Barras: Creating a permanent underclass in D.C.

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

Education is supposed to be the great equalizer. That adage is losing currency as Mayor Vincent C. Gray and Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced the closing of 15 facilities over two years -- many in low-income communities.

That action and other questionable policies appear to be creating three separate and unequal systems of public education: quality traditional schools, charters and crummy institutions in low-income neighborhoods. The achievement gap between low-income students and other DCPS students illustrates the problem.

"The gap has widened, in some cases by as much as 50 percent," said education expert Mary Levy, who analyzed National Assessment of Educational Progress test scores from 2003 through 2012.

Levy found, for example, a 29 percent gap in reading scores of low-income fourth-graders and other DCPS students between 2007 and 2012. The gap for math was 74 percent.

"To see that happening is distressing," said Levy.

It isn't what reform advocates envisioned when they lent their support five years ago to mayoral control of the city's public education apparatus.

Education wastelands are developing in some low-income communities as more and more schools are closed. Together with the underfunding of its public university -- University of the District of Columbia -- the city is aiding the expansion of a permanent underclass, populated by the minimally educated and the functionally illiterate.

Melissa Salmanowitz said, "DCPS will reinvest funds from [closed] schools to improve programming and equity across the District. The goal is to use funds and resources in a more efficient and strategic way in our schools."

Councilman David Catania, chairman of the Committee on Education and Libraries, said he is concerned about the achievement gap: "Do we need to go to mandatory summer school? Do we need longer school days? I think yes."

He said parents should be encouraged to have higher expectations for themselves and their children. "There shouldn't be near universal support for a school that has a 36 percent proficiency rate [or lower] in reading," he said.

Catania has identified funding and instructional equity as a priority for his committee. "We are going to get to the bottom of the budget," which is $800 million for 2013. He said he will watch how much savings are generated from closings and where that money goes.

"The dollars have to be tied to academic achievement," he added.

The city should reconsider its current funding formula, said Levy. When Michelle Rhee became chancellor and Henderson became deputy chancellor, they decided to end DCPS' practice of using local funds to provide additional support for low-income students. Instead, the money was spent for "comprehensive staffing." Each school was supposed to receive sufficient staff to satisfy academic needs.

When Henderson released her initial proposal to close 20 schools last year, it was clear several institutions had more administrative staff than instructional staff. One reason she gave for the "consolidations" is that DCPS' budget couldn't support enhanced staffing and academic programs at those schools.

What happened? Sounds like it's time for a forensic audit.

Jonetta Rose Barras can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

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