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Children in Crisis: The Failure of Public Education in the DistrictDistrict of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority
November 12, 1996
The Failure of Public Education in the DistrictDCPS is failing. While there are individual schools and students that have records of outstanding academic performance, excellent management by principals, and exceptional community and parent involvement, the school system as a whole is in a state of crisis. DCPS' management structure and education delivery system have failed our children.
DCPS fails to teach its pupils even the basics of education. As a result, the system's students score significantly lower on standardized academic achievement tests than their peers in comparable districts around the nation. Performance varies extensively among wards; the least affluent wards have experienced the greatest decline in test scores over the last five years. The assessment of the school system based on these statistics is frightening: on average, for each additional year that students stay in DCPS, the less likely they are to succeed, not because they are unable to succeed, but because the system does not prepare them to succeed.
Assessments of DCPS' administration and operations are just as bleak. The system does not have effective budgeting, personnel, and procurement processes in place. Because the budgeting process does not allocate adequate funds into particular accounts, hundreds of reprogrammings are required each year which limit the budget's effectiveness as a planning and management tool. Personnel management also has significant shortcomings. For example, new teachers were hired by DCPS in September, yet many had not been paid two months later. Furthermore, the lack of an adequate contract review process has allowed DCPS to develop contracts that have been questioned publicly.
In addition, DCPS lacks a comprehensive facilities plan. The children are suffering under substandard conditions that are shameful and dangerous. Even after two years of controversy, fire code violations still persist. District students often find themselves in classrooms with leaky roofs, no heat in the winter, and without the knowledge that they are secure from acts or threats of criminal violence against their personal safety.
Moreover, the public school system is mismanaged. The Superintendent even concedes his lack of control over numerous fundamental operations of the system, including not even having an accurate estimate of the number of people employed by his organization or the number of students they serve. Also, the Board of Education has failed in its responsibility to oversee the school system adequately, which includes evaluating the Superintendent and contract oversight.
By any basic category for evaluation -- such as educational, managerial, financial, and physical safety -- the school system has failed our children placing itself in a state of educational and operational crisis. Fundamental justice for the school children, their parents, and all the taxpayers and citizens who support and depend upon DCPS, requires a complete overhaul in governance structure and management systems.
Education Outcomes are Inequitable and WeakOver the past five years, the erosion in the District's public schools has accelerated, especially for the thousands of children in the poorest wards. Since 1991, test scores on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS) show a net decline in both reading and mathematics skills (see figure 1).2 Between 1991 and 1996, mathematics scores declined by an average of 6 percent for grades 6, 8, and 11, and reading scores declined by 13.5 percent in grade 6 and remain below national norms in grades 8 and 11.
Even internally, DCPS students, over time, do not show any improvement in test scores. Test scores declined from 1992 to 1994, without exception in both reading and math. The CTBS scores suggest that the longer students stay in the District 's public school system, the less likely they are to succeed educationally. This failure is the result not of the students -- for all students can succeed -- but of the educationally and managerially bankrupt school system.
While test scores in wards 1, 3, 4 and 5 have remained the same or slightly improved, scores in wards 2, 7, and 8 have declined significantly. Several schools in wards seven and eight have seen startling declines in test scores of 15 to 20 percentage points or more. Ward 7, for example, declined 12 percentile points between 1991 and 1996. The low achievement levels attest to the fact that thousands of children, especially in wards 2, 7, and 8, are not being taught the fundamental skills necessary to succeed after they leave DCPS.
The CTBS is not the only standardized test on which District students underperformed the national average. On the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), District students performed well below students nationwide. While SAT scores can be skewed because the population is self-selecting, they show that DC students performed well below the national average by close to 100 points (see figure 3). Such poor performance is not the result of the inability of District students to excel -- the Authority believes that every child can learn and that every student can succeed -- but of the school system's failure to fully prepare them for test taking and teach them critical thinking and analysis skills.
On the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Trial State Assessment, the performance of District students also has declined. In the latest assessment, fourth graders' reading progress declined by 6 points (see figure 4; use your browser's Back button to return) between 1992 and 1994. Seventy-eight percent of District 4th graders, performing below the basic reading level,3 were unable to demonstrate that they understood the overall meaning of passages they read, nor could they relate the text to their own experiences.
