- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 3, 2006

In November 1996, the D.C. Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority, or control board as it was commonly called, declared a state of emergency in D.C. Public Schools, saying bluntly that DCPS “is failing in its mission to educate the children.” The board cited deplorable and unacceptable outcomes from every measure — especially test scores, safety and security, facilities, the quality of the teaching and leadership corps and financial matters. To turn the system around, the board moved on several fronts, most notably usurping the authority of the Board of Education and the superintendent. The actions drew legal challenges and condemnations from several quarters, including labor unions. But the courts backed the control board, which two years later reinstated its emergency declaration. Although several reforms were made while the emergency laws and rules were in place, DCPS remains in a state of crisis and it still “is failing its mission to educate children.” The crisis, as the control board said 10 long years ago, “can no longer be ignored or excused.”

Mayor-elect Adrian Fenty has decided to embark on what, even at this early juncture, will be the defining mission of his tenure: school reform. Reform will only occur if he turns the status quo on its head. For that to happen, the Fenty administration and the D.C. Council must first tend to a few legislative matters:

Declare a state of emergency. Drawing from the control board’s edicts of 1996 and 1998, City Hall must empower itself with the authority to control and restructure — and in many instances, separate — functions of a state education agency versus the local education agency. Right now, the Board of Education and the superintendent are vested with most functions.

Suspend some personnel rules. Despite several attempts in recent years to bolster school-based management, reform efforts are confounded by union and personnel rules. For example, if a school wants to lure an excellent reading teacher from another school, “bumping rights” are enforced. Those so-called rights dictate that in order to get the excellent reading teacher, the receiving school must also “take” teachers of lesser standing, too, because those teachers have seniority. It will take savvy politics to convince the incoming Democrat-controlled Congress to sign on to such changes because, in the process, Democrats must also sign off against the teachers lobby.

Bolster the State Education Office. Created in 2000, the SEO is, as its name states, a state-level agency. However, its functions are limited to residency verification, enrollment audits, some feeding programs and some grants. That’s illogical. The SEO should also have authority over transportation, licensure and certification policies, real estate, safety and security, federal grants and other monies and special education.

Strengthen school oversight on the D.C. Council. Legislative oversight of education is sporadic, and, consequently, ineffective. Part of the problem is the council’s committee structure with the Committee on Education, Parks and Recreation and Libraries, and a separate “special” committee on vocational education. Taxpayers are being asked to spend billions on modernizing schools, buy into a restructuring plan and spend billions on renovating libraries, parks and recreation facilities. There is school-reform legislation pending in Congress. Moreover, whatever reforms are made must ensure that school-choice efforts, whether charter schools or voucher programs, are sustained.

The council’s job is to keep taxpayers and other stakeholders abreast of accountability, academic improvements and how money is being spent. Council Chairman-elect Vince Gray should work with his colleagues to bolster oversight of all those policies and projects — with the oversight of school reform being paramount. Education should be a stand-alone committee, with an at-large member as chairman. (Carol Schwartz, a former school board member and teacher, readily comes to mind.)

The aforementioned are but a few of the actions that City Hall must take before it can grasp the crisis that is D.C. Public Schools. There is much to be done, and the educrats, unions and school-choice opponents will likely resist every turn toward reform. The foundation for shaking up the system was laid by the control board in 1996. Unfortunately, the status quo of rebuilding central administration and accepting mediocrity have returned the schools to the precise position they were in a decade ago. How best to turn the system around is obvious. Now is the time for Mayor-elect Fenty, Council Chairman-elect Gray, School Board President-elect Robert Bobb and Superintendent Clifford Janey to stiffen their spines and begin employing the sense of urgency they all have espoused. Our children can’t afford to let another 10 years pass them by.

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