- The Washington Times - Monday, June 11, 2007

“The deplorable record of the District’s public schools by every important educational and management measure has left one of the city’s most important public responsibilities in a state of crisis, creating an emergency which can no longer be ignored or excused. DCPS is failing in its mission to educate the children of the District of Columbia. In virtually every area, and for every grade level, the system has failed to provide our children with a quality education and safe environment in which to learn.”

The D.C. Control Board, November 1996

Mayor Adrian Fenty and the D.C. Council are poised tomorrow to take control of all aspects of public education. They sought changes in school law and even the D.C. charter. They fought and won a hard fight. The road before them is a certain slog, because, as the Control Board said in its seminal 1996 education report, D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) has failed its education mission in “virtually every area, and for every grade level.” With historic legislation taking effect tomorrow, the time has come for drastic measures.

There are several questions that must be answered as City Hall and school officials move forward. Advocates and opponents of this substantial undertaking are now wondering who will be the CEO of the newly constituted school system. We stand firmly in disagreement with that line of questioning, however. The most important questions to be asked and immediately answered are this: D.C. ranks third among the nation’s 100 largest districts when it comes to per-pupil costs, spending $12,979 per student. Precisely how do those dollars break down and does that spending benefit students inside the classroom?

The mayor and School Board President Robert Bobb hope the answers to those and other questions will be part of a special audit that already is underway at their request. Every expenditure related to special education — especially tuition for private schools, litigation, transportation and Medicaid — is spiraling upward and is literally unchecked by school authorities, while test scores are either stagnant or moving downward. Parents who live in other jurisdictions (Maryland and Virginia included, thanks to trial lawyers) learned years ago how to beat the D.C. system at its own costly game.

Other stumbling blocks to academic reform must be removed as well, including student and personnel rolls and collective-bargaining rights. For example, DCPS has spent tens of millions of dollars in recent years on technology to keep track of who works for the system and how much they are paid, and who is a student and what school they attend. Yet those rolls are as accurate and up to date as the D.C. tax rolls were in 1996 — and that isn’t saying much. In fact, just like the D.C. tax records in 1996 consisted of paper documents that were dumped into thousands of boxes and barely tended to, so too are the school rolls.

As for collective-bargaining rights, suffice it to say that unions have long had the upper hand, tying up not only school-based management reforms but every effort of the school officials to transfer principals, teachers and other personnel. How can a principal be held accountable for raising math scores if he can’t hire a teacher who is effective in the classroom? Shouldn’t a history teacher whose students have shown drastic improvement be worthy of merit pay?

Interestingly, Mr. Bobb has been the lone voice of reason for reform and the most vocal in explaining DCPS problems. In short, Mr. Bobb said DCPS is structurally flawed and inflexible. Whether he will play a substantial role as the system is revamped will certainly be an issue, since no one on the mayor’s staff is as experienced as Mr. Bobb, with the necessary vision and execution skills to shake things up — and we firmly believe DCPS must be shaken up. Indeed, the first signs of whether the mayor is even headed in the right direction will show themselves if he turns out Mr. Bobb but lets the upper reaches of the education leadership stand as they are.

Thanks to the leadership of Mr. Fenty, D.C. Council Chairman Vince Gray and Mr. Bobb, tomorrow brings an historic opportunity to raise students’ standings, which, sadly and disgracefully, have been in the academic basement as the costs continue to soar. As we’ve said before, turning around DCPS is not an arbitrary goal. The mayor, the chairman and the school board president all asked, in their own way, for this unprecedented opportunity. The time has come because, as the control board pointed out in 1996, DCPS has longed failed to carry out its only mission: educate children in the nation’s capital. Well, permission has been granted. First things first, gentlemen.