by Nora Pehrson
As DC’s public and charter school kids head back to class this week, Forest Hills Connection wanted to take a step back and look at where the school system has been through the eyes of a longtime advocate.
Mary Levy’s work for DC public schools spans four decades – as a parent, a community organizer and for the past 30 years, a clear-eyed data analyst who has tracked how well our schools have been working – or not – for our kids.
Everyone from Mayors Marion Berry and Anthony Williams to grassroots activists have relied on Levy’s ability to parse the often confusing statistics and numbers surrounding education budgets, test scores and demographics. Most recently, advocates for Wilson High School sought Levy’s advice as they fought to restore funding cut from the school’s 2015-2016 budget.
Ruth Wattenberg, the Ward 3 representative on the DC Board of Education, says Levy has been a critical ally. When Wattenberg was first elected to the Board of Education, “Mary was really able to walk me through what was going on and give me a good briefing.”
“She knows where everything is and how to explain it,” Wattenberg said. “She has been around for so many years. Her name has been connected to so many events. She is… a legend.”
As a civil rights lawyer in the 1970s, Levy represented four cities in the state of New York, plus Baltimore City and three rural districts in Maryland. In this role, she participated in a lawsuit for more aid to education. She worked with the expert witnesses and did much of the numerical work. According to Levy, her work was aimed at “showing why the schools needed the money and what they would do with it.” This experience would prove useful at home.
Levy’s involvement with DC Public Schools began in the mid-1970s, when her children started school at Hyde Elementary. She was an active member of the PTA. Then, in 1980, the school system faced massive budget cuts during a fiscal crisis. Half of the teachers at Hyde and Lafayette Elementary lost their jobs.
So, Levy said, “We organized.”
Parents, with the help of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, created an advocacy group called Parents United. The Washington Lawyers’ Committee had been working with parents and students in Anacostia, and together, they formed unprecedented union of African-American and white residents from all parts of DC, working together for all of the city’s public school students.
“There’s something about feeling under siege that brings people together,” Levy said. Supported by a strong and passionate group of volunteers, Parents United soon became a highly organized and potent political force. The group advocated for teacher raises, universal early education, improvements in building conditions, and budget increases.
In 1992, with Levy on the legal team, Parents United filed a lawsuit against the District for fire code violations in a number of public school buildings. As a result of court orders, every school in DC was shut down for a few weeks in 1994. While this was hardly an intended consequence on the part of Parents United and Levy, it led to some immediate short-term repairs. Ultimately, Parents United may also be credited with catalyzing the school modernization campaign that culminated with the School Modernization Financing Act of 2006.
Levy said Parents United created a new level of accountability for DCPS. The group tracked money and policy issues year-round and frequently held fundraisers and stunt-filled rallies. Levy, using her experience both as a civil rights and school finance lawyer and, later, as a data consultant for the DC Committee on Public Education (COPE), began to do a regular analysis of the DCPS budget. By the mid-1980s, she had assumed her role as the “number person.”
Levy’s two daughters were attending Wilson High School around the same time. Her memories of Wilson in the early 1980s may come as something of a shock to relatively new residents of Ward 3 who know the school as a gleaming new building that is bursting at the seams with students.
But 30 years ago, Wilson’s facilities were outdated and in desperate need of renovation. Levy recalls visiting the girls’ bathroom and seeing “no doors on the stalls, a fair number of the toilets without seats, plaster falling all over the building, and big cracks in the wall.” The school earlier had a reputation for being “wild” – at any given moment, students could be found traipsing about the lawn and scattering around Tenleytown. By then, however, legendary principal Michael Durso had brought order.
Durso, who currently chairs the Fiscal Management Committee of the Montgomery County School Board, “was a genius at handling kids,” Levy said. “He gave them as much freedom as they didn’t abuse.”
She credits Durso, who was Wilson’s principal from 1982 to 1989, with turning the school around. In 1989, Wilma Bonner succeeded Durso as principal. For nearly a decade, she, too, helped to improve academics and school culture at Wilson. In particular, Bonner recognized the importance of good teachers, and sought to replace ineffective ones with more capable candidates. Levy says that the quality of academics at Wilson has “been building since then.”
Levy does not view all the changes over the decades as positive ones. When the federally-mandated Control Board took over the DC school system in 1996, the elected school board was relegated to an advisory body. Although the Control Board was suspended in 2001, advocacy was permanently affected. By 2007, Levy said, Parents United had lost its political clout. That was also the year Adrian Fenty, on his first day as mayor, introduced legislation that shifted control over schools from the elected school board to the mayor’s office.
“It was really surprising that we could go from having people who were so bitterly opposed to any change in the elected board, to a point where almost nobody opposed a takeover,” Levy said.
She says the loss of an elected school board has meant less transparency in terms of budget information. With the advent of charter schools, the city adopted the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula as of 1996, which was intended to provide the same public funding to charter schools as traditional public schools. Levy also helped create the Weighted Student Funding Formula in 1999, which was intended to ensure equitable funding to DCPS students in all wards of the city.
“When we adopted the weighted student formula, I did an analysis and I set aside the money for ESL, for special ed, and for low-income,” Levy said. She believes that the process worked: “The gaps [among neighborhoods and individual schools] just narrowed enormously. And it stayed that way.”
Until, Levy said, the Fenty administration, with Michelle Rhee as chancellor, eliminated that formula.
“Right now the funding system is a crazy quilt,” Levy said. “They don’t have much of a system for funding the schools. It resembles the Internal Revenue Service code, the way they fund schools. It is so complicated, and has so many ins and outs.”
She suggested that the recent ouster of Wilson principal Pete Cahall and the subsequent cuts to Wilson’s budget may be related to a less objective approach to allocating resources.
“The whole thing needs to be redone,” she said. “They need to get some people in there who know school finance and set up an equitable system.”
We know just the person for the job. Mary Levy, are you up for another decade of work for the students of DCPS?