Greater Greater Washington

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Events roundup: Fare hikes and transit updates

Fares may rise on Virginia rail, and changes are coming to the Blue Line corridor in Prince George's County and the GW Parkway. Learn about federal transit funding and make sure to save the date for the Greater Greater Washington birthday party!

Photo by Jim Larrison on Flickr

Virginia railway fare hike: The Virginia Railroad Express, Virginia's only commuter railroad, plans to raise its fares. If you didn't have a chance to weigh in last week, you have three more chances this week:

  • Tuesday, February 24, 7-8 pm at the Burke Centre Conservancy, 9837 Burke Pond Lane
  • Wednesday, February 25, 12-1 pm at the Crystal City Marriott, 1999 Jefferson Davis Highway in Arlington
  • Thursday, February 25, 7-8 pm at Manassas City Hall, 9027 Center Street in Manassas
After the jump: Blue line corridor, GGW birthday bash, the GW Parkway and more.

Blue Line corridor: Do you live along the Blue Line in Maryland? Prince George's County is planning to improve pedestrian safety, foster transit-oriented development, and more along its Blue Line corridor. Join the planning department for an update on the project this Thursday, February 26, 6:30-8:30 pm at the Omega Room of St Margaret's Catholic Church at 410 Addison Road South in Seat Pleasant.

GGW birthday bash: Greater Greater Washington is turning seven and we want you to help us celebrate! Join us for cake and merriment on Wednesday, March 11, from 6:30 to 8:30 pm at Lost and Found at 1240 9th Street NW. See you there!

GW Parkway transit assessment: Do you frequently drive, bike, or walk on the George Washington Parkway? The National Park Service is studying ways to make Memorial Circle, the circle beween Arlington Cemetery and the Memorial Bridge, safer for people driving, walking, and biking. NPS is holding an open house to present rough proposed sketches of the area on Tuesday, March 3, from 5 to 8 pm at 1100 Ohio Drive SW. Public comment will be open online until March 10.

Federal transit funding: Nathaniel Loewentheil, Senior Policy Advisor at the White House National Economic Council, will discuss components of the Obama administration's Build America Investment Initiative at a talk on Tuesday, March 3. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) will host Lowentheil at 1666 K Street NW. A wine a cheese reception starts at 5 pm and the presentation and discussion will go from 5:30 to 6:30 pm. RSVP to

Do you know of an upcoming event that may be interesting, relevant, or important to Greater Greater Washington readers that should go on our events calendar? Send it to us at

High-poverty schools need better teachers, but getting them there won't be easy

DC needs to increase the number of highly qualified teachers who work in high-poverty schools. But doing that could require a fundamental change in the way DC Public Schools evaluates and supports teachers.

Photo of teacher from Shutterstock.

DCPS teachers who get high ratings are more likely to work in schools serving relatively affluent students. That's typical of school districts across the country, and the US Department of Education has given all state education agenciesincluding the District's—until June to come up with a plan to correct the imbalance.

Under DCPS's teacher evaluation system, called IMPACT, teachers in affluent Ward 3 get ratings that are significantly above those in lower-income Wards 7 and 8, according to a study based on data from 2010 to 2013. Another study shows that 41% of teachers in Ward 3 received IMPACT's top rating of "highly effective" in 2011-12, as compared to only 9% in Ward 8.

DCPS bases IMPACT scores on a number of factors, including classroom observations and growth in students' test scores for teachers of tested grades and subjects. Charter schools have their own methods of evaluating teachers.

DC's Office of the State Superintendent of Education is currently trying to come up with a plan to bring more highly qualified teachers to high-poverty schools, in both the charter and DCPS sectors. It's not clear how OSSE will define "highly qualified," but when it comes to DCPS teachers, IMPACT scores are likely to be a factor.

More money isn't enough

The simplest approach would be to offer teachers with high IMPACT scores more money to teach in high-poverty schools. But DCPS already does that. Highly effective teachers in those schools can get bonuses of up to $20,000, as compared to $2,000 in other schools, and their base pay is higher as well. Obviously, it hasn't worked.

