The D.C. control board has rightfully joined in the political tug-of-war surrounding D.C. Public Schools. Originally a contest that pitted the mayor against the council, the board has stepped in and said it is not keen on asking voters to decide whether the city should have an elected school board or one appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the D.C. Council. Although it has not recommended any specific action as yet, the control board has become the third player in an already fractious debate between a mayor and council who go toe-to-toe on every important issue.
Yet here we are, arguing whether our children would be better off with an elected school board or an appointed one. As important as this debate is, it ignores the fact that none of the players has proposed a comprehensive plan to improve student achievement when anyone can clearly see that what we have now, and have had since the 1960s, does not work.
For the most part, discussion of D.C. schools has focused on two areas: governance and reform. Low test scores, incompetent teachers and a slothful bureaucracy have ruined the lives of too many youths, and only in the last two years has there been a measurable ray of hope for them. Indeed academically speaking, D.C. students are slightly better off than they were four years ago, but they still have a long way to go.
How do D.C. officials propose to raise academic achievement? The mayor has not offered any sound proposals, and not one of the 13 members of the D.C. Council has outlined a comprehensive plan. The 11 members of the elected school board, stripped of any real power since 1996, are so busy maneuvering among themselves that they rarely use the word “students” in public. The control board and the school board it appointed, meanwhile, have not offered anything definitive either. That speaks volumes about their respective “leadership” positions, now doesn’t it?
To be fair, some council members and the mayor have talked about smaller class sizes, vouchers, less red tape and “fully funded” school budgets. Several also have demanded significant capital improvements, and one or two cotton to Mayor Williams’ idea to build a new high-tech high in Southeast. But there the serious talk begins and ends.
There doesn’t have to be a leadership vacuum. In 1998 mayoral and council candidates found themselves forced to take positions because they were running for office. One Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat was bold enough to propose empowering the mayor to hire and fire the superintendent. Mr. Evans had the right vision then because his plan ensured that voters could hold someone the mayor accountable for school performance.
Now it is up to him, his council colleagues and the mayor to demand accountability no matter what the final board arrangement is. If they need to pretend they are still on the stump, then so be it because they really and truly are. The problem is they aren’t governing as they though are, and D.C. school children are the worse for it.