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SIMMONS: Educators, pols just don’t get it

- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 23, 2010

OPINION/ANALYSIS:

Like a petri dish in the hands of a bunch of ninth-graders, D.C. school reform has morphed into a UFO -- an unidentifiable fiscal object.

Regardless of who is mayor, schools chief or Oval Office occupant, taxpayers who have no school-age children annually pour hundreds of millions of new dollars into D.C. Public Schools with the hope that more money will make a difference. Unfortunately, those additional dollars haven't changed the outcome: Too many children are still being left behind.

It's time to think like Thomas Jefferson, the purveyor of public education, who said we have a moral obligation to educate the masses to preserve life and liberty.

Public school systems have been miscast as the only means to that end.

And, disappointingly, Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee thinks "crappy education" landed in the District in 1990, the year Marion Barry shamed the city with his videotaped criminal activities with a woman not his wife.

While her characterization of public schooling is spot-on, her point of reference is way off the mark.

The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan issued the seminal wake-up call in 1965, and another report, "A Nation at Risk," sounded a still louder alarm in 1983.

The reports said children, through no fault of their own, simply weren't reaching their potential, and the 1983 assessment spelled out in language even a ninth-grader should (but might not be able to) understand was at stake.

There were no signs of such understanding from American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and Washington Teachers' Union President George Parker in their Sept. 15 Huffington Post commentary.

"It will take strong and supportive leadership to accomplish unfinished business -- better instructional guidance; collaboration on implementing the contract; work with city agencies and nonprofit groups to provide wraparound services to address students' unmet needs through, for instance, after-school programs; and converting empty school buildings into parent and community service centers," they said.

They don't get it either.

D.C. leaders, the White House and Congress have tried all manner of school reforms since the 1980s to change fate's course for the city's children.

Charter and magnet schools. Elected and appointed school boards. New standardized tests and curriculum standards. Ending social promotion. Instituting a summer-school-on-demand policy. Per-pupil spending formulas. New schoolhouses. Before- and after-school programs. Come-one-come-all feeding programs. Money for teachers to re-educate themselves. Plentiful dollars for wraparound social services. A revolving door of schools chiefs.

Still, children suffer the consequences -- or, as Miss Rhee put it, "crappy education" survives the experiments.

The slogan "Children First" has become a mockery. It's time to think like a sprinter, not a marathoner.

Consider, for a moment, what would happen if taxpayers who have no school-age children could retrieve their portion of public school dollars and hand over that money to parents whose children are stuck in a "crappy" public school system for use at whatever school, public or private, the parents choose.

Radical, surely. But so was Jefferson, the foresightful forefather of public education who, nearly 225 years ago, laid the foundation for public education and the establishment of public schools.

"I think by far the most important bill in our whole code, is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness."

-Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

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