Roughing the taxpayer: accountability and school athletics

Education reformers are often accused of being stats-crazy, but are they ignoring important numbers like sports participation rates and athletics spending?? The D.C. public schools?and ex-Chancellor Michelle Rhee?have been taking some heat for dropping the ball on sports.? A few abysmal losses and embarrassing incidents, summed up in scathing fashion by the Washington City Paper's Dave McKenna last week, put the spotlight on an athletics program that has withered despite significant recent investment in facilities and an alleged culture of reform.

?The current state of affairs, you've got to blame [Rhee] for a lot of it; she took a bad situation and made it much, much worse,? said McKenna in a radio interview Thursday.? ?She had total disdain for athletics.?

Despite public officials sinking over?$21 million dollars into sparkling athletic facilities just before the Great Recession hit, McKenna argues that DCPS sports have hit rock bottom this football season, with once-proud programs forfeiting games due to an inability to find eligible players, security guards, or sufficient practice time. As McKenna concludes:

the disarray at DCIAA is outrageous. In a city where the schools have let down students for a generation?and at a time when elected officials are patting themselves on the back for supposedly reversing that?the sports programs are a blatant representation of adult leadership failing students once again.

The waste and incompetence McKenna describes are tragic, but (sadly) unremarkable for the bureaucracy of a large urban district.? Rhee's role in the debacle, however, adds another dynamic.

McKenna alleges that Rhee's apathy for athletics eroded a sports system that could keep kids in school and get them to college on scholarships. [pullquote]Have reformers like Rhee neglected athletics in their single-minded drive to improve test scores?? And, if so, is that really so bad?[/pullquote]All of which begs the question, Have reformers like Rhee neglected athletics in their single-minded drive to improve test scores?? And, if so, is that really so bad?

After all, the research on prep athletics is mixed.? At an individual level, studies have often found participation in athletics to have a positive impact on academic achievement, attendance, and careers?though not for all sports or all ethnic groups.? On the other hand, higher district expenditures on athletics have been shown to decrease student achievement.

If schools have to choose between focusing time and dollars on instruction or on athletics, picking books before balls is defensible.? It's not really an either-or proposition, though. Rhee funneled tens of millions into music and arts programs, and many successful charter schools, like KIPP, emphasize arts and sports programs as ways to engage students and develop non-cognitive skills. ?Reformers aren't blind to the potential of extracurricular activities, but they should recognize that athletics can uniquely foster skills like leadership and teamwork.

What reform-minded leaders can't do is ignore existing sports programs altogether.? Rhee trumpeted accountability and a commitment to excellence in her brief and turbulent tenure in D.C., but neither appears to have been expected from DCPS athletics programs. Reform advocates don't have to ax athletics to square school budgets; they just have to hold all education programs accountable.

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