Holding Richmond Public Schools Accountable — Part I

by James C. Sherlock

We have discussed here the failures of the City of Richmond Public Schools (RPS) in educating its economically disadvantaged children, as well as the abysmal performance of Black children in its schools.  

I intend to help readers understand how it manages to fail repeatedly even with major federal funding as guardrails and state oversight officially in place.

Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) provides financial assistance to local educational agencies (LEAs) such as RPS and its schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families to help ensure that all children meet state academic standards.

It is useful to drill down into the details of that program so that readers can understand how every school district in Virginia is supposed to plan and execute the education of poor kids to improve their chances of success.

The question that will remain when I finish will be accountability.  

How does a system like the Richmond Public Schools continue to submit similar paperwork every year and every year fail to meet its stated goals? Where is the accountability? Why do the people of Richmond put up with it? 

The answer to that last question is partly because citizens largely have no idea how the system works or is supposed to work. This 3-part essay will try to fix that.

First obvious question.  Can a failed system be taken over by the state? The answer to that is no. Virginia briefly had a law to permit that, but it was found unconstitutional.

The Virginia Department of Education requires the submission of the paperwork requesting Title I funds, and clearly from the language in Richmond’s SY 2020 – 2021 application VDOE exerts some level of oversight (see the reference to the MOU between RPS and VDOE).  

But nothing seems to change on the ground.  

The Virginia Board of Education has moved to address statewide testing results, but not always helpfully:

  • By 2019, reading pass rates statewide had been on a downward trend the past three years, and state education officials proposed additional focus on early reading support, such as more state money for reading specialists in elementary schools, where the most kids are struggling. That could help if accompanied by an assessment of the failures of federal funding to fix the problem.
  • In the Spring of that same year, the state Board of Education voted to adopt math pass scores that were significantly lower than those initially recommended in the process. Not sure how lowering the bar is helpful, but there it is.
  • Now the Board of Education is eliminating SOLs that are not required by the federal government.

None of that changed the fact that 49% of 4th-grade Black children in the RPS tested as functionally illiterate on the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) statewide Grade 4 Reading test after years of Title I plans.

But it is very worth citizen understanding Title I funding and management system so that he or she can challenge the local school district and vote out their school boards when those children are not well served.   

So, I will present the Title I system in Virginia in some detail in Parts 2 (RPS K-12 Title I funding) and 3 (RPSs K-12 Title 1 Measurable Objectives) of this essay using RPS as an example.   

Richmond’s  “measurable objectives” include a promise of 5% improvements every year in SOL math and reading test results, so citizens should pay close attention. As I wrote, such promises are made every year, but this time citizens can know about those objectives and hold school boards accountable at election time.

The people of Richmond should be particularly interested, but every school district has submitted similar paperwork. A FOIA request to your own school district asking for a copy of its annual Title I application to VDOE will produce it.

No word, since the Richmond School Board voted in December to keep the system virtual through the rest of the school year, on what measures if any the school board will be put in place to remediate the extreme learning losses of Title I kids.  But count on it to be features in their request for more Title I money next year.

Remember, this reporting affects K-12 only, not Head Start which is a separate federal program funded through a separate federal agency (HHS) and has its own rules. I will cover that in more detail in future essays.

One last note. The failure to educate poor kids is a full-blown scandal. They are being deprived of their futures.

I have no idea why the anti-poverty non-profits, the NAACP, the General Assembly Black Caucus, the Governor and the Attorney General – that “Public schools of high quality to be maintained” requirement in the Virginia Constitution –  have not made a big issue of this.

I honestly don’t.