One reason for that may be that teachers generally care more about their working conditions than about how much money they make, according to a report from The Education Trust. And the report says students aren't the most important factor. Instead, good teachers want a school with a strong leader and a collaborative environment. That's especially true for those in high-poverty schools.

Another problem with DCPS's approach is that to get the additional compensation, teachers have to continue to get a highly effective rating after they switch from an affluent school to a high-poverty one. And some teachers say it's a lot harder to get that rating at a high-poverty school.

That not only explains why teachers who are highly rated at affluent schools are reluctant to move to high-poverty ones. It also may explain why there are so many fewer highly rated teachers at high-poverty schools in the first place.

For one thing, part of the IMPACT score for some teachers depends on how much the teacher has increased her students' test scores in a given year. But the tests are geared to a student's grade level, and many students at high-needs schools are several grade levels behind.

If a 10th-grader comes into a teacher's class at a 5th-grade level and the teacher succeeds in bringing the student's skills up to a 6th- or 7th-grade level, the test isn't geared to capture that improvement. Neither the teacher nor the school gets credit. And there's virtually no way to bring a student up five grade levels in a single year.

"No teacher wants to go into a school where you can only be told you've failed," says David Tansey, a math teacher at Dunbar High School.

Teachers at high-needs schools, where behavior problems are more common, are also more likely to get low ratings on the classroom observation component of their IMPACT scores. Tansey recalls getting a low rating from one observer because a student cursed in class.

Tansey pointed out that the student had corrected himself, something that reflected Tansey's efforts and was a vast improvement over the student's behavior at the beginning of the year. But, he says, that made no difference to the observer.

Teachers need to motivate disengaged students

More fundamentally, Tansey says, the IMPACT approach assumes that students are intrinsically motivated to learn. That may be the case at more affluent schools, or at selective DCPS or charter schools where students or their parents have made an affirmative decision to attend. It's usually not the case at a neighborhood high-poverty school like Dunbar.

Tansey's students often have traumatic home lives and don't see the point of school. So he tries to explain how any mathematical concept he teaches will be useful in the real world. One project has kids planning out their lives, from choosing a college and a job to figuring out what kind of house they can afford. The kids love it, he says, and along the way they're using math to make calculations.

But projects like that won't do anything for Tansey's IMPACT score. "I do a project like that despite the requirements, not because of them," he says. Rather than having to hide techniques that work with disengaged students, he argues, teachers at high-poverty schools should be encouraged to share them with colleagues.

Tansey actually is rated highly effective—one of five teachers with that rating at Dunbar, he says. And he concedes that teachers who are rated highly effective are "genuinely effective." But he says there are also many genuinely effective teachers in high-needs schools who don't get the "highly effective" rating.

And, he says, there are "highly effective" teachers at affluent schools who would no longer get that rating at a high-needs school. It takes a different set of skills.

All this suggests that it doesn't make sense to simply try to lure highly rated teachers from Ward 3 to Ward 7 or 8. A better approach might be to recruit new teachers who have been specifically trained to deal with high-poverty populations, preferably through a residency program that includes a one-year apprenticeship in a high-needs school. (Disclosure: I'm chair of the DC Leadership Council of one such program, Urban Teacher Center.)

But even that won't be enough to ensure they stay. If DC wants to retain excellent teachers in its most challenging schools, administrators will need to make them feel their efforts are valued as much as those of their counterparts at more affluent schools.

How should Montgomery County fund and build Bus Rapid Transit?

Montgomery County needs to find a funding stream in order to make its Bus Rapid Transit happen, and county executive Ike Leggett is exploring the possibilities. One of them is an independent transit authority, and while that may still work, the county needs to both vet it more thoroughly and weigh other options.

Photo by Oregon Department of... on Flickr.

In late January, Leggett rolled out his initial vision for how to develop, operate, and finance BRT via a new independent transit authority that could raise additional property tax revenue. Opposition led him to withdraw that initial proposal last week, citing a need for a more in-depth community review.

The first step in the process would have been to pass state legislation to enable Montgomery County to create such an organization. An array of voices turned out to a hearing in Rockville on January 30th to testify in favor of the legislation and to support the BRT network, from the Sierra Club to the African Immigrant Caucus.

