia
As PERAA and the move to mayoral control have been implemented, D.C.’s progress is often compared to progress in Chicago and New York, which have adopted similar governance changes and reform agendas. Although such comparisons are to some extent valid, it is important to keep in mind that each city’s political context and history shape its outcomes. In enacting the shift from a half elected and half mayor-appointed school board, D.C. lawmakers were continuing a long tradition of turning to governance changes as a strategy for remedying the shortcomings of the school system. Since 1804, the system has operated under 17 governance and administrative structures. Most of the changes in the 20th century were prompted by the publication of reports documenting the public schools’ failure to educate the city’s students.
For 70 years, these reports from a variety of civic organizations, along with media accounts and congressional hearings, pointed to several factors as responsible for unequal learning opportunities and chronic low student achievement: incompetent management and lack of fiscal oversight, unequal and inefficient distribution of resources to schools, and a political history of racially divided neighborhoods and wards (for a summary of this history, see National Research Council, 2011, Ch. 3).
A number of factors help explain the city’s continuing reliance on governance changes as a remedy to the schools’ problems, but a prominent one has been its unique jurisdictional status. Although the City of Washington had several elected mayors between 1802 and 1871, D.C. elected its first 20th century mayor in 1975. In addition, D.C.’s unique status as a city and a quasi-state for the purposes of federal grant programs has meant that it is responsible for the duties of a local school district as well as those of a state agency.
Congress has the authority to overturn laws passed by the D.C. Council, and D.C. does not have voting representatives to the House of Representatives or the Senate, and D.C. residents have long felt disenfranchised by this situation. Consequently, the introduction of a partly elected school board in 1968 and the Home Rule Act of 1973 were opportunities to design structures that could ensure greater political representation and accountability (e.g., through ward-based elections). Each of the changes made since then has reflected the tradeoffs between administrative operations that promote efficiency and institutions and processes that allow citizen voices to be heard and seriously considered in decision making.
The city conducted an extensive background review before enacting PERAA. Between January 5, 2007, when the draft PERAA legislation was introduced by then-city council chair Vincent Gray at the request of Mayor Adrian Fenty, and its passage 3 months later by a vote of 9-2, the council
held seven hearings that included nearly 60 hours of testimony from local officials and community activists, as well as national education leaders and researchers. A report that summarized this background review (Council of the District of Columbia Committee of the Whole, 2007) suggests that the council members were well aware of the limitations of what could be expected from the governance changes embodied in it:14
As history reveals and expert witnesses testified to, there is nothing inherent in a particular governance structure directly related to improved student academic achievement (p. 10) … Mayoral control is not a panacea (p. 11)… . Mayor Fenty’s proposed mayoral takeover is just that—a proposal for a governance change. It was not intended to contain specifics pertaining to academic reform (p. 12).
The council report reviews the experience of other school districts that had already implemented mayoral control. It summarizes reports of academic progress made under these arrangements, but it also notes criticisms of the validity of the evidence and indicates that a number of other cities with mayoral involvement but not control had experienced significant academic improvement. It identifies, in the available research on mayoral control, various advantages, including better working relationships between the schools and other government agencies and the ability of a mayor to mobilize a broad constituency and expand institutional commitment to the schools. The report implicitly suggests that these changes can lead to greater parental involvement, strengthened accountability, and expanded managerial capacity—resources that can be used in addressing issues of student performance and parental satisfaction.
At the same time, the report also cites research arguing that the abolition of elected school boards has sometimes reduced democratic decision making, which has disproportionately affected minority communities. The report’s authors note that they are sensitive to the fact that the board of education was the first elected body in the District of Columbia since the 19th century. Consequently, PERAA included additional provisions in the legislation to ensure that the new State Board of Education (SBOE) would not just be an advisory board, but would have policy authority with regard to state standards and accountability plans and the certification and accreditation of teacher preparation programs. Despite acknowledging the
14The 2007 report of the council’s “Committee of the Whole,” describes the proposed law and provides supporting analysis. In articulating reasons for supporting the move to mayoral control, the report’s authors drew heavily on a study of the public schools prepared by the Parthenon Group (2006) (see the Phase I report, National Research Council, 2011), which made recommendations for improvement.
limitations and potential pitfalls of mayoral control, the report concluded (Council of the District of Columbia Committee of the Whole, 2007):
the Committee is unwilling and District residents cannot afford to continue accepting the status quo. Bill 17-0001 [PERAA] provides for a change in the governance structure of DCPS that best suits the District of Columbia allowing for student academic achievement and improvement in the overall well being of every child (p. 15).
