State Board of Education Race

Different Perspectives, Similar Goals

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At the September 20th SBOE debate, moderated by former school board representative and current DOEE Director Tommy Wells, candidates spoke on issues from closing the achievement gap to the place of environmental education in the schools. Photo: E. O’Gorek/CCN

The general ballot on November 6 includes election of the Ward 6 DC State Board of Education (SBOE) representative with incumbent Joe Weedon facing off against challenger Jessica Sutter for the role. The candidates have been busy presenting their views in conversation with community members as well as at the September 20th debate, moderated by former DC Board of Education and Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells (D).

Both the name and the role of the board changed in 2007, when DC Council passed the District of Columbia Public Education Reform Amendment Act, giving the mayor control of the DC Public Schools (DCPS) system.

Since then, representatives to the DC State Board of Education focus on school policy rather than how the schools are run. In doing so, however, they must react to proposals formulated by the Office of the State Superintendent (OSSE) rather than proactively issuing proposals.

Ward 6 candidates on the November 6th ballot say the formal power to vote on and approve or reject OSSE-proposed policies, including graduation standards and credit-recovery regulations, is critical.

Both argue that SBOE representative’s more informal role as parent advocate is just as important. Representatives act as a sort of ombudsperson, using the position to engage the community, connect with those making decisions and lead discussion about education topics of concern to the community.

Different Backgrounds
The two candidates bring diametrically different viewpoints and experience to the ballot.

Weedon comes to education advocacy from the perspective of a parent with a deep interest in the success of neighborhood schools to ensure quality of choice. Sutter comes from the perspective of a teacher, one who has helped to build public charter schools as a teacher and six years as an education consultant, and is invested in what she calls meaningful choice.

Joe Weedon has been Ward 6 SBOE representative since 2014. A former legislative aide in the office of the Illinois Governor, Weedon has a policy background in criminal justice and state education. He is currently Executive Director of Companies of Causes, a non-profit that works to engage small- and mid-sized companies with city schools.

The only board member with children attending their neighborhood school, Weedon says his experience as a parent gives him an on-the-ground perspective that other members lack.

Challenger Jessica Sutter is a 12-year Hill resident and a former teacher at public charter schools in East Los Angeles and Southeast Washington. She has worked at the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) and as Senior Advisor to the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME). In 2012, she founded the education consulting company EdPro which does project management for charter schools and charter authorizers as well as small non-profits and philanthropies working in education space.

Sutter says SBOE needs more teacher voices. She says her background as a teacher allows her to see the total view of what is best for all kids.

The two differ in terms of their backgrounds, but share many of the same goals. Both support school choice, increased co-ordination between public and public charter schools, and putting students at the center of all education decisions.

Mayoral Control and Role of SBOE
Both candidates support mayoral control of schools rather than an increased role for the SBOE, arguing that the system allows for greater integration of government services with school services.

Sutter said that a decisive executive has led to many good reforms, but also called for checks and balances on the differing state and local functions. She supports the bill put forward by Councilmember David Grosso (At-Large-I) that would establish OSSE as an independent organization outside of the District executive and lengthen the term of the OSSE superintendent. She would like to see the board take a more proactive role in publicizing their role as well as in proposing policy.

Weedon says some educational functions need to be moved out of mayoral control, calling for an independent OSSE that will be responsive to data requests from parents and the board. He said he liked aspects of both the Grosso bill and another put forward by Mary Cheh (Ward 3-D), and would support further discussion on the topic.

Weedon said the system has not been honest about achievement gaps and whether students are meeting graduation standards which would help hold the Mayor accountable for the performance, growth and achievement of both sectors.

School Choice
Both support school choice, but their opinions differ on how to ensure that parents have the best way to make choices for their children.

Weedon says that strengthening neighborhood schools is the pathway to equity.

“We need to do more to create equitable choices for all, so that your zip code is not the determining factor of whether you have access to a great neighborhood school,” he said.

Weedon said the lottery system needs to be improved, pointing out that when surveyed 91 percent of white respondents said they got into one of their top 3 choices compared to only 70 percent of African Americans.

“Student success shouldn’t have to depend on a lottery ticket,” he said.

Sutter said that the common lottery is more equitable than the system of individual school applications that came before. “But what got us here won’t get us to our next step,” she said.

She said that preferences in the lottery could be applied differently to ensure that at-risk students get a leg up. “The tricky thing is that the math on that may require that we put that priority ahead of other deeply valued priorities,” she said, citing sibling preference as an example.

Sutter also suggested a system of catchment zones rather than in-bounds schools. “Maybe your right to buy a house doesn’t give you a right to go to that school,” she said. “Maybe it gives you the right to go to go to a set of schools, and the lottery assigns you randomly, to help students currently going to lower-performing schools gain access to higher, and vice-versa.”

Pointing out that demographics have changed as the city gets younger and whiter, Sutter said, “we probably need to have some difficult conversations around race and class, and how that’s affecting the choices families are making,” and what it means to deeply integrate District schools.

Addressing Achievement Gap
The two differed in their suggestions on how best to close the achievement gap, although both say increased funding is a good beginning.

Sutter said both the public and public charter systems should look at the methods used by institutions that have had some success. Empower K12, a nonprofit supporting District public and public charter schools to implement data-driven instructional practices, identified ten schools with Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCCtest results showing bold growth among at-risk students. She said we need to find, elevate and share information about techniques used by these schools that work and use it to innovate in other schools.

“In a school system like DC, where nearly half of the students are in public charter schools, we can’t treat charters as a fringe element,” she said. “We need to see where things are going well and have collaboration irrespective of the labeling on the school’s name.”

Weedon said that District schools are alarmingly segregated, and despite improvements to schools overall, the achievement gap has grown or remained stagnant since the early 2000s. He said one problem is that funding per student is 6-9% below recommended levels. Weedon said there should be more investment in teachers and teacher development to keep educators in lower performing schools and increased transparency with regard to how funding intended for at-risk students is spent.

“There is a lack of transparency and accountability for how and where dollars are being used in order to understand what is working and what is not,” he said, adding that this is one reason he supports the establishment of an independent research collaborative to research priority topics and provide ongoing information about school systems to policy makers.

High Expectations
In concluding the September 20th debate, Wells praised the candidates and the discussion the race had raised in the community, saying it was the kind of discussion he wished all of the stakeholders in our city would have.

Wells pointed to the link between students, the school board and the community, praising the high expectations of the community that Sutter and Weedon wished to represent.

“They say that children do better and they excel when they have very high expectations,” he said, “and I can tell you that school board candidates do quite well when they have a community with high expectations.”

Vote for the Ward 6 Representative to the SBOE on November 6. Learn more about SBOE by visiting their website: https://sboe.dc.gov/