The Bus Rapid Transit plan is popular with Montgomery County residents—a survey of 400 residents in early 2014 found 71% of residents support BRT. They see BRT as a way to revitalize aging commercial corridors, make the area safer for people walking and on bikes, ease traffic congestion, and decrease air pollution.

Map of Montgomery's BRT plan by Communities for Transit

But while the network has garnered widespread support, many union members and civic association leaders have voiced opposition to the independent transit authority legislation. Their concerns range from the proposed tax to questions about labor rights to how quickly the bill had been rolled out.

While some opponents are people who have been against BRT from the start, concerns from residents and councilmembers prompted Leggett to withdraw the bill and bring stakeholders together to discuss other options for funding by June.

Where should the money come from?

Montgomery County already dedicates a portion of its property taxes to the RideOn bus system, but it's not enough to pay for both RideOn and BRT. Leggett proposes giving the county council authority to set and approve a higher property tax rate that would be enough to would cover both.

An independent transit authority with a dedicated revenue stream is a promising idea that deserves consideration. Similar structures have worked well, primarily at regional scales, to provide laser-focus to build and finance new transit systems such as a streetcar in Pima County, AZ. Local funding and oversight for BRT may be more important than ever given the new Governor's expressed interest in cutting transit investment.

One reason transit advocates supported the transit authority proposal was that it included the possibility for the county to do its own planning studies; currently, the State Highway Administration is in charge. Right now, it's hard for Montgomery County to manage timelines, costs, and system designs, a problem that last year led to a mishandled planning study on Georgia Avenue. A local agency wouldn't totally eliminate the risk of bad design or lagging timelines, but local control over the coming BRT system will be essential to making it great.

County Council staff have recommended considering other options that the county allows for raising revenues, including special taxing districts and differential tax rates on commercial and residential properties. Councilmembers have said they prefer splitting the cost between all residents as well as commercial property owners within the BRT corridors that stand to benefit.

Before raising additional revenue, elected officials should also look to reprogram the existing transportation budget. Even though driving in the county has been declining for over 10 years, costs of road expansion projects total over $180 million in the county's capital budget and over $1 billion on its wish list for state transportation funds. If BRT is the county's top priority after the Purple Line, it should reconsider these costly investments.

To move forward, the county can use a public engagement process to help residents understand the costs and benefits of a potential funding system for BRT. Montgomery's transit plans are forward-thinking and its residents need and want better transit. Now, officials need to put forth a clear vision to finance and build BRT, in partnership with the community.

Mystery callers try to ensure that DC charters admit special needs students

Nationally, public charter schools serve fewer students with special needs than traditional public schools do, and some charge that charters are screening such students out. But for the past three years, DC's Public Charter School Board has been deploying a "mystery caller" program to prevent that from happening here.

Photo of mystery caller from Shutterstock.

Over the past couple of months, DC parents and guardians have been calling around to charter schools to get information about applying for this fall. But they're not the only ones. Staff members of DC's PCSB, which oversees the District's charter schools, have been calling schools as well.

Equipped with a suggested script and a cell phone, PCSB staff pretend they're calling about a child in their care who has an unspecified learning disability and isn't being well served by the school she's currently attending. They ask what they need to do to apply to the school they're calling and whether they need to submit any information about the child's disability.

The answers to those questions should be: apply through the My School DC website, and don't submit any information relating to the disability or even indicate that the child has one. Nor should school personnel say anything discouraging, such as that the school across the street might be a better fit.

If school staff give inaccurate answers, they get a second call a few weeks later. If they still answer incorrectly, and if the answer seems to result from discrimination rather than ignorance, the PCSB may set in motion a process that could ultimately lead to the school losing its charter.

That hasn't happened yet, according to Rashida Young, the PCSB's Senior Equity and Fidelity Manager. Usually, school staff just need training or coaching to understand what the law requires. And the situation seems to be improving: out of about 100 schools called annually, the number that failed the second round of calls was ten two years ago, eight the next year, and only two last year.

"After doing this for three years," Young said, "I think people are getting the message."

