- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 15, 2000

No sooner had editors here commented Monday on the various crises that threaten school reform than quicker than you can say, "academic wasteland" another occurred. Monday afternoon, four of seven members of the Emergency Transitional Educational Board of Trustees resigned, citing a decision by their bosses at the control board to convert a public school building into a charter school facility. Then the elected Board of Education asked its two representatives on the trustees to resign in a show of support for the first round of resignations.

The mass resignations jeopardize what few successes have been realized on the school front in recent years. Test scores are inching upward, school choice is moving forward, albeit more slowly than some parents like, budgets are beginning to look less like wish lists, and thousands of children are attending charter schools. The resignations disrupt the lines of school authority that helped generate this progress. And they leave observers wondering what consequences the resignations will have inside the classrooms and whether the elected board is indeed ready to reassume its leadership roles as planned in July. This crisis, and it truly is a crisis, stems from actions of the control board, which should never have created the board of trustees in the first place because the last thing the District's bloated bureaucracy needed then was another layer of decision-makers. The school board has shown time and again that it is poised (and hungry) for power but not ready to reform. In fact, the board spent much of the past two years focusing not on academics and financial planning but on its own internal controversies, such as ethics policies.

The control board, Mayor Williams and the D.C. Council must do everything in their power to ensure the resignations do not return the school system to automatic-pilot status. Constance Newman, who oversees education on the control board, should tend to the dismantling of the trustees board by reworking applicable laws with all deliberate speed before the FY 2001 budget reaches Congress. At the same time the board must preserve and apply the chain of command put in place in 1996 that established clear lines of authority for the day-to-day operations of the school system by a chief executive officer, a chief academic officer and a chief operating officer. Unfortunately, only one person handles those vital roles at present the superintendent. While Superintendent Arlene Ackerman is first rate academically, other parts of the school system remain problematic.

The D.C. Council and Mayor Williams have some heavy lifting ahead, too. The legislature and the executive branch need to recognize the school system for what it really and truly is broken. As things now stand, both branches of government are so fearful of political fallout they are merely tinkering around the edges of reform.

In closing let us say this, too: The District's elected and appointed leaders must ask and answer the hard questions, chief among them, "How many overseers does it take to run a public school system?" It is hoped they will find the true answer, "Not that many" instead of the usual, "It depends."

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