One more piece of Gray’s education record: OSSE

Friday’s story about D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s education record leaves out, thanks to space limits, plenty of details about strengths and weaknesses in the District’s schools policies.

One area that may get more attention in the coming months is the Office of the State Superintendent of Education — the city agency responsible for monitoring special-education compliance, administering standardized tests and funneling federal grants to schools.

Created in 2007 by the same law that brought mayoral control to the schools, OSSE is a low-profile linchpin in the city’s education reform efforts. But for much of its young existence, it has been wracked by leadership turnover and mired in management problems.

The agency scored a major victory in 2012 when it emerged from court oversight of special-education bus transportation, but it has continued to struggle under Gray (D) as it did under his predecessor, Adrian Fenty.

In the past year, the agency has been led by three different superintendents and has made headlines for failing to publicly disclose its scoring methodology for 2013 standardized tests; for paying a Chicago firm $90,000 to present at a one-day parent summit; and for persistently weak financial management of a popular federal college-aid program.

“That OSSE is still reeling after all these years doesn’t say much good about the mayor,” said Robert Cane, executive director of the pro-charter advocacy group FOCUS, which often clashes with OSSE over regulations that FOCUS sees as violating charter schools’ right to autonomy.

Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith said she believes that the current superintendent, Jesus Aguirre, will strengthen the agency. Aguirre joined OSSE in October after leaving his post as head of the Department of Parks and Recreation.

“We all recognize that OSSE has a longer way to go” than other city education agencies, said Smith, who oversees the agency.

Aguirre’s nomination barely squeaked out of the D.C. Council’s Education Committee. Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and David Grosso (I-At Large) raised questions about Aguirre’s past, including his leadership of an Arizona charter school that was closed in part because of failure to comply with federal grant reporting requirements.

Wells, Grosso and committee Chairman David A. Catania (I-At Large) also questioned whether Aguirre is independent enough from Gray to carry out OSSE’s responsibilities — including monitoring the school system, also controlled by the mayor — without political interference.

Catania, a frequent critic of OSSE, introduced a bill last year that would give the agency somewhat more independence from the mayor’s office, allowing the superintendent to be dismissed only for cause. Now Catania is running for mayor and has pledged to make education a central theme of his campaign.

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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