Testimony Before the Council of the District of Columbia Committee of the Whole at the Public Hearing on Bill 24–080, DC State Education Agency Independence Amendment Act of 2021 and Bill 24–101, Office of the State Superintendent of Education Independence Amendment Act of 2021 (October 26, 2021)
Thank you, Chairman Mendelson and members of the Committee of the Whole for the opportunity to testify before you today. My name is Jessica Sutter and I am honored to represent the children, families and schools of Ward 6 on the DC State Board of Education.
When I campaigned for SBOE, I said I would begin and end all policy conversations with the question teachers ask themselves each day: “How does this improve student learning?”
So, I ask that question of you: Will enacting either of the bills before you today improve learning for children in DC?
Both of these bills would alter the governance of our state-level education system in the District. As we work towards DC statehood, we exist as a city-state with both state and local systems side-by-side under a common Executive — the Mayor.
State level control of education by the Executive is common, despite what you may hear today.
In most states, the State Education Agency falls under control of the governor.
In Maryland, the State Superintendent reports to the Governor. The Superintendent is appointed by the State Board of Education…but all of that body’s members are ALSO appointed by the Governor, with advice & consent of the State Senate.
In Virginia, the State Superintendent is appointed by the Governor and also serves as Secretary of the State Board of Education. Virginia SBOE members are ALSO appointed by the Governor, with confirmation by the General Assembly.
DC’s current system, a State Superintendent appointed by the Mayor & confirmed by Council, has more direct checks on the power of the Executive than the systems in our neighboring states. The Council reserves the right to directly check the Mayor’s power via confirmation of the appointee — or not. The Council also maintains direct performance and budget oversight of OSSE. DC already has a strong structure for legislative checks and balances on the executive’s state-level education authority.
There are absolutely opportunities to improve legislative oversight and to add in additional checks on the power of the Executive without fully re-designing our state-level system. I offer two suggestions in this regard:
- Reinstitute an Education Committee of the DC Council. This is not to demean the hard work being done by the Committee of the Whole, but as public education makes up the largest share of the DC operating budget, a dedicated Committee on Education would demonstrate the importance the Council puts on the issue.
- Add a statutory role for the SBOE to recruit and vet candidates for the role of State Superintendent. SBOE members are democratically elected, so requiring the Board to identify and nominate, say, 3 candidates to the Mayor for consideration would add an additional layer of independent checks and balances without a full system redesign.
Redesigning state-level governance may limit opportunities to adjust local education governance structures, like mayoral control of DCPS. I know the Council is also hearing calls to action on this front. Given the evidence that DC’s public education system has considerably improved over the past 15 years, it would seem more of a political power play than a reasoned policy choice to seize both state and local control of education away from the Executive.
If either of these bills proceed, Council will set in motion major changes which will take time, focus and funding to implement. Is this the highest and best use of our education system’s attention at this moment? I ask that as you ponder that question, you ask yourself what best serves our students and their opportunities to learn and grow.
Thank you for your time. I am happy to answer any questions you may have for me.