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Lack of transparency hinders DCPS effectiveness*


The inner workings of our school system take place behind closed doors. The Beacon needs to contact DCPS officials constantly to collect essential facts, to ensure we have correct information, and to include the DCPS position on controversial issues. Too often we don’t hear back, which impedes our ability to provide high quality, accurate, and unbiased articles. This lack of transparency is frustrating for any news operation striving to deliver verified factual information.

Recently, Chancellor Kaya Henderson proposed a 15 minute interview with The Beacon and other high school journalists, and we thought our luck had changed. Two Beacon editors arrived at the meeting full of questions for Henderson, under the impression that they would get 15 minutes of private time with the Chancellor. Instead, that time period was given to three high schools with six student journalists, leaving every student time to ask only one question. Ironically, we had to cut out our inquiry into the transparency issues under Henderson. News editor Emma Buzbee covered the event for the front page of this issue, but we were still hopeful to get a more complete story. So we contacted Henderson’s press secretary Michelle Lerner about scheduling a follow-up interview sometime before our deadline three weeks later. Lerner responded quickly: Henderson was not available for 30 minutes at any time in a three-week period.

Lerner said, however, that she disagrees with the Beacon’s assessment of DCPS as a non-transparent organization. Citing social media, email, and contact information posted on their website, she said there are many ways to get in touch with the school system. “I think we do generally respond so I do think that we are transparent in our work,” Lerner said. While social media may appear to enhance DCPS’ transparency, it seems to merely provide Henderson with another outlet to regurgitate her carefully crafted messages.

Lerner also believes that DCPS’ public forums, including the upcoming ones about the budget cycle, are another example of DCPS’ transparency. But just because DCPS takes information from the public doesn’t mean they use it. We don’t know if public forums make a real impact on policy or if they are a public-relations charade.  

The Beacon isn’t the only organization to note a lack of transparency in DCPS. According to a Washington Post article by Ruth Wattenberg, a report filed by the National Research Council confirmed that information about the state of DCPS schools is hard to access. “Education budgeting, resource allocation, and financial reporting are not clear and easily traceable processes in DCPS or charter schools,” said the report. The article by Wattenberg cites a lack of data on testing and on distribution of effective teachers as the major holes.

Last year, Principal Pete Cahall’s contract was discontinued. The reason given by DCPS for the discontinuation was poor test scores, but there was little data proving this on their website or from officials. At the time, the Beacon attempted to get clarification from Henderson, but this proved impossible.  

We called Henderson repeatedly on her work phone and finally at her home. But we never got a response, despite a voicemail promise that Henderson’s office would get in touch with us within 24 hours. Other DCPS officials would only say that they could not comment on a personnel issue, which would be understandable if the reasoning they gave about test scores had made sense. But when that seemed patently false, there should have been follow-up.

DCPS’ determination to control the narrative of its own functionality and the functionality of DC schools distorts its purpose. School systems are not supposed to be politically spotless organizations; they are supposed to provide quality educations to students. Ironically, it is more harmful to the reputation of our schools when DCPS refuses to inform the public, a public that may not be willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. If DCPS is not transparent about both its successes and failures, we will assume the worst.

*This article appeared in the October 2015 issue of the paper

GRAPHIC BY MASON STRAZZELLA

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