Basic Child Literacy Cannot Be too Much to Ask of Richmond City Public Schools

by James C. Sherlock

Half of Black 4th graders in Richmond public schools couldn’t read in 2019. That is not OK.

It is way past time to demand both better performance and accountability. Clearly neither the city of Richmond nor the Commonwealth has done that effectively.

So I have filed formal complaints with the federal government to see if the Departments that provide federal money to the Richmond City Public School District can establish accountability for how all of that money has been spent.

Jason Kamras currently serves as the Superintendent of Richmond Public Schools (RPS). He has first-rate credentials — National Teacher of the Year in 2005, undergraduate Princeton, masters in education from Harvard. Worked in leadership positions in D.C. Public Schools before coming to Richmond.

He is the highest-paid superintendent in Richmond history at $250,000 annually. His initial three-year contract was slated to expire this summer.  He just received a 4-year extension on a split 6-3 vote by the Richmond School Board.

The performance of Mr. Kamras’ Richmond School District is cataclysmically bad.  

In the national gold standard National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) statewide Grade 4 Reading test administered to Virginia 4th graders in 2019, half of the Richmond Public Schools Black students tested scored “below basic,” meaning they were functionally illiterate. Only 16% of Black students scored proficient and 3% advanced.

Hispanic students did better than Black students, even though 43% of them were below basic as well. Twenty-two percent of white students and 14% of Asian students were in the below-basic category.  

Now, I remind readers that we are talking about 4th graders. Nine-year-old kids.  Who can’t read.

We spend a lot of time here talking about Governor’s schools, other magnet schools, AP classes and equal access to those and other advanced programs. For the kids in Richmond schools who can’t read in 4th grade, all of that might as well be written on the back side of the moon.

I am not here to criticize Mr. Kamras. I have not followed his tenure, so I have no basis on which to do that. A split school board voted for continuity. That might be the right decision. We’ll see.

SOL performances in Richmond Schools have been flat or declining since at least the 2016-2017 school year. Kamras inherited a tragic mess and he has not yet been there a full three years.

But at some point the overarching focus on racial “equity” in schools statewide, centered currently on critical race theory, curriculum revisions, fewer standardized tests, subjective grading and quotas for advanced courses, must pivot and make sure that 4th graders can read.  

The reasons why these children can’t read involve more than the schools. Got it.

But for Richmond City schools, it is fair to ask where all the money, federal, state and local, to help kids avoid these outcomes has gone over the years. Start with federal Department of Education money.  

How were all of the annual federal dollars for disadvantaged kids — money appropriated under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 — spent all these years?

Move on to Richmond’s Head Start programs funded by the federal Department of Health and Human Services. I note that Richmond City Schools grabbed $811,139 in 2020 federal COVID-related supplemental Head Start money.   

Same questions for both programs. How was it spent? Who spent it? Who received it? Was there any oversight? Accountability?

Do Richmond’s Mayor and City Council even inquire about these results?  

Does Virginia’s Attorney General notice either the results — Article VIII of the Virginia constitution requires that “Public schools of high quality to be maintained” — or ask where all the money went? He could investigate but hasn’t.

The state and federal governments cannot leave the Richmond City School District to fail. Throwing money and letters at it to do better has clearly not been enough.

I personally am beyond tired of watching this.

I have today filed formal complaints today with the federal Department of Education’s Civil Rights Division and the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Head Start and asked them take a look. This essay and the Virginia DOE page on the Richmond City School quality profile will give them a place to start.

I’ve recommend a comprehensive multi-year audit of the spending of federal funds by the Richmond City School District.  The federal government is great at audits.

Bottom line — basic child literacy cannot continue to be too much to ask of Richmond City Public Schools. It simply can’t.