Photo from DC DPR website.

Last week the Mayor appointed Jesús Aguirre, the current director of the Department of Parks and Recreation, to the position of state superintendent of education. Aguirre does have a background in education, but will it be enough to positively affect education policy in the district?

Aguirre has worked as a science teacher in Los Angeles, a charter school operator in Arizona, and most recently as the Director of School Operations for DCPS.

Like many others in DC’s school reform movement, Aguirre began his educational career as a member of Teach for America. In 1995, Aguirre and his wife, Monica Liang-Aguirre, founded and began operating Tertulia Pre-College Community, one of the first charter schools in Phoenix, AZ. (Liang-Aguirre now serves as the principal of Oyster Adams Elementary School in Ward 3.)

The school served low-income, largely Hispanic students at two campuses: an elementary school serving kindergarten through 5th grade, and a middle school serving 6th through 8th grades.

In 2006, Aguirre and his wife relocated to the East Coast for personal reasons. “Although we were still technically on the board of directors and the charter holders,” Aguirre said in an email, “we regrettably were not involved in the day-to-day management of the school and were not able to truly support the school’s new leader.”

Testing data for the school is available going back to 2007. The schools struggled, and test scores apparently fluctuated wildly after 2009. When the school’s 15-year charter expired in 2010, the Arizona charter school board declined to renew it, citing poor academic progress, failure to timely submit financial audits, and failure to comply with monitoring and reporting requirements for federal money. At the time, Aguirre was president of the board of the school, which closed in 2011.

Reasons for the school’s decline

Aguirre attributes the school’s decline to a number of factors. In addition to his move to the East Coast, he cites an increasingly hostile environment towards bilingual education, which, he says, “deprived our students of much-needed language support.” He also says that antipathy towards immigrants in Phoenix led many of the school’s families to return to Mexico, causing a drop in enrollment that led to financial instability.

While Tertulia was sometimes late in submitting state-required audits and reports during Aguirre’s tenure there, he says that the audits were always clean, and the school was in compliance with all state and federal requirements.

Aguirre also notes that, although the school struggled to meet the progress deadlines set by the federal No Child Left Behind legislation, it was often “labeled as performing or higher” by the state while he was there. He points to the hundreds of students who he says were successfully educated at the school.

From 2007 until 2009, Aguirre served as the Director of School Operations for DCPS under former Chancellor Michelle Rhee. He was tasked with ensuring that day-to-day school functions ran smoothly, and he says his experience running a charter school impressed upon him the importance of freeing principals from such concerns so that they can focus on instruction.

In 2009, Aguirre was tapped to run the DC Department of Parks and Recreation. His appointment as state superintendent of education last week came after what Mayor Vincent Gray described as a nationwide search. His nomination now moves to the DC Council for approval. It’s not clear when the Council will vote, but Gray has said Aguirre will assume the position on October 1st.

Role of the state superintendent of education

The Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) plays the same role in DC that a department of education does in a state. The state superintendent of education reports directly to the mayor and is tasked with ensuring DC residents have access to a quality education. This means that the superintendent:

  • Obtains federal funds and grants
  • Certifies educators
  • Selects, administers, and ensures the integrity of standardized tests
  • Drives educational research, and
  • Proposes educational reform ideas

If recent history is any indication, ensuring testing integrity will be an important and highly visible part of the next superintendent’s job. Cheating scandals going back to 2008 have caused controversy and thrown the validity of some test results into doubt.

OSSE is not the only agency with authority over education policy in the district. The Deputy Mayor of Education, Abigail Smith (who also served under Rhee), is tasked with overseeing a District-wide education strategy, managing interagency coordination, and providing oversight and support for all education-related agencies. DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson oversees the traditional public school system, and the Public Charter School Board has jurisdiction over the growing charter sector. OSSE’s oversight responsibilities straddle both sectors, as well as that of adult education.

Some have urged that the state superintendent should have more independence from the mayor. One of the education bills that Councilmember David Catania has introduced would achieve that result by making the superintendent dismissible only for cause and only after a vote by the Board of Education.

Both the Post and Examiner have reported on Aguirre’s appointment, with the Examiner’s Mark Lerner calling him an “extremely professional and reasonable individual.” Neither article mentions the fate of Aguirre’s former charter school.

Given Aguirre’s background, it’s difficult to predict how his tenure as DC’s superintendent will turn out. He does have experience running a charter school as well as overseeing DCPS school operations, which he claims will give him a “unique perspective” as state superintendent. But without more documentation about the charter school’s history and the circumstances surrounding its closure, it’s not clear whether that experience will serve him well.

The school may have performed adequately while he was operating it, but as a board member and president he still bears some responsibility for its subsequent difficulties. On the other hand, he must have come away from that experience having learned a significant amount about what charters need to succeed.

Even assuming that’s the case, OSSE’s problems are larger than those of a single charter school. It’s an agency with a history of high turnover, not just in leadership, but also among the staff. That can cripple an organization no matter how capable the leadership. If Aguirre would like to make an impact in his role as superintendent, he would do well to focus on reducing turnover at OSSE, securing testing integrity, and using the agency’s resources to effect positive changes for students.

Jessica Christy has two children learning Chinese at Washington Yu Ying, where she is also the president of the Parent Association. For work, she does industrial hygiene consulting and stays at home with her two-year-old. In her free time (ha!), Jessica enjoys needlepoint and DIY home improvement. All opinions stated here are her own.