- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 14, 2000

In 1996, the control board fired Franklin Smith as D.C. school superintendent. In 1998 the man it hired to replace him, Julius Becton, grew so frustrated by the political rigmarole that he quit barely a year into the job. The board then hired Mr. Becton's chief academic officer, Arlene Ackerman, as superintendent. Now she's considering leaving, too.

What do you suppose the underlying problem is? The people who hire the superintendents to oversee D.C. Public Schools? Or the superintendents themselves? The answer certainly isn't the superintendents. The District has had more of those in 15 years than it has had balanced budgets.

Whoever has happened to be superintendent at practically any given time since 1985 has never really been given a chance to run the school system. The officials to whom they report never gave them the freedom or resources necessary to do the job. The onerous governance structure of elected and appointed overseers in place since 1996 compounded most long-standing problems especially procurement of supplies and textbooks for classrooms. Superintendents past and present have complained on behalf of teachers and students, but to no avail, of course.

That test scores began plunging more than a decade ago and began inching upward during Mrs. Ackerman's tenure is remarkable. That Mrs. Ackerman wants out is disappointing. She has worked under very difficult circumstances and, frankly, knew coming from Seattle that she would have to rebuild this public school system from the ground up. And, as is par for the public school course, she was met by considerable roadblocks and criticism every step of the way.

Parents in some parts of the city complain that schools in more well-to-do neighborhoods get the best teachers and principals. Parents in well-to-do neighborhoods complain the system gets the "best" of them. Some parents including D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson, complain Mrs. Ackerman has failed to bring challenging "high-end performance things" to the high school in her well-to-do ward. Well, parents who have children in poorer neighborhoods want "high-end performance things," too.

The "revolving door of superintendents," as Mrs. Patterson put it, is indeed troubling. But unlike Mrs. Patterson, most parents are not "hopeful that when there is a new constituted school board … that'll give us rejuvenation, clearer lines of accountability and authority." What that will give "us" is more of the same, because it has never been difficult to identify problems in the D.C. school system. The difficulty has been in resolving them, something that a succession of superintendents have tried and failed to do.

That Mrs. Ackerman has made any progress at all is, in and of itself, important given her detractors and distractions. The superintendent has no control over pay or payroll, or contracting or procurement. Social studies textbooks are nearly as old as the 1973 home-rule law, and school choice is limited to charter schools. Utter the word "vouchers," and the opposition organizes itself quicker than you can say low test scores. Excellent teachers and principals bail out because they don't get paid, and parents follow their lead because of manipulative elected officials whose self-interests are voiced at every council and school board hearing. No wonder the District is losing another superintendent.

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