- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 9, 2000

''The District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) is broken. Our children lag in every measure used to evaluate educational performance standardized test scores, dropout rates and graduation rates. The assessment based on these statistics is frightening: for each additional year students stay in DCPS, the less likely they are to succeed, not because they are unable to learn, but because the system does not prepare them to succeed. The system's credibility has been further destroyed by a steady stream of management failures caused and aggravated by DCPS' leadership."

So said the D.C. financial control board three years ago when it reshuffled the school bureaucracy to resolve the problems. Since then, unfortunately, almost nothing of substance has changed.

Typical is the D.C. Council, which is holding hearings on the FY 2001 budget request for schools. The council has had considerable opportunities to remake the broken system, but has chosen not to take advantage of them. Its most recent effort was to consider legislation that merely proposes a hybrid school board of appointed and elected members.

The elected Board of Education has likewise squandered what's left of its charter. Since the control board made the statement above, the school board has quarreled over: parking and office space, who's in charge, rules of order and seating arrangements at public hearings. Weirdly, the board almost came to blows over its presidency which, since the control board's changes in 1996, means presiding over a panel that has not power to do anything anyway. This petty bickering speaks volumes about the school system's "credibility."

Then there's the control board itself. Its statement above was among the findings of months of research and discussions with other troubled school systems and reform-minded advocates. Out of that research came its report, "Children in Crisis: Foundations for the Future," which detailed specific problems within the school system and identified specific ways to address them. Among the solutions was legislation that rearranged the hierarchy of the schools by creating the the positions of chief executive officer, chief academic officer and chief operations officer. It also established a transitional, appointive school board which took most of the authority of the old elected school board. Since then that structure has collapsed in disarray, leaving CEO/Superintendent Arlene Ackerman as the lone reform advocate, as well as scapegoat for recurring problems.

In 1996, leaders in the House of Representatives, including D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, expressed their reservations about the control board's changes. Well, they ought to have serious concerns now, too. While most students are better off academically and more resources are actually reaching the classrooms notwithstanding the incompetence of government officials long-standing problems in procurement, facilities and transportation continue unabated. Those officials, however, ought not wag their finger at the superintendent, because the superintendent appears to be doing the best she can with the bad hand she was dealt by the control board.

No, at this point the control board ought to acknowledge that its new, improved flow charts didn't work. That's the first step to undertaking more serious reforms.

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