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Republican congressman calls D.C. schools ‘crappy,’ ‘inmate factories’

The remarks came during a congressional hearing on the oversight of D.C.

Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Ala.), speaks during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing Wednesday. (Al Drago/Bloomberg News)
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Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Ala.) blasted public schools in D.C. on Wednesday during a congressional hearing that focused largely on crime in the city, calling the schools “crappy” and accusing them of producing criminals.

“Your schools are not only dropout factories, they’re inmate factories,” Palmer told a panel of D.C. officials that included D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), the city’s chief financial officer and the police union chairman. The statement came as Palmer questioned leaders about juvenile crimes involving guns and drugs.

Mendelson, who chairs the D.C. Council committee that oversees education issues, pushed back. “I don’t agree that the D.C. public schools are inmate factories.”

Mendelson appeared in front of the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability to answer questions that revolved around crime and policing. The hearing came as the Republican-majority committee prepared to decide whether to advance a measure blocking D.C.'s major police accountability legislation.

But, at some points, congressional lawmakers directed questions toward the District’s schools. GOP members criticized city leaders for low test scores and the rate of chronic absenteeism, which skyrocketed to 48 percent after schools reopened last year. The share of chronically absent students fell to 41 percent — still above pre-pandemic levels — in December, according to the city’s attendance task force.

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In the exchange with Mendelson, Palmer added that he did not think all of the city’s schools are inmate factories. “I said you have some crappy schools,” he said. “So you’re telling me all of them are excellent?”

“No, I’m not saying all of them are excellent,” Mendelson responded. “But I would not say that they are factories for crime.”

Palmer also referenced a statistic that the majority of prison inmates nationwide are high school dropouts. He did not provide a source for that figure.

However, the majority of D.C. students graduate high school. The city has steadily improved its four-year completion rates, from about 71 percent during the 2019-2020 school year to 75 percent last year.

But Mendelson did seem to suggest D.C. schools need more stable funding to improve outcomes for students. The council has been in an ongoing struggle with the city’s mayor and public schools chancellor over a law passed late last year that sought to make sure schools receive at least the same amount of money in their budgets as they did the year prior.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has proposed a budget for D.C. that will increase the city’s per-pupil funding formula by more than 5 percent, but will see dozens of individual campuses lose money.

“The council is very aggressively fighting with the chancellor to improve the stability in funding for our individual schools so that there’s more dollars in the classrooms so that we have better educational outcomes,” Mendelson told congressional lawmakers.

Bowser, during a D.C. Council hearing on Friday, said that enrollment changes play a factor in how schools are funded and that her budget is based on an equity model that targets campuses with the highest need. Mendelson told Bowser the 13-member body would make changes to her proposal to reflect the new law.