Jonetta Rose Barras: Building a permanent underclass, Part 2

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

When this whole education reform thing started in D.C., there was talk about putting children first. District officials, including then-Mayor Adrian Fenty and DC Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, advocated for extended instructional days and year-round schooling. Those changes would enhance academic achievement, particularly in low-performing schools.

Forget all of that. We're not in Kansas anymore. Don't bother clicking those ruby slippers.

Mayor Vincent Gray's proposed 2014 budget for DCPS, if allowed to stand, could harm children and erode the meager progress that has been made. It would, among other things, eliminate full-time librarians and reduce some foreign-language programs. Further, the $819 million proposal, developed with Chancellor Kaya Henderson, creates new troubles for the nearly 47,000-student system.

"You were left to defend a budget that is indefensible," D.C. Councilman David Catania, chairman of the education committee, told Henderson on Thursday during a public hearing. He called for "greater leadership" from the mayor.

"I am very concerned you will not be able to convince parents to stay in DCPS with this budget," said Councilman Tommy Wells. "I think this budget sets us back."

"I am confident and proud of the budget we put together," Henderson said. She acknowledged last-minute reductions had been made by the mayor's office to her total budget. "We are doing the best we can with the hand we were dealt."

Catania said, working with his colleagues, he will develop a Stabilization Fund that would hold school-based reductions to no more than 5 percent.

Insufficient money is one thing. Lousy policy decisions are another.

Consider Henderson's summer school plan, which would serve only 2,700 children in kindergarten through eighth grade. There are more than 10,000 students that DCPS considers "struggling" in reading, however.

According to its website, letters of invitation to attend the five-week remedial session went out to 7,700 students. But there is space for only 2,700.

Are the mayor and chancellor engaging in a hoax? Who is the wizard?

"We need a more robust, targeted use of summer school, so that every child not on grade level can attend," said Catania. He pledged to introduce this month emergency legislation that would provide more money for this year's summer school.

There has been, under Gray and Henderson, a steady decline in summer school. In 2010, 9,800 young people participated. That number dropped in 2011 to 6,538. Last year, it was down to 6,436.

Henderson defended her "targeted" summer school plan. She also said an additional 1,500 high school students will be served through two separate programs. And 1,000 special education students also are expected to attend. Even considering her new totals, summer school placements would drop to 6,200 — the third straight reduction.

While Gray may deserve praise for the city's impressive prekindergarten program, the havoc being wreaked on traditional schools and the growing inequities are disturbing.

" 'One city' is a laugh line," said Catania, referring to Gray's oft-spoken pledge to serve all citizens equally. "It is a cynical joke. He is essentially assigning those children to a reduced future."

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

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