Aside from being effective, the PCSB's "mystery caller" program is inexpensive and easy to implement. It's attracted attention from charter authorizers around the country, and at least one state—Massachusetts—has copied the idea.

DC has an advantage over many other areas because nearly all charter schools now participate in a common application process. That means the PCSB doesn't have to scrutinize each school's application form to make sure they're not asking prohibited questions.

Charters may still discriminate after enrollment

That's not to say DC has solved the problem of ensuring that charters are serving students with special needs. Although schools aren't allowed to ask any questions about disabilities at the application stage, they can ask those questions when it comes time for the student to enroll. And some charge that charters "counsel out" students with disabilities after enrollment.

Federal law requires that all public schools, whether charter or traditional, provide every student with a free appropriate public education. Schools must place the child in the least restrictive environment possible.

If the school can't serve a student well, it needs to arrange for another placement, possibly in a private school where the tuition would be paid by the District rather than by the charter itself.

The PCSB also checks for discrimination after enrollment, for example by monitoring suspensions and seeing whether disabled students are disproportionately represented. But the primary responsibility for enforcing federal law on special education rests with DC's Office of the State Superintendent of Education.

Last school year, 12% of DC's charter students had disabilities, as compared to 14% of students in DCPS. Nationally, the special education population in charter schools is 8 to 10%, versus 13% in traditional public schools.

But it's not hard to find disparities between certain charters and certain DCPS schools. At BASIS DC, part of a charter network known for its academic rigor, only 5.9% of students are classified as having disabilities. At Hart Middle School in Ward 8, which serves roughly the same grades, that figure is 26.7%.

Disparities may not be the result of discrimination

Does that mean schools like BASIS are discriminating? Not necessarily. True, BASIS itself has been the subject of government investigations after parents complained it wasn't providing required special education services, and the PCSB continues to monitor it.

And it's undeniable that charters have strong incentives to limit their numbers of special ed students. Test scores for that subgroup are generally lower, and they count as part of the school's overall performance—even if students have been placed in a private school because the school can't serve them.

On the other hand, it can be tricky to compare numbers of students with special needs across schools, because some schools are more likely than others to identify students as being in that category. Plus, while all schools need to make reasonable accommodations, students with disabilities and their parents may simply prefer not to attend a school that demands a lot in terms of academic rigor or discipline.

And it may be unrealistic to expect every charter school, however small, to deal with every kind of disability, which can include anything from mild dyslexia to serious autism to uncontrolled seizures. Even DCPS, with its economies of scale, has received a low rating from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education for its special education services.

But the law requires that charter schools admit all comers, regardless of disability, and the PCSB has been inventive in coming up with a program to help ensure schools comply. Still, it doesn't make sense to expect all charters to end up serving the same proportion of special needs students, or even to expect parity between the charter sector and DCPS.

What's important is to ensure that children with disabilities get the best education possible, in whatever setting works for them.

Young people are living closer to the center of the region

There are more people in their 20s and early 30s in the center of the region than there were in the past, but farther out, they're less prevalent. A great set of graphs from UVA's StatChat show the change:

Graph for the Washington area. Image from UVA StatChat.

The orange line represents the 1990 Census; the brown one, the 2008-2012 ACS 5-year estimates. This counts people from age 22 (to try to exclude college students) to 34 (the usual line between Millenials and Generation Xers).

The StatChat post emphasizes that if the 2012 line is lower than the 1990 line, that doesn't mean young people are abandoning that area. Rather,

Across the country, young adults make up a smaller percentage of the population than they have in a long time. It's not because there are fewer of them (though there may be soon), but because there are far more older people. Thus, in any given area or group, they make up a smaller proportion of the population.
So if you pick a random smaller US city not known for its "creative economy" hub, the percentage of young people has declined at all distances. But the trend is very different close to many city centers, including ours.

The StatChat post also reminds us that just because more Millenials are moving to the center, it doesn't mean all are. Young people live everywhere. And, as Dan Reed has pointed out, many are clustering around other urban places like Silver Spring, which doesn't show up on this graph since it's aggregated with everything else six miles from downtown.

I'm curious why our region has (and had in 1990) a peak around 22 miles from the core. Is that the "drive till you qualify" line where housing is cheap enough for younger people to afford? Or is there a specific area with a lot of younger people around that distance? Any ideas?

