- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 24, 2018

A D.C. Council proposal for an independent data watchdog to oversee the city’s school system appears to be gaining steam, with the city government’s auditor now expressing support for the plan.

“I think it’s a great idea,” D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson told The Washington Times late Tuesday. “It’s something the District could use.”

The Education Research Advisory Board and Collaborative Establishment Amendment Act of 2018 would establish a watchdog organization, independent of the mayor’s office, that would audit D.C. school data and the school system’s data collection policies.

Under the legislation, the Education Research Collaborative would be housed within the Office of the D.C. Auditor and answer directly to the council — not the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) or D.C. Public Schools, both of which have been under mayoral control since 2007.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and members Mary Cheh, Robert White, Brianne Nadeau, Elissa Silverman, Charles Allen and Vincent Gray introduced the legislation this month in response to a series of school scandals involving data mismanagement.

“We rely so heavily on the info we receive from our agency heads that is virtually impossible to cross-check issues,” Mr. White, at-large Democrat, said Tuesday during the council’s education budget hearing, which drew public testimony from 85 witnesses.

Over the past several months, inspector general reports revealed that the District’s public schools had inflated graduation rates and had not collected out-of-state tuition due to widespread residency fraud. This is in addition to the former schools chancellor resigning in February after flouting the school lottery rules to transfer his daughter to Wilson High School.

The new legislation will likely undergo changes as the council’s committees hold hearings and mark it up over the next year. But Mrs. Patterson said she expects the Education Research Collaborative will operate independently of her office.

“We do audits and evaluations and what would be very different about the Education Research Collaborative is that they would work very closely with the school system,” Mrs. Patterson told The Times.

Council member David Grosso, at-large independent and chairman of the Education Committee, has said repeatedly that the District needs to restore the public’s trust in the school system. But he has not yet expressed support for or criticism of the Education Research Collaborative plan.

“He wants to see what the whole picture will look like,” Grosso spokesman Matthew Nocella told The Times. “At this point he’s not taking a position on it.”

During Tuesday’s hearing, Mr. Grosso asked State Superintendent of Education Hanseul Kang for her view on the legislation.

“I understand the desire and the need for the public to have trust in the data that is produced by D.C. government agencies,” Ms. Kang said.

She said she believes that auditing education data requires “strong connections” with the agencies like OSSE and doubts that an independent watchdog could do the job.

Mr. Grosso later pressed Ms. Kang and her staff for a timeline for when the OSSE will build a better “data warehouse” with its $11 million in funding from the council. “When can we expect to have robust, accurate data all the time?” he asked.

Ms. Kang provided no timeline, but did specify how OSSE has invested its funds in personnel training and purchases for data management equipment.

Mr. Grosso also acknowledged that data collection on the school staff level would be a problem for the Education Research Collaborative as well as OSSE. “It’s not like they’re going to wave a magic wand and have accurate, clean data,” he said.

The bill currently has support from nine council members — a sufficient majority to pass the legislation and override a veto from Mayor Muriel Bowser.

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