GAO Sees Progress, Problems After D.C. Schools Takeover

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 24, 2009

The District's struggling public school system has made significant progress during two years of mayoral control, but lack of planning and transparency has hindered some reforms, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported Thursday.

The report, requested by the Senate subcommittee that oversees District affairs, praised Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee for "bold steps" taken to close under-enrolled schools, improve test scores and develop teachers' skills and methods of monitoring their performance.

But Cornelia M. Ashby, director of education and workforce issues for GAO, told the Senate subcommittee that "some false steps" had hampered efforts to transform the system, which serves 45,000 students in 128 schools.

The report -- based in part on interviews with school system officials, principals and teachers union leaders -- describes problems with a staffing model that Rhee instituted last year to ensure that schools had music, art and physical education teachers. When officials allowed principals to request changes in funding and staffing for individual schools, the report says, the District failed to communicate decisions to community members.

"A more transparent process, one that made public their rationale for decisions, would have helped assure stakeholders, including the D.C. Council, that changes . . . were made consistently and fairly," the report says.

The report also cites an independent analysis by Mary Levy, formerly of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, showing that some schools received less in per-pupil funding than other schools with similar populations. School officials have said that they have taken steps to prevent those disparities from recurring.

Other initiatives have also not gone according to plan, the report says. Officials told the GAO that the decision to hire 150 teacher "coaches" to raise the skill level of instructors was made too late last summer. As a result, they were unable to recruit enough qualified staff members to fill the jobs.

Progress on a "data warehouse" that would allow school officials to access a broad array of information on students and teachers is said to be significantly behind schedule.

The report also describes a lack of clear strategic planning with specific targets that can be communicated to the community stakeholders.

Victor Reinoso, deputy mayor for education, said the Fenty administration was more interested in results than detailed blueprints.

"Our emphasis has been on accountability and results, and less on plans which the city was quite successful in doing previously," he said.

Rhee told the committee that although progress has been encouraging, much remains to be done.

"Despite the progress of the last two years, the situation remains dire when less than half of our students can read, write and do math at grade level," Rhee said.

Committee members lauded Rhee, Reinoso and the District's acting state superintendent, Kerri Briggs, for the start they have made.

"I know it's not easy," said Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), reflecting on his days of working with a big urban school system as mayor of Cleveland. "It's tough, tough, tough."

District officials took exception to some aspects of the report. In a letter to Ashby last month, Reinoso, Rhee and Briggs said it "falls short of objectively conveying the context" of initiatives underway and "adequately capturing all of the progress that has been made to date."

Ashby told the committee Thursday that she stood by the report.

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