- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 20, 2005

Washington’s mayor, Tony Williams, spent most of his day yesterday attending inaugural activities, including the swearing-in ceremony and a reception sponsored by the National League of Cities, of which he is president. The dual roles give Mr. Williams a unique opportunity to argue on behalf of America’s cities. But is Mr. Mayor up to the challenge? He has squandered much of his mayoral capital on an issue important to all healthy cities — education. Will he do the same as head of the National League of Cities (NLC).

Public schools in the national capital are in abysmal shape. Their physical plants are deteriorating faster than architects and engineers can draw up plans to renovate them. Academically speaking, they are in worse shape — despite the fact that the city’s per-pupil costs ($11,289) are higher than any state.

The NLC acknowledges that, “In most American cities and towns, education is not viewed as a municipal responsibility,” and it also recognizes the “positive difference” that locally elected officials can make on improving schools.

As I said, Mr. Williams squandered much of his capital on the issue of school governance. The mayor first tried to place public schools under his direct authority. When that failed, he acquiesced to a hybrid compromise of a half-appointed/mostly elected nine-member school board. The final blow to substantial reform came early last year, when Mr. Williams again caved to the status quo and left the ineffective public-school heirarchy unchanged.

Ironically, the debate surrounding school governance in “Stronger Schools, Stronger Cities,” an NLC special report released in September, raises the pivotal question: “Why would a mayor without authority over the school system want to take on the challenge of education?” Answer: “Because stronger schools lead to stronger cities.”

The report (on nlc.org) goes on to highlight how six cities met the school governance issue head-on by taking the lead in shoring up corporate, faith-based and grass-roots support, and moving toward a single goal: improving public education. Lansing, Mich., for example, cited student achievement, attendance, behavior and parental improvement as its targets, recognizing the obvious links. To address those issues, Lansing set up a system whereby volunteers notify parents of children who miss school. Persistent absenteeism results in truancy court, where parents and children “face a municipal judge and possible sanctions ranging from probation to incarceration,” the NLC report said.

Lansing and the five other cities also initiated literacy programs and other public-private partnerships. The mayor has done much of the same here in Washington, but to little effect. Indeed, while Mr. Williams has played a key role in the school-reform movement since 1995, when he became then-Mayor Marion Barry’s chief financial officer, there has been no reform. There have been several superintendents, including the one the mayor helped handpick last summer. But there has been no true reform. Indeed, as a 1996 report on D.C. Public Schools summarized, the longer a child stays in public schools, the worse off he is.

To his credit, Mr. Williams has, on many levels, been an enthusiatic supporter of charter schools. If it weren’t for the constant growth of charter schools and their varied and innovative approaches to education, as well as a few magnet schools, D.C. school children wouldn’t have what small measure of academic success they have now.

Unfortunately, neither the mayor nor the NLC placed education at they top their 2005 to-do list. The NLC’s top five for ‘05 are: transportation, economic development, hometown security, tax reform and taxing authority. “The economic stability of the United States starts at the local level,” Mr. Williams says in the NLC’s recent issue of Nation’s Cities Weekly.

Agree or disagree with Mr. Williams’ point, the bottomline is that the national capital is fiscally sound — and, again, much credit to Mr. Williams — but academically bereft of the workers needed to keep the city’s economic engines — the federal government, the legal/lobby industry, colleges and universities, hotel/entertainment — churning.

The drain on municipal services because of under-education and unemployment — whether resulting from school dropout or imprisonment; welfare and other social-service entitlements; health care, pregnancy and HIV/AIDS; foster care and adoption — are enormous.

And while the NLC, under Mr. Williams’ leadership, is pushing to protect municipalities’ right to tax, it still would be impossible to tax our way out of those pathologies I just listed.

Leadership on the education front can make a “positive difference,” and it is a necessity for cities small and large.

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