Council Challenges Executive Branch, Urban Institute at Contentious Education Research Collaborative Hearing

Originally published in Washington City Paper on September 20, 2018.
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In a contentious hearing on Tuesday, four D.C. councilmembers pressed the mayor’s education deputy and the Urban Institute’s education policy director to not undermine the legislative branch as it works to create a research collaborative for D.C. schools.

Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh first introduced legislation regarding an education research collaborative in April, along with eight other co-sponsors. The idea was conceived of in response to the host of education scandals that emerged over the previous year, scandals which prompted many parents, community members, and elected officials to express distrust in the data produced by the mayor-controlled school system. The research collaborative would conduct studies on the city’s public schools, with an advisory board of different stakeholders to drive the research agenda. The idea has drawn strong support from parents, teachers, and local school advocates. (For more information, read City Paper’s July cover story: “Who Gets Access to Data About D.C.’s Public Schools?”)

The council set aside $500,000 in its most recent budget for this research consortium, and held a six-hour hearing in July to discuss the idea. It was then that the public first learned the executive branch was privately exploring its own separate education research consortium with the Urban Institute, a D.C-based think tank.

Several officials appointed by Mayor Muriel Bowser—including Ahnna Smith, the interim Deputy Mayor for Education, Hanseul Kang, the State Superintendent of Education, and Rick Cruz, the board chair of the DC Public Charter School Board—voiced concerns at the July hearing about the prospect of incubating a research collaborative inside the D.C. auditor’s office. Among other things, they argued doing so could conflate the lines between accountability and research, and potentially foster distrust among needed partners.

The Urban Institute’s education policy director Matthew Chingos told City Paper in July that his think tank does not want to undermine the Council and “certainly want[s] the different efforts to be complementary.” He stressed then that “everyone’s just figuring out how this all fits together, and we want to see how the legislative process evolves.”

On Tuesday, however, the public learned that the Urban Institute has neither slowed its plans to establish its own research partnership, nor worked with the Council to see how it could ensure its efforts are complementary.

Smith testified that since the July 13th hearing, her office has engaged in “a handful” of meetings with other executive branch leaders and the Urban Institute to further outline their vision for a research partnership. Chingos also shared that his organization had secured a $50,000 planning grant for their efforts. (He did not name the foundation that offered the money.)

The Council worked on its draft legislation this past summer, and the bill is scheduled to go into markup on Monday. Their vision, At-Large Councilmember and education committee chair David Grosso explained at the hearing, is to have an 11-member steering committee for the research collaborative, with representatives from DCPS, the charter sector, OSSE, the deputy mayor’s office, the Department of Behavioral Health, Child and Family Services Agency, teachers, and parents. The auditor would work with the steering committee to put out an RFP for a research partner, and the steering committee would then select that partner.

The collaborative would spin out of the auditor’s office into a “standalone entity” before January 1, 2020, and would have its own executive director and staff.

The auditor’s office has hired Erin Roth to direct the planning for the education research collaborative. She began her job on September 17th and her role will be to work with stakeholders on implementing the initiative. She formerly worked as a senior education policy analyst at the Center for American Progress.

On Tuesday, councilmembers pointedly asked the executive branch and the Urban Institute to hold off on their separate effort, so that the legislative process could run its due course.

“I’ve given you the outline, my ask of you all today and anyone else involved is that you put a pause on what you’re doing and wait for the Council process to continue, with the understanding that the Council is not delaying,” said Grosso. “We’re not going slowly. In fact, we’re going quite quickly.”

At-Large Councilmember Robert White said he has no objection to the executive branch and the education agencies working to answer questions they believe are pertinent on their own, but he called the timing of the Urban Institute effort “bad and suspicious.” He encouraged the executive branch to wait until the Council’s education research collaborative is established, so they can “see how it’s going and if there is research that the executive feels is not being met.”

Smith, the interim Deputy Mayor for Education, would not agree to pause her office’s plans, but said she would take the Council’s request “under consideration.”

“That really means nothing, with all due respect,” said Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, before asking Chingos of the Urban Institute if he would pause his efforts. Chingos did not agree. “In my mind, any forward motion is useful,” he answered, adding that he does not see their discussions as creating “any conflict” with the Council’s plans.

As the hearing dragged on, the Council grew increasingly frustrated with the evasive responses of the witnesses and their seeming disinterest in working together.

“What you’re doing is undercutting the work this committee is trying to do here where we can actually have trust in this partnership,” said Grosso.

The Council also voiced skepticism with how independent the executive branch’s proposed research consortium would actually be, since the D.C. education agencies would get to greenlight what research questions could be pursued in the first place. The executive branch also made clear at the hearing that it had not considered any other research organization besides the Urban Institute to partner with, despite knowing that other research entities were interested.

“Why is that a good thing to limit your conversations about this very important thing to one entity?” asked Mendelson.

Grosso said he would be fine if the education agencies selected the Urban Institute as their partner in the end, but that the selection process should be open for other research entities to compete for. “Urban may win that, I don’t have a problem with that, I don’t have a dog in this fight,” he said. “It sounds more and more like the executive does have a dog in this fight, and that becomes a big, big problem.”

“I think any one of us would be foolish to believe that the administration wouldn’t be hesitant to research issues that were controversial or severely disfavorable, like [the] spending of at-risk funding, like teacher turnover by school,” said White. “That really is the crux of the conflict.”

Smith defended the executive branch’s data collection processes and insisted that “we have shown we are willing” to tackle hard questions. She pointed to investigations led by OSSE and the Alvarez & Marsal consulting firms into D.C.’s graduation and attendance issues, which the mayor ordered following the press scandals.

“Those efforts weren’t voluntary,” White responded.

Grosso followed up by saying the Alvarez investigations are evidence for why the public doesn’t trust the executive to do this research without public oversight. Grosso said he sent a letter to the mayor in February to ask that the Alvarez firm extend its work and look more deeply into some of the other issues raised in the media. “Not only did I get what I guess was a rebuke,” he said, “but I actually didn’t get any response at all.”

There was no mention at the Tuesday hearing of whether the Council’s proposed research collaborative would still have subpoena power, one of the more controversial elements of Cheh’s initial legislation. Cheh told City Paper in July that she views that as an important “backstop” in case the executive agencies try and withhold information from researchers.

A spokesperson for Grosso’s office did not return a request for comment on whether the legislation still contains subpoena authority, though the public will find out Monday when it goes into markup.

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