Is "the GGW agenda" dead? No, but it's hard to build transit

Former Chevy Chase mayor and longtime Purple Line foe David Lublin provocatively wrote that "the Greater Greater Washington agenda" is "a fading dream" after a year of bad news for transit in our region. While we appreciate his compliment in choosing us to pick on, he's wrong.

Original agenda image from Shutterstock.

Lublin notes that Arlington canceled the Columbia Pike streetcar, the DC Council cut its streetcar budget, and Maryland governor Larry Hogan is "reviewing" the Purple Line after campaigning on the idea that it's too expensive.

Lublin claims that this shows "the region isn't following" this site's transit vision. Indeed, the first two are significant setbacks. It's too early to call the Purple Line, though as a leader in the town which has vociferously fought the line since 1989, Lublin is hoping for its demise.

But has Washington really turned away from transit?

2014 was a bad year for transit... except it was one of the best

Lublin adds one important caveat: he says all this happened "since the high point of the opening of the Silver Line." That was a pretty high point. This was the first new track mileage for Metro since the Blue Line to Largo in 2004. The Silver Line route has been on maps since at least 1968.

Virginia also opened the region's first Bus Rapid Transit, Alexandria's "Metroway" around Potomac Yard. These were big wins, and they matter.

It's very, very hard to build transit projects in America. The original Metro came a time when the United States wanted to invest in infrastructure, to compete with the Soviet Union among other reasons. We believed we could achieve great things together; we went to the moon, we built great highways and bridges and trains. Now, Asian nations are doing that while we nitpick the cost of every project.

Unlike road money, federal transit funds are competitive. The Federal Transit Administration chooses projects based on cost-effectiveness, and there are far more worthy projects than available dollars. It took a sustained, bipartisan campaign from Fairfax and Virginia officials, local business groups, and landowners to win the Silver Line. The airports authority also had the power to raise tolls to bring in a little more money and get the project over any obstacles.

There were big setbacks for transit

Lublin lists three "key components of GGW's vision" which, he claims, "the area has begun to reject."

It's worth pointing out that "the GGW agenda" goes far beyond just transit. Walkable development and "main streets" are getting built instead of malls and sprawl subdivisions. There are bike lanes and protected bikeways everywhere, including in Lublin's mostly-suburban Montgomery County. Walking is getting safer. There are more retail choices in many neighborhoods. Cities are working hard to expand affordable housing.

Still, let's look at the real transit setbacks this year.

1) The Columbia Pike streetcar. Arlington had enormous success building dense development around transit stations, but it wasn't getting any new Metro lines. There's no way to fund a Metro line under Columbia Pike. A dedicated transit lane would also be excellent, but the Virginia Department of Transportation said taking any lanes away from cars was out of the question.

It's tough when there isn't money to build the best transit and politically you can't inconvenience drivers. Arlington leaders concluded that even a streetcar in mixed traffic would move many riders than buses and generate enough economic incentive to build more densely and fund considerable new affordable housing.

But they had to choose a deeply imperfect alternative, which many reasonable pro-transit people still opposed. It was far from a slam dunk. Leading opponents also blatantly lied about whether "BRT" was a realistic alternative.

Meanwhile, BRAC made office vacancy rates skyrocket and kneecapped Arlington's budget. Add in complacency and political tone-deafness from the sitting county board, and it created an opening for a new set of politicians to tell voters, especially ones in wealthy suburban North Arlington, that their tax dollars were being wasted.

Once, Arlington had one political party. Now, it has two. One is finding big success encouraging wealthy taxpayers to resent public works that benefit others. It has plenty in common with Town of Chevy Chase Purple Line opponents.

2) The DC streetcar. It's important to note that to this day, most DC politicians continue to insist they favor streetcars. Maybe it's just posturing, for some, but DC is not anti-transit. Rather, the problem is simple: the streetcar was terribly, horribly, miserably mis-managed under the Gray administration.

There had been mistakes before, too, but over the last four years, DDOT streetcar officials continually lied to the public about when the streetcar could open, completely failed to plan for a maintenance facility, and dropped the ball entirely on coordinating with WMATA to keep buses and streetcars interacting smoothly.

