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Statement by Julius W. Becton, Jr., CEO and Superintendent, DC Public Schools
before the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources
January 14, 1998

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Mr. Chairman, thank you for allowing me to testify today to report on the state of the District of Columbia Public Schools and the reform efforts begun here a year ago. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank you for your continuing interest in and commitment to improving the District's public schools. We are deeply grateful for the tremendous support you have given us and we look forward to working with you in the future to create the model school system that Americans expect for their Capital city and that Washington, D.C.'s children deserve.

To understand where we are and where we are going, it is important to understand where we have been. As you know, I became Chief Executive Officer of DCPS through an order of the DC Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority on November 15, 1996. This order also established an Emergency Transitional Education Board of Trustees, of which I am a member, and transferred most of the powers of the elected Board of Education to the Trustees. The Authority took this action after concluding that "...in virtually every category and for every grade level, by virtually every measure of performance, the public school system has failed to provide a quality education for all children and a safe environment in which to learn."

Indeed, the school system was broken in fundamental ways: it lacked clear academic standards, employed uncertified teachers, did not pay its bills on time, and had crumbling facilities plagued by fire code violations. DCPS students performed well below national norms on standardized tests, DCPS schools experienced unacceptably high truancy and dropout rates, accountability was largely absent across the system, the public lost confidence in its schools, and an increasing number of families left the District or sent their children to private schools.

In this context, it was clear to me that we had to focus our efforts on three core areas: (1) academic achievement, (2) school facilities, and (3) personnel and financial management. The success or failure of our reform effort will be judged on whether we achieve fundamental improvement in these three areas. The citizens of the District are right to demand substantial improvement in each of these areas and I expect to be held accountable for achieving these goals.

I want to briefly discuss the progress we have made so far. I am proud that, in just our first year, we made substantial improvements in our personnel and financial management programs. We accurately counted our employees. We also have undertaken a major effort to purge, chronicle and file documents in official personnel files. Documents affecting pay, tenure and benefits were literally stacked in piles and personnel files were in total disarray when we arrived. This effort is critical to ensuring that we can pay employees at the appropriate rates based on their credentials and seniority. Unfortunately, the Financial Authority has thus far denied us an integral piece of this effort – an integrated personnel and payroll system that links the schools to central administration and captures DCPS-specific information.

We told all teachers they must provide evidence of valid certification before the end of this month or they will be separated from the system and we are currently reviewing each of our schools for compliance with this mandate.

We balanced our budget in FY97, for the first time in 5 years, and we revamped the FY98 budget process so that, for the first time, it was constructed around programs. Programs were given their own budget lines and program funds were assigned to one of 70 "responsibility centers." This way, we can hold program managers accountable for their spending. This may sound like common sense, but it is a major change from the previous practice of co-mingling funds across programs so that financial accountability was impossible.

We have focused resources at the school level, moving personnel dollars (which make up 80% of our budget) into the schools, where they are needed most. In FY98, nearly 90% of our employees are in schools, up from 85 % in FY97. In addition, we instituted a new system to provide school principals with direct access to 85% of their non-personnel dollars, so that they will not have to expend time and energy struggling with the District's complex and difficult-to-use procurement system to order basic school supplies.

We have continued working to streamline central administration procurements, to pay bills in a timely fashion, and to reduce the enormous backlog of unpaid bills we inherited from previous administrations. In addition, we recently appointed a new director of grants administration, Dr. Mitzi Beach, who I believe you know from her days in Vermont. Historically, grants management at DCPS was an area where accountability was sorely lacking. Dr. Beach is working to ensure that grant-funded employees are assigned to appropriate programs, aligning grant objectives with our academic goals, and working with the U.S. Department of Education to create effective oversight of grant-funded programs.

In the area of facilities, we have made a great deal of progress. As you know, we inherited an infrastructure problem that the General Services Administration said it would cost $2 billion to fix. The average DCPS facility was over 50 years old and routine building maintenance had been neglected for years. Our facilities were literally crumbling – roofs leaked, boilers were inoperable, fire code violations were plentiful. We had millions of square feet in excess capacity and no long range facilities plan existed.

I am pleased to report that, in our first year, we also made substantial improvements in this area. We developed a Long Range Facilities Master Plan. We abated more that 1,600 fire code violations and replaced or repaired 66 roofs, using funds made available under your legislation privatizing the College Construction Loan Insurance Association, or "Connie Lee."

We also closed eleven schools and merged two middle schools. We have begun selling or leasing excess DCPS properties, which, in the past, were allowed to stand empty for years while their value plummeted and they became eyesores, and sometimes hazards, to their neighbors. The proceeds from these disposals will be used for facility improvements in operating public schools. General Williams, DCPS' Chief Operating Officer, scheduled to testify later today, so I will let him provide you with more detail about his accomplishments to date and his plans for the future.

I do want to make one final comment on the facilities effort. It has not been easy: school closings are never popular, property disposal can be controversial, and the Parents United lawsuit forced us to make facility repairs under extremely difficult conditions. However, this administration was put in place to make difficult decisions, to do what is right for children, and to withstand pressure from both inside and outside the system to preserve the status quo. We made some mistakes, but I firmly believe that we made unprecedented progress in restabilizing DCPS' school infrastructure and that we have a solid plan in place for continued progress in the coming years. I will let General Williams talk more about that later.

Finally, I want to talk just briefly about academics, because I know that you have invited Arlene Ackerman, DCPS' Deputy Superintendent and Chief Academic Officer to discuss this issue tomorrow. The progress we have made in this area has largely been in gathering accurate data about student performance and building the capacity to analyze that data. This is critical if we are to measure our academic problems accurately and combat them effectively.

Unfortunately, the data we gathered is extremely distressing. Last spring, we administered the Stanford 9 Achievement Test, a nationally-recognized standardized test, to over 40,000 students. We found that at the first grade level, our students are reading near the national norm. However, their scores drop sharply in the second grade. By third grade, 41 percent of students tested are reading "below basic" – meaning they have little or no mastery of fundamental knowledge or skills for that grade level – and by tenth grade, 53 percent of them are reading below basic. In math, 89 percent of tenth graders tested below basic.

These scores are unacceptably low by any standard. We simply will not tolerate this level of failure - failure of the system to help children reach goals we know they can reach -- any longer. To raise the scores, we have developed a comprehensive academic plan, established clear academic standards, reduced principal tenure to one year and told our principals that we will base fifty percent of their annual evaluation on student achievement. We have required our lowest performing schools to implement research-based reform models and proposed a plan to reconstitute schools that do not improve by the end of this school year.

We have told students, parents, and teachers that we will implement promotion gates for second, third, and eighth grade students this year and we are putting safety net programs in schools now to assist those students in danger of nonpromotion. Much more is being done to address academic achievement, but I will leave it to Mrs. Ackerman, who is leading this effort, to provide you with the details tomorrow.

For me the bottom line is this: all children can learn, and the adults who ran this system, which lacked accountability, mismanaged funds, and allowed its school buildings to crumble over the years, are responsible, more than any one else, for the failure of our children to succeed. We will accept no more excuses from adults. We are putting children first, and we intend to achieve our goals and to create a system where our students can achieve theirs. Failure is not an option.

Mr. Chairman, thank you again for your support for our efforts. I am now prepared to answer any questions you may have.