- The Washington Times - Friday, June 9, 2000

Whipping an obstinate bureaucracy into shape is not for the weak-kneed. It takes chutzpah. Without it, the chairs simply are rearranged and everything still sinks. Which may be the reason that most District agencies for decades were rife with cronyism, nepotism, waste, fraud and unprecedented abuse, failing at nearly every turn to serve citizens and the most vulnerable in the city. It also is the reason Superintendent Arlene Ackerman is the latest bureaucrat to cut and run. And it is the ultimate reason the D.C. Council, financial and management control board Chairman Alice Rivlin and Mayor Anthony A. Williams have produced a lame proposal for changing the governance structure of the D.C. Board of Education.

In slightly more than two weeks, in a special charter amendment election, residents will be asked essentially to decide between dumb and dumber. Voters can choose to keep the dummy they have: an all-elected board with persons of varying skills and talents most of whom in the past couldn't find their way to the nearest lavatory in the nearest school. Or they can select the dumber option: an elected/ appointed "hybrid" board; five members would be chosen by popular vote this fall, and four would be appointed by the mayor, but approved by the council.

Supporters of an all-elected board talk about the need to retain democratic institutions in a city that lacks any real semblance of democracy because it does not have voting representation in Congress, and dances far too often to the music played by congressional representatives. Getting Capitol Hill to butt out of the District's business while securing a voting senator and appropriate representation in the House are honorable goals, worthy of everyone's effort. But such aspirations should not be confused with finding qualified individuals to serve essentially as a board of directors for a half-billion dollar corporation whose critical responsibility is preparing children for their current and future roles in society.

Proponents of the "hybrid" mostly the mayor, council, control board and D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton believe the elected/appointed combination offers residents the best of both worlds. They say they can search out qualified candidates to run for the elected seats on the board. They say the appointed members would be education and business experts who could bring balance to the board and fill the knowledge deficiency of elected members. What they won't say is that they feared congressional intervention and that the hybrid is a compromise that switches the shuffleboard lineup but doesn't sufficiently alter the game or the rules. What's more, this netherworld governance structure can only exacerbate current trifurcated allegiances.

Elected board members will see the public as the piper, adjusting education policy to the whims of special interest groups, which will instigate real micromanagement and not the imaginary version about which Mrs. Ackerman has complained in recent weeks. Those education members appointed by the mayor and approved by the council owe their seats to the executive and legislative branches; you can be sure their navigational equipment will be the maps and compasses provided by Mr. Williams and his colleagues. Unless, the public wants to see the kind of chaos and false starts it has seen during the past three years, voters should punch "no" for the hybrid.

But the system can't remain the way it is. An elected board just won't do. Too many members, while well-intentioned, come with limited management experience and almost no educational policy background. Real change can only come when District leaders decide to respond as if there is an education crisis in the city, making the hard choices and taking bold action.

More than three years ago, the financial control board rightly declared just such an emergency. It assumed complete authority for the system, appointing a chief executive officer (CEO) responsible for management, and a chief academics officer (CAO). When CEO Julius Becton wimped out, the control board responded in-kind, abandoning its own model for the old brand, ensuring the same tired results. (Recent test scores, complaints about procurement, unordered textbooks, payroll troubles, the rapid rise in Charter Schools, and the increasing popularity of vouchers all serve as testimony to the failure of the superintendent-as-head-honcho model).

Saying "no" to the hybrid does not mean saying "yes" to an all-elected board, unless District leaders prove wholly gutless and decide to do nothing. The council, mayor and financial control board would be given an opportunity to effect real reform instead of the half-baked version. They could go back to their chambers and offices and fashion a more suitable management-governance structure that will effect real reform to a system that for the past two decades has cried out for massive, wholesale changes.

In this writer's view, the appropriate response would mean turning over the levers to the executive and an all-appointed board of experts, whose responsibility it would be to develop a detailed reform plan, with benchmarks and timetables. And, then, ensure that such a plan is implemented quickly.

Given Mrs. Ackerman's departure, the considerable interest and support for altering the school board's governance structure, and the heightened overall concern about public education, District leaders should muzzle their yapping and take solid, revolutionary action to improve city schools. Should they continue to prove timid, residents can help the mayor and council by voting "no" June 27.

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