They even have absolutely no system right now to collect fares if and when the streetcar does open, and avoided telling almost anyone about this for years.

It's no wonder that when one of the councilmembers who most opposed streetcars in the first place tried to take the money away, almost nobody put up a fight. Who would stick his or her neck out amidst such failings?

The streetcar still has a lot of promise, especially if officials can muster the political courage to give it dedicated lanes (which is already part of the plan for the congested K Street segment). But DDOT will have a long road to rebuild confidence before elected leaders or the public will just hand the agency a big chunk of money.

3) The Purple Line, on the other hand, has none of these flaws or missteps. It is an absolute slam dunk of a transportation project. It will run in an old railroad right-of-way between Bethesda and Silver Spring, two massive job and housing centers, and then in dedicated lanes over to the University of Maryland, a huge activity hub, and New Carrollton, a significant transit center.

It would blow past the ridership levels of nearly any other light rail line in the nation. It would make the existing investment in Metro vastly more valuable as well and add significant ridership at the less crowded ends of lines. It will make parts of Prince George's County much more desirable for new office and retail.

Unlike the DC Streetcar, it has been well-planned and well-managed (in large part by the man who now has taken over DC's department of transportation and has the job of cleaning up the streetcar mess). It has passed all of the federal competitive grant processes and been found worthy, and has additional federal money attached.

There are only two reasons to oppose the Purple Line, neither good. One is Lublin's: you live in a leafy little rich town in between Bethesda and Silver Spring and don't want a train to run along its edge, no matter how valuable that is to other Marylanders. The other is the rural voters', many of whom helped elect Larry Hogan: you just don't want a big chunk of "your" tax money (even though the denser jurisdictions pay more in taxes) to go to things you won't use in a part of the state you don't live in.

The nation we were is gone

The Purple Line will bring economic growth whose benefits far outweigh the costs. It will move a lot of people very effectively. America used to invest in such projects because we believed in building great things. Yet our nation has grown more fiscally conservative since the days of building Metro.

Lublin writes,

Project after project promoted by GGW has gone by the wayside in some among the most liberal jurisdictions in the country, so it's difficult to blame the shift on the Tea Party. Moreover, most of these projects have had frequent and unremitting support from the establishment Washington Post.
Don't dismiss shifting political winds so readily. Even in our Democratic-dominated region, more and more voters just want a politician who will cut taxes and spending. There was real waste in those headier days, sure, but also real investments we no longer have the political will to make.

Despite its transit support, the Post's editorial board consistently supported conservative candidates this cycle. The editors endorsed John Vihstadt, the anti-infrastructure Arlington candidate, partly the grounds that he would "reevaluate other expensive projects" other than the streetcar, which they supported. (They also argued his election wouldn't kill the streetcar, which was entirely wrong.)

They endorsed Hogan in the primary with a fervent anti-tax statement, then tepidly supported Democrat Anthony Brown in the general election while continuing to complain about state spending. And they helped Muriel Bowser, who was one of the most fiscally conservative members of the DC Council, break out as the anti-Vincent Gray candidate and ultimately win the mayoralty.

Many people now speak of infrastructure more as "spending" than "investment." Even most press articles about any project lead with the top-line dollar figure in the headline and bury any analysis of the project's economic benefits, and one of the first commenters always shouts, "Boondoggle!"

Communities increasingly look inward and resent projects that benefit someone else. We want to do less together as a society. We don't want to build big things. Those who have want to jealously guard their advantages instead of bettering the whole. Even people who consider themselves liberal on national issues want to build virtual walls around their own communities to keep the other out.

Lublin is right that things have changed. More wealthy enclaves in the Washington area are adopting the Town of Chevy Chase's brand of tight-fisted, self-interested narrow thinking. I just don't think it's something to be proud of.

Correction: The initial version of this post said the Washington Post had endorsed Larry Hogan for Maryland governor. In fact, it endorsed Hogan only in the primary, but its general election endorsement for Anthony Brown still took a fiscally conservative tack. The appropriate paragraph has been modified.

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