Center City boundary review working group on April 5. Photo by the author.
Most government decisions are imposed from above, with ordinary citizens having only limited knowledge of the data that went into them. The current reassessment of DC’s school boundaries and feeder patterns is different. But how can we ensure that all families are engaged in the process?
Government efforts to involve citizens in major changes seem to follow a predictable formula: big announcements, surveys, working groups, decisions, and more big announcements at the end, with the media reporting here and there on bits of information that are leaked or made public.
As a parent of children in the DC public schools, I have participated in more of these efforts than I can count. I’m always happy to share my opinions and experiences, but are they helpful if I don’t know the whole context? Doesn’t it make more sense to educate parents about how existing policies are actually playing out before asking what they think?
It’s exciting to see various DC education agencies beginning to release more information that helps to do just that. We’ve gotten data from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), the Public Charter School Board (PCSB), glimpses of data from DC Public Schools (DCPS), and most recently, the Office of the Deputy Mayor of Education (DME). These agencies are making data public not just for the sake of transparency, but to enlist the public’s help in getting work done.
The most visible recent example is the boundary review process headed by the DME. It started with the usual formulaic elements: an advisory committee, surveys, working groups, and promises of engagement.
But now the DME has begun to infuse its conversation with the broader education community with more information and data.
A more meaningful discussion
That’s important because the data enables parents and education stakeholders to contribute to the process in a more meaningful way. We can now react to policy questions based not just on our own or our neighbors’ experiences, but also on how they play out at the ward and District-wide level. We can begin to understand the impact of proposed changes on all students, not just those who attend our schools or live in our neighborhoods.
The information packets that the DME distributed at working group meetings earlier this month contain a ton of rich data, including demographic projections and scenarios at the school, school cluster, and ward levels. It’s clear that the DME’s team and the advisory committee are carefully weighing not just today’s situations, but also what our city will look like in 2017, based on projected numbers of children in different age groups.
Because the information has been published in a spreadsheet format, anyone with basic Excel skills can compare data across schools and wards. An enthusiastic Greater Greater Education reader recently weighed in on the DME’s policy examples by citing this data.
Of course, access to data does not mean much for folks who are not equipped to work with it. This is where the media and other intermediaries come in. After the committee released proposed changes in elementary school attendance zones, the Washington Post was able to build dynamic maps using the proposed new boundaries.
The DME has also released an analysis of the actual flow of students in and out of various DC schools, at the elementary, middle and high school levels.
And because OSSE released the same data in February, Code for DC civic hacker Chris Given was able to create a dynamic view of actual feeder and destination patterns for each DCPS and DC charter school.
Given has also created an app called Our DC Schools that allows you to enter your address, see how the proposed boundary changes could affect you, and give feedback.
But exciting as these data-related developments are, they also come with their own new problems. As I looked around at the participants in the Center City Working Group on April 5, I couldn’t help but notice that the crowd was full of the usual suspects. I saw many parents and advocates who are engaged and data-savvy, or at least connected with data-savvy networks.
More working group meetings will take place this evening and Saturday. The DME has also set up a website where parents and other community members can participate in the conversation online.
But what about families who are not able to attend the discussions and working groups, or who may not even be aware of this effort? Will access to additional data help them? Not if they cannot reach the data or access support networks to help make sense of the data.
I don’t have any ready-made solutions to this problem. But I imagine that we could reach many, if not all, of these families if DC’s various education agencies worked together. Parent-driven community networks and perhaps the public library system and the Department of Parks and Recreation could also get involved.
The boundary review, and all efforts of this nature, should not be something that happens to us, but something that happens with us. How will you help?
A version of this post appeared on the author’s blog, Middle Child in DC.