LaJoy Johnson-Law received conflicting information on when a school attended by her special needs daughter would reopen. (Courtesy photo)
LaJoy Johnson-Law received conflicting information on when a school attended by her special needs daughter would reopen. (Courtesy photo)

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The D.C. Council will soon discuss legislation that not only relinquishes the mayor’s control of the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) but places the agency under the purview of the State Board of Education (SBOE) with greater oversight and data collection obligations.

At a time when parents’ demands for virtual learning continue to rise, D.C. Council member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) described the legislation, titled “DC State Education Agency Independence Amendment Act,” as the best means of allowing community members to shape education policy.

“There’s a broad pattern where the executive decided months ago to bring students back in person and failed to adjust to changing conditions on the ground, listen to voices and build consensus for a healthy reopening,” Lewis George said.

The D.C. Council’s Committee of the Whole will discuss the legislation, which also allows D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) employees to serve as SBOE members, on Oct. 26.

In January, Council members Lewis George and Robert White (D-At large) introduced the bill addressing the root cause of the mayor’s refusal to listen to parents, teachers and students.

“You can see it in OSSE’s rigid approach to the medical exemption,” Lewis George said. “When asked why they have that, it’s because it’s what the mayor wants. Decisions all around are made to uphold what the executive wants to do.”

Tensions Rise over Virtual Learning Question

Lewis George and six of her council colleagues recently introduced emergency legislation to expand the virtual learning option, update the definition of excused absences and increase reporting on HVAC upgrades and outdoor equipment.

On Oct. 5, the D.C. Council voted to expand the virtual option to 350 additional DCPS students under less restrictive criteria outlined in emergency legislation. In addition, three percent of the student body at charter schools have the opportunity to learn virtually.

As the District’s education agency, OSSE’s responsibilities include oversight of federal education programs and grants. It also develops state-level standards that align with college and career readiness goals while ensuring high-quality pre-kindergarten education citywide and delivery of resources for special-needs students.

In recent months, however, questions have surfaced around OSSE’s abilities to fulfill its obligations.

In March, a report by the Office of the D.C. Auditor determined that the agency failed to collect District-wide, longitudinal data about student progress as mandated by the federal government.

Critics said the lack of such data has made it difficult to track students’ postsecondary trajectory or even predict the likelihood they may repeat a grade.

Ward 8 parent LaJoy Johnson-Law also implicated both OSSE and the entire D.C. education system as negligent in providing the ideal space for special-needs students and ensuring uniformity in COVID policy. She, along with over 90 parents, recently sent D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) and the D.C. Council a letter demanding an expansion of the virtual education option.

In the aftermath of a COVID case at her daughter’s school, Johnson-Law said she received conflicting information about when her daughter would be able to return. She also recounted hearing variations of COVID policy in other District public and public charter schools.

While she supports Lewis George’s bill, Johnson-Law said it needs more specificity about OSSE and both SBOE’s relationship and role in holding OSSE accountable to the community.

“The bill will give OSSE the room to implement compliance measures,” Johnson-Law said. “This is something you’re supposed to do if you’re receiving federal and local money. We’re all over the place. There has to be some type of balance [but] the bill needs to have more detail on what implementation looks like.”

Parents Continue to Organize 

Throughout the summer, parents, teachers and elected officials coalesced around the need for HVAC repairs and full-time librarians in the District’s public schools. The D.C. Council approved a budget amendment in August that diverted funds toward closing the librarian deficit in District public schools.

As parents continue to fight for a greater voice in their children’s educational affairs, conversations continue to center on how best to engage and organize Black parents and those living in marginalized communities.

Chioma Oruh, a Northwest parent with special-needs children enrolled in DCPS while attending a nonpublic school, counts among those standing on the frontlines of such efforts.

While she commended the D.C. Council’s efforts to even the playing field, Oruh said the problem doesn’t just stop with OSSE and DCPS.

“Most people are reacting to DCPS because it’s the largest LEA but you have other LEAs creating their own policy,” Oruh said. “Even with the charter school board, they all serve under the pleasure of the mayor, with the exception of the State Board, and have limited powers. They’re testifying at the council like the rest of us so they have no leverage.”

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Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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