Of the 39 states that reported proficiency scores to the National Center for Education Statistics, DCPS' 180 was the lowest average score of any state -- well below the national average of 216. DCPS was the only jurisdiction that had an average score under 200.4
Violent Behavior PersistsNot only has educational achievement declined in the District's schools, but both students and teachers are subjected to levels of violence that are twice the national average, according to the National Education Goals Panel. The following comparisons show how DCPS measures against national averages:
Although there are a variety of ways to deal with discipline issues, one way that is measured nationally is suspensions. Interestingly, despite the systemic problems with crime, violent behavior, and discipline in the District's schools, substantially fewer students are suspended in DCPS than in other school systems around the country. Figure 6 shows that the District suspends just 24 students per thousand, compared to a peer district average of 123 students per thousand. Some systems, including Cleveland, Milwaukee, and New Orleans, suspend eight times as many students as DCPS.
Graduation Rates Remain PoorBetween 1989 and 1995, 40% of high school students either dropped out or left the District's public schools. Over the last three years, students dropped out or left DCPS at an increasingly faster rate. In 1995, only 53 percent of the students who entered DC high schools in 9th grade remained to graduate four years later -- a decline of over 10 percent from the 1993 statistic. The greatest migration out of DCPS for the classes of 1993 to 1995 occurred in grades 11 and 12. In 1995, the total number of students in DCPS fell from the previous year by over 27 percent in 11th grade, and by 24 percent in 12th grade. Figure 7 (not included in this HTML version) depicts this attrition in the student population.
A System of MismanagementAlthough the Superintendent and the President of the Board of Education have argued that more dollars are needed to support the District's schools, it remains to be determined whether or not additional operational funding is needed in the light of an assessment of per capita spending. Funding for DCPS comes from local funds, and federal and private grants. Funding peaked in Fiscal Year (FY) 1994 and has declined slightly since then. Figure 8 (not included in this HTML version) shows funding over the past ten years in constant dollars.
Comparisons of the District's school expenditures with other jurisdictions are difficult because ofthe many ways in which expenditures are reported. However, the District's average cost per student clearly exceeds the national average, and it is also substantially higher than many comparable urban school districts and neighboring districts. Figure 9 depicts these comparisons.6
By examining DCPS budgets from previous years, reviewing expenditure.pattems, and comparing funding with similar school districts, it is clear that a contributing factor to the deficits that have arisen is inadequate oversight by management and the Board. For example:
The following sections outline the condition of DCPS' critical management components and how those management failures directly and indirectly affect the learning mission.
Personnel Management: DCPS lacks controls over personnelDCPS' personnel operations are in disarray. Every aspect is problematic: the inability to identify the total full-time equivalent (FTEs) positions, lack of adequate administrative controls, incomplete planning, and the inability to understand or relate the impact of personnel on the educational mission.
DCPS is also not focusing its resources at the educational level. Hundreds of personnel do not directly serve the students in schools. For example, two executive assistants working in the Superintendent's Office are shown in the personnel records as assigned to the Elementary Education function. Because of poor data, it is impossible to determine the location and number of personnel on a timely basis. There are numerous indications of educational personnel not working in the schools despite a personnel database that indicates otherwise. Such error-prone information makes it impossible to know how many and which personnel are directly serving the District's students.
There are numerous examples of DCPS' ineffective management of its personnel. The following are some examples:
Staff position listings are error-prone. In August 1996, in preparation for the Authority's public hearing on school readiness, the DCPS Personnel Office provided information on the status of school staffing, including teaching, administrative, and maintenance positions. This data indicated that less than 100 positions were vacant as of mid-August. However, the data was replete with errors. In one instance, the data included the staffing needs of four schools that had been closed.15 Staffing problems have continued into this school year. As of late September 1996, teachers who were hired and working for a month have not been paid, timesheets are being submitted for personnel who have retired, and staff who retired in June have not yet received their retirement checks.
