- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 27, 2000

The D.C. Chamber of Commerce Political Action Committee supports of passage of Referendum 3, which restructures our School Board as a nine-person body composed of four mayorally-appointed and five elected members. We do this because of the importance of quality public education to business viability in the District.

The argument raised against this new structure misses the point. District School Board elections have not given voters what they have been voting for since the inception of the School Board which is quality education. The current structure for managing school system performance is not working, and in fact cannot work well in addressing the significant challenges D.C. Public Schools (DCPS). While not ideal, a structure which moves toward a smaller, an appointed School Board is a step in the right direction because it will bring new resources to the system and focus them where they belong.

The commitment of the business community to creating a quality public education system in the District is urgent. Try hiring for your District-based business and explaining to candidates that they'll either have to commute from the suburbs or send their kids to D.C. public schools. Try supporting recent DCPS graduates in entry-level positions that they have not been given the basic reading, calculating, and work skills to handle.

The D.C. School Board has never been effective in performing its core functions, and it is widely recognized to have hindered progress in school reform through parochialism, micromanagement, and dissension. Finding a "better quality" School Board candidate does not address the issue. The problem isn't individual member merit so much as the structure of the School Board itself. The School Board is too large, too balkanized, too leaderless, and too disconnected from other city efforts to succeed.

The argument made against passage of the referendum that it reduces the District's too-limited democracy is spurious. If more elected officials means better democracy, then why not a 500-member School Board? No, "better democracy" means systems under voter control which achieve voters' goals. District voters have to decide whether the appearance of democracy is enough for us. Or do we want the real deal?

The much-touted democratic participation in School Board elections has trended consistently downward through the 1990s, from 42 percent in 1990, to 33 percent in 1996, to 30 percent of registered voters in 1998. Some praise the School Board as a launching pad for political careers. If there is so much ardor for training for public office, shouldn't aspirants be looking to the hundreds of Advisory Neighborhood Commission seats many of which go begging for qualified and committed candidates?

To meet the challenges facing us we will need something more than a body whose only claim to relevance is that it got itself elected. The proposed hybrid School Board represents a management improvement. The legislation under which this new entity will operate spells out the School Board's policy-setting role, limiting the micromanagement which has so poisoned the system. The hybrid School Board will be slightly reduce in size from 11 to nine members. While arguably this is not enough, any reduction diminishes the likelihood of dissension and factionalism. Elected members of the new School Board will each be responsible for a quarter of the District's geography (the School Board president, elected at large, will be responsible to the whole), reducing the temptation to parochialism and special favors for "my schools."

The hybrid School Board structure also strengthens the connection between schools and the rest of District government. Appointment of four of the nine members allows the mayor (acting with the consent of D.C. Council) to appoint members with resources and expertise not otherwise represented. Putting the mayor and council on the hook for quality appointments increases their interest in and accountability for School Board performance, while linking schools up with the rest of District government encourages leaders to coordinate the efforts of the variety of agencies which in theory operate on behalf of kids' well-being. Importantly, direct involvement of the mayor and council in school success raises the profile of this issue, and puts it in the center of public dialogue, where it belongs.

It is the hope of D.C. Chamber members that the mayor will respond to his added responsibility for the schools by facilitating larger business community contribution. There is wide recognition that business needs to be involved, in policy development as well as in funding, to make schools effective in producing employable graduates. It is also true that District business is willing to make substantial contributions to those school reforms and programs in which we have confidence.

The public education challenge faced by the District is daunting. Our problems don't begin at the schoolhouse door. A lot of our kids are poor, or come from fractured families, or don't speak much English. Add to this the fact that the American economy is restructuring in radical ways.

We have a tough fight on our hands; it's dangerous to pretend otherwise. But if you've taken the time to look into any D.C. first grade classroom, you know that our kids have the required raw material. And if you are committed to the District, you know this is the battle most worth winning. Let's become the city that figured out how to use its public education system to produce high-performing student across the board.

A. Scott Bolden is chairman of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce.

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