The council’s reasoning seems to parallel the motivations in other cities that moved to mayoral control because of frustration with the status quo. The report notes that the D.C. system was in a “state of emergency” because of two decades of underperformance, its complexity and lack of accountability, and the need to accelerate the system’s capacity to improve student achievement. The report concluded that “Bill 17-0001 proposes to address all of these conditions” (p. 10).
As in other cities, the change to mayoral control in D.C. established new structures, such as the OSSE (a much expanded version of the former State Education Office) and the SBOE. But it also gave new authority to an existing institution, the PCSB, which was established by Congress in 1995. PERAA transferred to the PCSB authority over the 18 charter schools that had been authorized by the local board of education that PERAA abolished. At the same time, the legislation broadened the PCSB’s basis of authority by specifying poor academic performance as grounds for charter revocation and requiring performance reviews of charter schools every 3 years instead of every 5 years.
The treatment of charter schools in PERAA is an example of a mayoral control statute authorizing a major change in governance while also maintaining a key institution whose rules advance a particular type of school system. In allowing for a growing charter sector and increasing the PCSB’s authority, city officials were acknowledging the context in which mayoral control was being implemented, and they were ensuring that this approach to school organization—although controversial among some groups in the city—would persist.
In allowing the PCSB to continue, the D.C. Council was implicitly endorsing the presence of charter schools as a reform strategy. This decision can be considered a unique aspect of PERAA because the other institutions the law established are essentially neutral with regard to the substantive policies that can be adopted and implemented through them. Mayor Fenty had provided a general outline of his draft academic action plan in his testimony before the council (Fenty, 2007b), but the law itself does not address the strategies and approaches Fenty described. PERAA deals only with institutional structures and rules for how the public schools are to be
governed, not the programmatic substance of education reform (see Chapter 3 for a summary of PERAA’s major provisions). In giving the mayor increased authority, the legislation sets up a framework through which each mayor and his or her appointed leaders could adopt and implement their chosen approaches to personnel management, school organization, and classroom instruction.
The specific strategies that Fenty and the chancellor he appointed, Michelle Rhee, chose were prominent on the national reform agenda: an emphasis on improving human capital using recruitment, evaluation, and compensation of educators; data-driven decision making; more uniform standards across schools; and greater school-level accountability through the use of student testing and other indicators. PERAA allows new leaders the possibility of enacting a fundamentally different policy agenda. Even though a new mayor, Vincent Gray, was elected in 2011, most commentators note that despite changes in leadership styles, the policy agenda and basic approach to managing public schools in D.C. have not changed significantly.15 Yet even with similar policy preferences, new leaders with different styles can shape the tenor and speed of implementation; how the concerns and interests of educators, parents, and the public are reflected in decision making; and the extent to which policies are altered in response to changing conditions.
A valid assessment of the effects of mayoral control requires that the new structures it authorizes, the policies adopted through those structures, and the manner in which they are implemented each be considered as separate factors that may shape any changes in school quality and student learning. In the case of the District of Columbia, these elements of structure, policy, and leadership are further complicated by its legacy of limited payoffs from a long history of governance reforms and its unique status as the nation’s capital: a city that has some state-level functions and responsibilities but one that is also subject to congressional control.
The legislative record of PERAA suggests that the potential benefits and possible pitfalls of mayoral control as they might apply in the D.C. context were well understood by its sponsors. Those realistic expectations were reflected in the requirement that there be an independent 5-year evaluation of the progress made under the new structures.
In the next chapter, as part of that evaluation, we describe how the institutions authorized in PERAA have been implemented and modified since 2007. Subsequent chapters examine continuity and change in the major policies and programs that have defined the D.C. public school reform agenda over two generations of mayoral control.
15The current mayor, Muriel Bowser, who took office at the beginning of 2015, has indicated that she does not intend to radically change the approach that has been established—for example, she retained the chancellor—but it is too soon to assess her approach to public education.