Similarly, there are employees in DCPS who are listed under the wrong responsibility centers (RCs).16 Even the members of the Superintendent's executive management team are not listed within the correct RCs. Of the top 25 executives and leaders associated with DCPS, only one is listed as an Executive Service employee. However, the individual listed is actually a kindergarten teacher responsible for overseeing the Mathematics, Science, and Technology Initiative. The remaining executive leadership team, including the Superintendent, Vice-Superintendent, and other management/ administrative personnel, are improperly listed as either Career Appointments or Education Service Appointments.
Updating this information would be difficult in the current system because hundreds of personnel folders cannot be located. Efforts to follow up on the recent payroll audit were hampered by DCPS' inability to find 25 percent of the persormel folders requested. Even if the files could be found, the information included might not be informative or substantive. Hundreds, if not thousands, of personnel files are incomplete and replete with errors. The DC Auditor, who serves as the watchdog for the City Council, recently outlined numerous examples of file irregularity, including a personnel file showing that a teacher who had retired more than a decade ago was still receiving regular paychecks. The auditor also observed thousands of personnel documents stacked in boxes that needed to be filed.
Teacher qualifications are not updated regularly, resulting in substantial back payment adjustments. Data on qualifications of teachers is not updated in a timely manner, resulting in large back payments because of changes in the compensation rate (that is, a teacher earning an advanced degree qualifies for higher pay). Every pay period scores of DCPS employees receive back pay adjustments because the personnel records were not updated in a timely manner.
DCPS' Certification Office and Personnel Office have poorly coordinated functions with respect to teacher certification. In a separate survey commissioned by the Authority, review of personnel records and observation of nearly 300 classes found that 32 percent of classroom teachers do not have required teacher certifications.17 No records of certification could be found at DCPS' Certification Office or in DCPS ' Personnel Office for 13 percent of the teachers observed. In addition, another 15 percent of the teachers observed appeared to have an expired certification, and 4 percent of the teachers observed were apparently ineligible for certification.18 Finally, the staff observed throughout the survey that DCPS' teacher certification records are poorly organized and haphazardly maintained, and appear to be substantially incomplete.
All these problems, collectively, illustrate a personnel operation that does not function efficiently or effectively. These problems in personnel would be alarming enough in and of themselves. However, they have a significant impact on the other areas of DCPS' operations. Since personnel constitute over 80 percent of DCPS' costs, personnel mismanagement has a significant impact on the budget. While DCPS, as of October 1, 1996, is under the FTE cap by 356 positions, the margin for error is non-existent. Many of the teachers that have been hired this fiscal year are not yet entered into the payroll system and therefore do not show up against the FTE cap. As these employees are entered into the system and the true number of employees becomes known, DCPS' success in separating employees will become clearer.
The group most affected by personnel mismanagement are the students that the system serves. Currently, DCPS cannot determine whether all of its teachers are qualified and certified to instruct students. Furthermore, the lack of personnel records makes it just as difficult to determine if principals possess the necessary qualifications to manage the schools. These types of occurrences result in the reduction of the quality of education being delivered to some, if not all, students in the system.
Facilities Management: buildings are in disrepair and underutilizedDCPS has also mismanaged the repair and maintenance of its facilities. Throughout the system, buildings are old, in disrepair, and underutilized.
The recent problems with fire code violations are only symptomatic of the overall state of facility disrepair. The average school in the District is more than fifty years old, and the availability of capital funds to improve them has been limited. A report by the Superintendent's Task Force on Education Infrastructure for the 21st Century estimated that $ 1.2 billion would be needed to upgrade all schools to current standards. This estimate was based on a 1995 Project Resources Inc. (PRI) study that had updated a 1992 facilities assessment through the use of a representative sampling technique. The General Services Administration (GSA) has now updated that information and estimates that over $2 billion is required. With every rain storm, students are subjected to leaking roofs. With every cold spell, many students must put on overcoats to keep warm. This is clearly unacceptable when it comes to our children and their education.
