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Hotter than July

- The Washington Times - Friday, August 3, 2007

What will it take to turn around D.C. Public Schools? With all the hot air that blows around Washington, you'd think the answer would be a shot or two of freon.

Everybody in charge already knows the answers. Yet, here they are, waiting for yet another group of experts to point out what they already know: The city's school system is costly, inefficient and ineffective to the extreme, and student outcomes are at the bottom of the barrel.

Everybody in charge knows this because it's all everybody who's anybody in D.C. has talked about for more than two very long decades. Indeed, the current mayor of D.C., Adrian Fenty, was himself a teenager growing up in Mount Pleasant when everybody first began to seriously questioning the one-size-fits-all approach to public schooling.

The reams of reports in the intervening years asked and answered all the pertinent questions — such as should high school students preparing for the all-volunteer military be on the same academic track as students preparing for college, and what to do about vocational schooling — and offered recommendations for reform. Unfortunately, nobody at the top of any heap — in City Hall or at the Board of Education, on Capitol Hill or in the White House — had the gumption to follow through. Wimpy, wimpy, wimpy.

Oh, they talked a good game. Ronald Reagan was going to do away with the Department of Education. The school board was going to hold the system accountable. Newt Gingrich was going to remind the nation over and over how bad D.C. schools were. The mayor and the council were going to teach the school board a thing or two about poorly run schools.

Well, look what that has wrought as Adrian Fenty and other members of the Millennial Generation try to wrap their 30-something heads around school reform.

So, picture this, a perfect illustration of what all is wrong with the D.C. school system. In early June, the mayor announces that two consulting firms will begin auditing the school system to identify waste and inefficiencies, and make recommendations for reform. Then, about a month later, one of those consulting firms made an awesome discovery: Boxes and boxes of athletic equipment warehoused inside a closed schoolhouse. But that wasn't all. While the school itself had been closed since August 2006, computers were still plugged in, software was available for takers, food was still in the refrigerators and television sets were still mounted on the walls of classrooms. What's more, the school had been repeatedly vandalized, with fire extinguisher fluid and broken glass strewn all over the place.

Getting the short end of the stick, as usual, are the children.

Everybody who's anybody suspects what happened. It's partly what an editor of mine classifies as Always Assume Idiocy, the AAI factor. But there also is something far more sinister at work — and it's not the exclusive domain of D.C. Public Schools. I call it the WRC factor — as in who really cares.

Who really cares that the District's per-pupil expenditures have the lowest academic return in the nation?

Who really cares that automatic raises are handed out to school employees as readily as free lunch tickets are to students?

Etc., etc., etc.

Who really cares that the mayor, the schools chief and the schools' chief facilities guy all held a press conference just this past Monday and said, "Uh, head's up, everybody who is and isn't anybody, but schools will be lacking a few things on opening day. There's been a mix-up with textbooks. And, oh, by the way, the AC won't be working in all the schools."

Now, of course those are not the words that rolled off their tongues. But how they said it is of little consequence. The facts are the facts. Or so it seems.

What's at play here are rhetoric and reality. One reality is that school textbooks have always been delivered very late in the school year or not at all in many not-so-rare instances. Another reality is that the schools' heating and air-conditioning systems are installed, maintained and repaired by people who have no license or certified expertise in installing, maintaining and repairing heating and air-conditioning systems. (See "unions" under DCPS employment opportunities for details.)

As for the rhetoric, it's all about the money. The school board, before Adrian Fenty took the reins, was on a "repair blitz," targeting certain problems and certain schools. But the Fenty administration wants to take an "expanded" and "holistic way." Now, that could mean that the Fenty team merely wants to spend money the way it and it alone sees fit. On the other hand, it could mean that the Fenty team wants to spend money the way it and it alone sees fit. Get it?

Washington in August is an uncomfortable (some say unbearable) place to be — with and without hot air from politicians. That's one reason why everybody who's anybody on Capitol Hill heads home in August.

What's it gonna take to change the D.C. school climate? More than a few squirts of freon and new textbooks.