D.C. Transparency Watch: Education Data To Get New Attention By Independent Research Unit

A new staff in the office of the legislative auditor, guided by a 16-member advisory board, could begin as early as this fall to take stock of the city’s education system, under a bill introduced April 10 by Council Member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) and eight cosponsors.

The unit, to be called the D.C. Education Research Collaborative, will do research on its own and under contract with others, and will seek outside grants. An early assignment is to collect every scrap of data on all D.C. schools (DCPS and charter) and assess gaps in collection and management, using comparisons with state-of-the-art data capabilities in other systems nationwide.

The new plan reflects growing dissatisfaction of Council members and the community over inadequate transparency on school topics, highlighted by the graduation scandal earlier this year.  As The Washington Post quoted Cheh, “We have been getting bad information — some of it just false, some of it misleading, some of it incomplete, and we can’t get a handle on what to do if we don’t know what’s happening.” 

With power over schools centered in the office of the mayor and mayoral appointees (at DCPS, charter board, state office and the deputy mayor for education), skeptics have voiced concerns for years that data release has been stage-managed like any other tool of political maneuvering--including downplaying continued problems of low achievement by poor and minority children.

Neutrality of results from the new office, to be lodged within the D.C. Auditor, part of the legislative branch, is thus attractive to some.  Council Member Robert White (D-At large), for example, said in a statement to the Post, “Creating an independent education research entity will distance education from politics and ensure that the council has the tools it needs to perform oversight over our schools.”

The problem is not new.  The National Research Council study of the District 2007 governance reforms reported millions spent and years of promises of data completeness and accessibility. Yet that study team concluded in 2015 that the state office (largely responsible for citywide data) “is not functioning effectively” with one result that “the city does not have a fully operational comprehensive infrastructure for data that meets [the reform] goals or its own needs in its role as a state government, or the needs of residents, researchers, and other users.” The research team called the data issue “a critical function meriting high priority.” Appendix A in their report pointedly listed information “provided and not provided” in response to the researchers' repeated requests over several years.

The Post’s coverage by Perry Stein is here. The proposal is bill B22-0776. It is referred to the Committee on Education (only until September 30) and the Committee of the Whole.