Although it is clear that there are not enough funds to address all the facility needs, it is also clear that the available funds have been poorly managed. Since 1985, DCPS has had more than $ 130 million in capital funds, yet DCPS has not spent all of the capital or operating funds available. For example, funds were set aside in the FY 96 budget to move and install equipment from closed schools to temporary facilities. Although equipment was moved, DCPS failed to obligate funds for installation. In one instance, students taking specialized trade classes at Chamberlain High School could not continue their studies because of DCPS' failure to provide proper educational supplies to Chamberlain's temporary facility. This failure may delay granting degrees and licenses for these students. Furthermore, in FY 96, DCPS lost $3 million for facilities maintenance because it failed to spend the funds.
Benchmarking against peer school districts also suggests that the District has too many schools. For example, like the District, New Orleans also has approximately 80,000 students enrolled in public schools, yet New Orleans operates only 122 schools while DCPS, with the closure of six schools this year, has 158 sites.
Many observers see a link between DCPS' problems of dilapidated facilities and its problem of excess capacity. The Rivlin Commission and the Committee on Public Education (COPE) have proposed closing unneeded schools and using the proceeds from the sale or lease of these properties to fund capital improvements.19 At the same time, closing the most dilapidated properties would allow the schools to concentrate capital and operating dollars on a smaller number of schools.
Despite the existence of facilities problems for years, DCPS has never developed a strategic plan for how to address facilities management. This is especially important because DCPS currently has substantial excess facilities capacity. In fact, DCPS has nearly two million more square feet of school space today than in 1970, when enrollment was 150,000 students, or about twice as many as today. Based on capacity data from the Superintendent's Task Force for the 21st Century and enrollment as of October 3, 1996, the average DCPS elementary school is at 74 percent of capacity, the average middle or junior high school is at 57 percent of capacity, and the average senior high school is at 69 percent of capacity. Figure 13 (not included in this HTML version) depicts the utilization rates of a sample of 10 schools. In fact, 23 schools are at 50 percent capacity or less. The Task Force's estimates for facilities repair includes nearly $349 million to upgrade these 23 schools.20
Fixing all of DCPS' 180 used and vacant facilities would not be an efficient expenditure of DCPS' limited resources. But, DCPS has never developed a strategic facilities plan that prioritizes the use of its limited resources. Such a plan must consider educational needs, demographic characteristics, real estate factors, and building needs. According to GSA, such a study can be completed in 90 days.
Indicative of the problems caused by the lack of a facilities plan is the haphazard method of choosing priorities for facilities repair. For example, Noyes Elementary School submitted a roof repair request two years ago. This was deferred until a District Judge closed the school citing the roof as a fire code violation. Only after attention was drawn by the closure did the school system act to replace the roof.
Clearly, facilities need to be closed, and alternative methods of providing quality classroom space, including new construction of modern facilities if cost effective, need to be considered. The Task Force report that produced the $ 1.2 billion estimate recommended development of a strategic plan, but the plan has not been produced. Without such a plan, DCPS funding is spent on short term concerns such as the next leaky roof or missing fire door, irrespective of long term needs, priorities and thought to which schools should remain open. In managing its facilities, DCPS has failed to undertake repairs proactively and has not maximized the value of its resources, either of space or capital.
Budget and Finance: systems are flawed and error-proneDCPS budgets are unrealistic and controls over expenditures are inadequate. These problems make it difficult to accurately determine the cost of various operations on a timely basis and make it impossible to hold managers accountable for budget ceilings. With such poor budget processes, DCPS managers can not assure that limited funds are focused on areas that directly impact the educational mission.
"The current financial condition and financial management of the District of Columbia Public Schools is in disarray. The budget process is lacking fundamental attributes of sound financial management and budgetary principles. There is little planning that sets a road map for the preparation, formulation and implementation of the budget. The lack of accurate and timely financial information generally, and the absence of accurate student enrollment numbers specifically, are impediments to establishing a credible funding formula and space utilization plan. The Capital Improvement budget for the District of Columbia Public Schools is generally ignored."Efficient and effective budgeting is critical to long term stability for DCPS. Educating children becomes difficult if budgets are not effective planning and management tools because resources will not be allocated adequately. Our children only suffer more when the systems does not properly plan its spending on education.
