The recent investigation into cheating in D.C. schools highlights a little-understood fact in the District: Our mayor has too much power. Every state-level agency charged with overseeing the mayor’s activities reports to the mayor — a level of control that exists nowhere else in the country.
The agency that investigates cheating, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), is charged with overseeing our schools. But OSSE also reports to the mayor, the same official who runs most of the schools OSSE is supposed to oversee.
The same conflict exists with the state-level agency charged with overseeing job training in the District. This agency, the Workforce Investment Council (WIC), reports to the same mayor who runs job training and wants voters to see his efforts to train job seekers as successful.
D.C. residents often grow frustrated at the lack of accountability for those who are supposed to serve our children and our job seekers. The truth is that we can usher in a new era of accountability in education and job training very easily.
We need to give the state-level agencies that oversee education and job training some of the independence that they enjoy in the 50 states. As with the D.C. chief financial officer, the heads of our state-level oversight agencies should have terms staggered with the mayor’s term and be dismissible only for cause.
The political use of these oversight agencies by the District administration is obvious. OSSE released its report on cheating in D.C. schools on a Friday afternoon, a common tactic to hide bad news. By comparison, the state of Georgia released its damning report of widespread cheating in the Atlanta public school system on a Tuesday.
Georgia investigated hundreds of Atlanta classrooms, finding cheating in 140. OSSE limited its investigation to 41 classrooms it “flagged” for investigation — 18 DCPS classrooms and 23 public charter school classrooms. When cheating was found to have taken place in 44 percent of them, including 67 percent of the DCPS classrooms examined, OSSE declined to investigate more classrooms. The state education superintendent claimed this “serves as proof that 99.4 percent [of classrooms] are following the rules.”
The higher level of accountability in Atlanta is simple to understand. No one in Georgia’s state government reports to the mayor of Atlanta. In the District, everyone at OSSE reports to the mayor.
Some will point out that there have been five cheating investigations by other agencies. But the question isn’t whether we found all the cheating in D.C. schools. These five investigations were optional, triggered by media reports of cheating.
OSSE is the only agency required to audit test security and numerous other issues. The question, then, is whether we can count on OSSE to oversee D.C. schools when it reports to the same mayor that the schools do.
In job training, too, the folks who oversee the mayor’s activities report to the mayor. For several years, the WIC met irregularly; when it did meet, members were told that they reported to the Department of Employment Services — the primary agency they were supposed to oversee.
Under federal law, it is WIC’s job to certify the agencies charged with helping unemployed people find jobs and the training and literacy services they need to prepare for work — providers known as “one-stops.” But the District’s WIC has never certified one-stops and has certainly never decertified failing one-stops.
OSSE has a similar responsibility to begin decertifying pre-kindergarten providers that fall short of quality standards by 2014. However, when I asked the deputy superintendent for early childhood education last year how many were likely to make the cut, she said that all D.C. pre-K providers were “gold”-rated and would be certified.
D.C. residents sometimes chafe at the independence given to the city’s chief financial officer; it can feel like this restriction on the mayor’s authority over fiscal matters is a congressionally imposed punishment for previous waste and abuse. The reality is that our mayor possesses power over state oversight agencies unheard of in other cities.
By giving the same independence to the heads of OSSE and the WIC that our chief financial officer enjoys, we can show that a weaker mayor is a sign of the District’s strength. We don’t need Congress to impose close oversight, because we are capable of overseeing ourselves.
The writer is a contributor to the blog Greater Greater Washington.
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