- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Mayor Tony Williams discussed several issues Thursday during a luncheon meeting with editors and reporters of The Washington Times — ranging from homeland security and school reform to economic development and his favorite topic, baseball. Mr. Williams also touched on the 2008 mayoral race. While Mr. Williams said he has not yet decided whether he will run or not, the state of affairs as they relate to education will play a pivotal role in the 2006 and 2008 elections.

Mr. Williams’ record on school reform is lacking. In his defense, the mayor holds little sway over schools because D.C. Public Schools is an independent agency. Although Mr. Williams played a critical leadership role in support of a federal voucher program for low-income families, he lost a lot of respect when he failed to land on the winning side of the school-governance debate. He also failed last year to lure his candidate, Rudy Crew, to serve as superintendent.

That is the political reality that affronts the public reality that Mr. Williams — who said is he “frustrated that we haven’t gotten further along in school reform” — still will be held accountable for substandard student achievement.

Enter the road map for reform by Superintendent Clifford Janey. The plan, released earlier this month, calls for nothing new. It proposes a quality teaching corps, curricula to meet certain standards, in-school learning materials and a central bureaucracy to ensure those three goals are met. At the end of the five-year effort, Mr. Janey’s “success will be determined by how well students achieve academically.”

The plan neither shakes up the sleeping giant called the status quo nor offers details on teaching and learning in this age of technology. Disappointingly, it even recites the stock line that “D.C. Public Schools historically have been underfunded — especially when compared to our city’s suburbs.”

City Hall backs the Janey plan, as do school officials and other stakeholders. Seemingly, The Washington Post does, too. In a May 10 editorial it asked, “Will D.C. support Mr. Janey?” It then went on to say, “Mr. Janey begins with an ambitious plan but a weak bench,” and said about one-quarter of the teaching corps and one-quarter of the principals are unsatisfactory. That’s not new either. School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz drew similar conclusions several years ago. Nothing has changed.

The question isn’t what The Post asked at all. The question is: Does the Janey road avert the onerous school bureaucracy and political one-upmanship that have stalled other school-reform plans?

All stakeholders know that successive superintendents and school boards overspent annual budgets, didn’t know the precise numbers of teachers and students, and failed to pay teachers on time, while frustrated parents fled traditional schools for charters and voucher programs. They also know the teachers fail to prepare the overwhelming majority of students for postsecondary education, the workforce or the military. They know school officials always threaten to fire teachers to save money.

As D.C. Council member Marion Barry recently said: “The school system is playing games. They should stop that.” Mr. Barry is all too familiar with the “games” school officials play. He helped create and perpetuate them as four-time mayor and former school board president.

The most critical and comprehensive school-reform report was issued by the Committee on Public Education in the 1980s, during the Barry administration. A second by the control board was issued a decade later — concluding that the longer a child stays in D.C. schools the worse off he is. Because reforms in those reports have not been sustained, the students robbed of a quality education in the 1980s are now the very parents who today are as “frustrated” as the mayor.

To his credit, Mr. Janey concedes a couple of things. One, in his executive summary, is: “Plans for improving D.C. Public Schools have been numerous. At their very best, they were important steps to keep our youth in schools and ready for success when they graduate. At their worst, they sat on a shelf without the will to move them forward.” The other is obvious, too: “Actions matter most, as a testament to effective implementation and steady progress.”

To be sure, it is the failure to implement effective reforms, not the declaration of the goals themselves, where the leadership has utterly failed. In other words, it is not who will follow the superintendent’s lead, but where is the superintendent headed?

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