Procurement: questionable and costly practicesLike other DCPS management areas, the procurement office exhibits clear indications of mismanagement. Contracts have been entered into with unqualified vendors that have not provided adequate service in the past. Other contracts have been executed without required competition. These practices have resulted in overpayment for some services and payment for other services that have been substandard. For example, a contract with an unqualified food service vendor resulted in cold breakfast cereal being served to students for lunch, and a contract with an unqualified firm resulted in seriously deficient conditions for some special education students.
There are several aspects of DCPS' contracting operations that raise concerns:
Food services contracting. The Authority rejected DCPS' proposed food services privatization contract on August 9, 1996. The contract was rejected because the procurement process used was neither normal, fair, nor efficient. In the Authority' s view, the regular process was circumvented in order to expedite the contract's award. Controls did not exist in the contract to cap costs for DCPS. In fact, the costs may have been fixed at amounts greater than it would have cost DCPS to provide those services internally. The DCPS Food Services Branch estimated that providing food services would cost $ 17.4 million; however, DCPS decided to contract out this service for $21 million. In summary, DCPS ignored standard practices in order to expedite the award of a contract that did not contain a dollar limit, potentially costing DCPS millions of dollars in unforeseen financial liability.
Facilities maintenance contracting. DCPS currently has a custodial services contract, including several amendments, with a janitorial services provider. The initial consulting contract turned into a $5 million contract for cleaning services and basic repair (termed "Level 1 maintenance") that the company has held since 1993. The second amendment, effective October 1, 1996, expanded the company's responsibilities, at an additional cost of $8.6 million, to include Level 2 maintenance which includes plumbing, carpentry, equipment repair, electrical and mechanical work, masonry, roofing, and other services. The contract gave the janitorial company responsibility for the bulk of services provided by DCPS' Division of Facilities Management. A more detailed description of facilities maintenance contracting follows.
In 1992, when the service provider won a competitive bid to study and develop a comprehensive plan to improve DCPS' custodial and maintenance operations, the contract was worth $ 105,100. The Request for Proposal (RFP) indicated that a prime purpose was to evaluate the "Offeror's ability to conduct a guaranteed performancebased program that will provide for improved management of custodial services, and a significant enhancement of the quality of the school building environment." Impressed by the company's study, DCPS then negotiated an amendment to have the provider plan and manage Level 1 maintenance. The maintenance workers remained DCPS employees. This multi-million dollar contract was executed without any competition.
Last May, DCPS proposed expanding the contractor's role in repair by contracting out all Level 2 maintenance. Under this contract, the entire Level 2 function would be contracted out and the approximately 250 DCPS Level 2 maintenance employees began working for the company. The annual cost of the amended contract was $8.6 million. Again, this contract was not bid competitively.
In July, the Authority agreed to allow the Level 2 amendment to be executed. DCPS officials had argued that the amendment was needed to assist with fire code violations. The Authority conditioned the approval on the fact that DCPS must, as soon as possible, prepare and send out a RFP for competitive bids on the provision of Level 1 and 2 maintenance of DCPS facilities. Contrary to the agreement, more than three months later, DCPS has yet to advertise the RFP.
Effective October 1, 1996, Public Law 104-208 provisions gave the Authority control over DCPS' operational funds for maintenance and capital funds. The Level 2 contract comprises most of the operational funds. The Authority enlisted the support of the GSA to review the Level 2 contract.
Special education services contracting. Another contract that raises serious concerns about DCPS' ability to manage its procurement functions is the Kedar School contract which allowed an unqualified individual to operate an $875,000 special education program. At no time did the procurement office raise any questions about the responsibility and responsiveness of the bidder to adequately provide those services.
In 1995, DCPS awarded contracts to several vendors to provide special education services to the school system. One of the awards was an $875,000 contract to operate a school for severely emotionally disturbed students. The contractor had no qualifications to operate such a school. Almost from the start, the school had problems -- with few qualified staff, scarce materials, and only a handful of the proposed 30 students. Over the course of the year, the Kedar School, as the program was known, failed to provide adequate staff, teaching supplies and textbooks, and school lunches to these students.
