Dr. Lewis Ferebee stepped into his role as acting DCPS chancellor in mid-January, bringing with him a potentially problematic charter-oriented attitude. Right now, DCPS needs a leader who firmly believes in traditional public schools, and it’s unlikely that Ferebee is the answer.
His appointment by Mayor Muriel Bowser came after Antwan Wilson was pressured to step down as chancellor last year following a scandal where he bypassed the lottery system to have his daughter enrolled at Wilson. Bowser explained her choice to The Washington Post in December, saying, “We’re very excited to have found an education leader with a significant amount of experience leading an urban school district similarly situated to ours.”
While he has had experience being both a teacher and principal, Ferebee was most recently the superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools, where he implemented his “Innovation School Network.” Essentially, low-performing urban public schools were handed over to charter boards—privatizing them and giving the boards and principals full autonomy over the school’s operations. While traditional public schools are regulated by the district, charters are free from many of these restrictions and operate as independent entities.
At first glance, this could be a positive change. After all, if Principal Kimberly Martin had more control over Wilson’s budget, perhaps we’d have soap in the bathrooms. A more in-depth look at the system reveals, however, that public schools that joined the Innovation Network were almost completely privatized, blurring the lines between public and charter schools. In this system, principals and charter boards were given control over staff hirings and salaries, curriculum changes, school stop and start times, and the number of school days per year. With little to no oversight, educational standards can be compromised and charters are not held accountable. Furthermore, teachers were employed by the Innovation Network, not the district, and therefore weren’t allowed to unionize. As such, Ferebee had several conflicts with Indianapolis teachers and teaching unions.
Public charters receive money from the district based on pupil enrollment. This means that money is essentially taken from the education budget and given to school-businesses over whom the district has little accountability. A prime example in DC is the Cesar Chavez Charter line. Two of these schools are to be closed by the district due to consistently low academic performance. There was little accountability from the start and hundreds of students will now have to find new schools to attend.
Ferebee has been credited with raising graduation rates in the Indianapolis district, but the fact that individual schools had the ability to change curriculum and set standards raises questions about the methods in which those rates were increased. DCPS has been incredibly transparent about wanting to raise graduation rates at all costs—even at the risk of compromising the quality of education. The introduction of such a system could prove to be detrimental to the educational standards DCPS sets.
Bowser also appointed Paul Khin as deputy mayor for education last year. Khin, former Chancellor Wilson, Ferebee, and DC State Superintendent of Education Hanseul Kang all received training at the Broad Academy, run and funded by major charter proponent Eli Broad. The choice of someone so clearly oriented towards charter schools as DCPS chancellor begs the question: why don’t we have someone who believes in public schools running ours? The real issue is that it’s not just Ferebee. Too many of the people currently running DC education—Khin, Kang, and Ferebee—were all trained by an academy founded and funded by a big supporter of charter education.
It is important to note that Ferebee has said he does not see any immediate need for dramatic changes to DC’s current system. He told the Washington Post that he does not intend to pursue an Innovation Network model in DC. However, the fact that he saw charters as so central and positive raises the question: to what degree does he believe in traditional public schools?