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DM Kihn Op-ed: Together, we must make DC an oasis for teachers (The DC Line)

Monday, May 1, 2023

Paul Kihn: Together, we must make DC an oasis for teachers (The DC Line)

Anyone following local DC affairs will tell you this is a surprisingly tough budget year for the District. Just two months ago, the District’s independent chief financial officer lowered revenue projections by almost $400 million. Combined with increased costs, this left the executive branch scrambling to address a jaw-dropping $1.7 billion deficit across the four-year financial plan as we prepared Mayor Muriel Bowser’s recent budget proposal. Closing this gap required us to reduce District agency budgets for fiscal year 2024 alone by $373 million.

Amid this turbulence, it is remarkable that Mayor Bowser has continued to invest heavily in our public schools. The mayor’s budget proposal increases per student funding by over 5% for a second straight year, adding over $200 million to our public schools. We have done so because schools are essential to our comeback; a big investment in schools is both an investment in the future of the District, and an investment in the strength of our schools. 

Our past efforts have led to tremendous strides in recent years: Enrollment has grown steadily for 15 yearsGraduation rates have increased by 15% over the last decadeOur literacy scores have grown more than those of any other urban jurisdiction in the nation

Much of this progress is, of course, thanks to our educators. That is why the mayor’s budget, and the investments we have made, assert a bold imperative: Washington, DC, must be an exceptional place for teachers. Our students should aspire to teaching; our universities should educate teachers who are eager to work here; and our teachers should feel valued and respected in their buildings and throughout our communities. In short, DC must become an oasis for teachers.

What are we doing to make this vision a reality? To start, we are giving every teacher at DC Public Schools (DCPS) and public charter schools a 12.5% pay raise. DC already had one of the highest average teacher salaries nationally, and now the average salary for DCPS teachers will be $103,000.

We are finding ways to expand access to affordable housing for teachers by growing our mortgage assistance program and identifying a first-ever subsidized housing development for teachers and their families at the Malcolm X site in Ward 8.

We also care deeply about teachers’ hearts and minds. To this end, the District and its Department of Behavioral Health launched “Healthy Teachers DC,” a new virtual platform to support teacher wellness. Our state education office has also dedicated resources for teachers’ social and emotional well-being. Many schools offer wellness days and wellness spaces, in addition to traditional counseling services.

We are reexamining the teaching profession and how we define teacher roles and structure schedules to ensure teaching is an attractive, sustainable career. As DCPS empowers communities to redesign their high schools, Cardozo and Dunbar are among the many that will incorporate flexible scheduling for teachers. Several charter schools have incorporated additional planning and flexible time for teachers.

We are also building a sense of community. Last year, my office hosted a forum featuring recent DC Teachers of the Year, including the most recent winner, Jermar Rountree from Center City Public Charter Schools. Coach Rountree, a health and physical education teacher, shared that teaching can be isolating and asked us to bring teachers together. To address this, our office hosted a DC Teacher Summit, where teachers from DCPS and public charter schools connected and shared instructional practices through teacher-led sessions: teachers teaching teachers, honoring the collective and specific expertise of the profession.

We are strengthening and diversifying our teacher pool through local pipelines. We launched “Grow Your Own” programming through the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, where we provide grants to local partners to develop talent as early as high school. We are extending this work into the creation of a new DC Teacher Academy, starting with funding in the mayor’s budget proposal for paid teacher apprenticeships for DC residents. We launched DC Futures, a scholarship opportunity that provides District residents with tuition and financial support to earn degrees from local universities. Through this program, we have supported 133 paraprofessionals who are pursuing teaching degrees.

There is, of course, more work ahead to develop homegrown teachers and keep our teachers in our schools. While DC retains 82% of teachers in our public school system (some of whom move school to school), we can and must do better.

I am asking each of us to support teachers and elevate the profession in new ways. As the District government takes on our goal of making DC an incredible place for teachers, I also challenge our businesses and community organizations to show their gratitude for teachers. With Teacher Appreciation Week coming up May 8-12, what meaningful partnerships, discounts, incentives, events and celebrations can we collectively offer? In what ways can families and residents and community partners honor teachers as passionate caregivers and inspiring role models? Let’s start simple: When you get a chance, thank a teacher and ask how you can help.

Together, we can transform our great city into one that honors educators and creates the teacher oasis we need for our children and our future.

Paul Kihn is DC’s deputy mayor for education and was a teacher for 10 years.