DCPS performs little analysis to determine how many textbooks will be needed from a particular publisher. In fact, textbook contracts have been executed for as little as $200 and then are expanded through modifications to over $ 1 million. Furthermore, procurement officials typically do not have the latest price lists, rendering accurate estimates impossible even if the number of textbooks are projected correctly.
In addition, textbook purchasing is further complicated because textbooks are ordered centrally, but received locally. Thus, DCPS officials frequently cannot determine how many textbooks have been ordered and delivered, or how much money has been expended.
Planning and ImplementationThe failure to adequately plan is the most significant trend running through DCPS' management problems.
Information and DocumentationPoor planning and implementation, as well as mismanagement of daily operations in the school system, are due in part to poor data upon which to base policy and management decisions. Within DCPS, three kinds of data problems exist:
One of the most serious data problems is the lack of credible information on the number of students. DCPS does not have an accurate count of its students. Estimates vary between 72,000 and 81,000. The 1990 federal census estimated that 72,810 students attended District schools, yet DCPS' Student Information Management System (SIMS) has 80,978 student records. Although a 1995 sample student enrollment count authorized by the Superintendent identified 80,450 students, its usefulness for validating enrollment was "limited because of mistakes made in selecting the sample" according to a 1995 GAO letter report. GAO estimated that SIMS may contain approximately 5,000 obsolete or duplicative student records.
Despite significant declines in the population of the District over the last five years, DCPS reports that there are still approximately 80,000 students in the system. Demographers and other experts have questioned the accuracy of these counts. The number of students is obviously one of the most critical factors in assessing staffing, facilities, supplies, and textbook needs, as well as budgetary priorities and other functions of DCPS.
The end result is a lack of credibility in the information provided by the school system in terms of what they have accomplished, what type of resources they need, and what can be expected in the future.
Impact on Educational Quality and ServicesCollectively, these management failures establish the DCPS central administration as an organization with little managerial competence. Site visits to 20 schools in September 1996 found many shortcomings in regard to the readiness of the schools to open.24 Figure 15 is a result of the findings.
Note: Significant differences existed from school to school
The management failures of the support functions of DCPS are evident in the number of classrooms and schools not ready on September 3, 1996 for the start of the 1996-97 school year. While individuals familiar with DCPS might not be surprised at these results, and perhaps expected even more classes not to be ready for the start of school, the expectation should be 100 percent readiness. Not having textbooks, supplies, and equipment necessary for the educational process to begin is inexcusable. For the Board of Education and the Superintendent to allow this situation to even arise, let alone persist, is unpardonable. As the report states, "The best prepared schools perceived themselves (not DCPS' central office) to be responsible for both placing and following up with vendors on textbook order status."25 The current condition of educators not trusting central administrators is a result of the support services' inability to meet the needs of students, teachers, and principals.
Impact on StudentsAll of these operational and systemic failures within DCPS hurt the students more than any other group in the educational process. The failures result in an unsafe educational environment that is detrimental to learning. Furthermore, the learning process is hampered by a lack of basic educational materials. It is difficult for students to learn under conditions when textbooks, supplies, facilities, and food services are inadequate and safety and violence concerns distract students' thoughts from learning.
At the same time, it appears that the school system has lost sight of its educational mission. The constant reorganizations have not improved the quality of education in the District. In fact, they may have impeded the educational process by requiring employees to learn new organizational relationships. Unfortunately, the confusing and contradictory data prevents closer scrutiny of the educational system. As noted, the actions of the school system suggest that it is interested only in alleviating the current crisis rather than engaging in any constructive long-term planning. The crisis framework in which DCPS operates creates tension, anxiety, and an "under siege" mentality that prevents it from addressing systemic problems.
Parents, teachers, educators, and the community all lose as the system continues to degenerate. However, it is the children -- our children -- that lose the most as a result of the District's substandard educational service delivery system. Many leave the District's public schools disappointed, disenchanted, confused, even angry at what they have had to endure in their schools and classrooms. We, as parents, educators, policymakers and concerned citizens, have made a promise to them that we will provide a first class education. We can still keep that promise. The District must make education reform its highest priority if it is to save itself. More importantly, however, we must act to improve education to save our children.
Our children's futures depend on it.
Continue on to Part 3 of this report.