Richmond Public Schools are, as usual, in crisis. The Mayor's budget came out last week, and the City is less interested in giving the schools the $25M they asked for, and more interested in "rightsizing" (as in closing or combining schools). This just after brand-new superintendent Dana Bedden had a very public flirtation with the Boston school system.
There have been encouraging signs with RPS in recent years, as the last School Board election seemed to introduce some reform-minded members. But the Board has also suffered from infighting (literally, in some cases), questions over spending, and revealing confidential student files. Some of this is just what you should expect from a city school board; Richmond is not a huge city, and these folks are not professional politicians. (And, it seems, most of these news stories are generated by one member in particular.)
But the Board and Superintendent are also fighting against internal calcification as well. Reforming an old, large institution like the RPS is like turning an oil tanker; it's not easily accomplished, and takes time. And even if those at the top make commitments to transparency, the system itself may fall back on old habits. We can see this with parallel legal procedures that are ongoing right now:
- A group of concerned parents hired local attorney/gadfly Paul Goldman to help them with a Freedom of Information Act request. After last month's closing of Elkhardt Middle School due to mold, they're seeking documents that might show how long there's been a problem. So how has RPS responded to the request? By demanding the parents pay $1700 for pulling the records.
FOIA laws typically allow agencies to charge "reasonable" fees for complying with requests for documents, but this seems a bit excessive. And excessive fees is one way that agencies find to stonewall FOIA requests they don't want to deal with (so much so that reporters' groups offer advice on how to challenge them). Even if RPS officials here have the best of intentions and these fees accurately reflect the costs, clearly no one at RPS is looking out for the political "optics" of charging concerned parents thousands of dollars.
- At the state level, the VA Department of Education is fighting an ongoing lawsuit from Loudoun County resident Brian Davison to get Student Growth Percentile (SGP) data from the state. The SGP data measures improvement on test scores for all state students. A judge allowed initial release of the data, without any breakdown by individual teacher, but VDOE wants to prevent the release of teacher's names and, possibly, change the judges' mind on the release of the data at all.
Local education activist John Butcher has been taking apart the data on his blog, and he's finding lots of interesting results about schools, both statewide and in Richmond. But the VDOE isn't helping the RPS much by fighting the lawsuit. Both the state and the city are understandably wary of tying teacher evaluations (and promotion and hiring) to test scores, but hiding data from the public isn't a great way to build support for the system.
In both of these cases, you have adversarial arrangements between parents and the school system, reinforcing the traditional narrative about city public schools: they're run by wasteful, entrenched bureaucracies more interested in covering their own than working for students. And while this story is only partially true -- lots of great, concerned people (and parents) work for the schools -- it doesn't help their cause when they essentially tell parents to drop dead.
That's the real challenge for the Board and Bedden: sure, they can say the right things about reform and transparency. But can they change the system's culture? We'll find out over the next few years how well they can steer the oil tanker.