- The Washington Times - Monday, March 13, 2000

A school system in crisis

It has become quite easy these days to be distracted by the noisemakers pretending to call for school reform. In fact, there are so many people speaking that they drown out each other. Suffice it to say, children and real reform, once again, will be lost in the power struggle. There needs to be a reality check that acknowledges the crisis in D.C. and establishes a clear chain of command.

The most vocal player in the controversy is the D.C. Council. In February, lawmakers passed superfluous legislation that, among other things, asks voters whether the Board of Education should include appointed members and whether the board should be trimmed from 11 members to nine members. That legislation contributed exactly nothing to real education reform. More recently, the council approved several other pieces of school legislation. One, an emergency measure, places an immediate moratorium on public schools that want to convert to charter schools. The moratorium is unfair to parents urging more reform and more choice and equally unfair to principals desperately trying to raise academic standards despite the red tape.

There's no question that the school system is indeed in crisis. Youth violence is rampant, test scores lag behind the national norms, good teachers are leaving the system because city workers are fouling up paychecks, the school board cannot get its act in order, textbooks and other resources don't make their way to the classroom because of budget laws, and parents are still complaining about facilities. All those problems, all those long-standing problems, exist because the council fails to grasp the urgency of reform.

Another example of the council's ill-conceived gestures came by way of legislation that proposes to "define" the roles of the superintendent vs. the school board. There was great debate over the measure. As spelled out, the school board would set policies and guidelines on educational and personnel issues, and would hire the superintendent. Also, the legislation would require the board and the superintendent to negotiate a performance contract. Every parent and politician in the District should understand this particular piece of legislation for what it is: a thinly veiled attempt to endorse what has been in practice for 20 years.

What is inherently wrong with D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) has little to do with the number of members on the school board, or the superintendent, or the council, or even who happens to be mayor, for that matter. The crisis stems from politicians preoccupied with elective office instead of illiteracy, dropouts, special education, an unskilled work force, and unsafe schoolhouses and playgrounds. Those same politicians are also more interested in exerting their personal prerogatives, including opposition to school choice, than making sure Johnny can read.

Fortunately, the council's isn't the only voice out there, though some are more faint than others. While the council continues to yakety-yak from the dais, the elected school board has been mum, although that is not unusual for a board that has been missing-in-action for two decades. As for parents and Mayor Anthony Williams, they are urging considerable changes in school governance, including a new fiscal year for DCPS to enhance planning and procurement, because, as any observant parent of a D.C. schools student can tell you, when it comes to planning the school board rarely meets the challenge.

Moreover, parents and Mr. Williams also are urging the council to give the District's chief executive unilateral control of the public school system. The mayor would appoint the superintendent and appoint a panel of experts to run and oversee public education and establish strategy that ties in all aspects of education, including the University of the District of Columbia, the D.C. School of Law and other post-secondary venues, as well as the public school system's link to the labor market. Now those are serious reforms, and they are long overdue. But they will not obtain immediate and considerable deliberation until the council declares, by resolution, that the D.C. public school system is a system in crisis.

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