- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 22, 2000

If voters in the District of Columbia are under the impression that they decide election-year issues, they had better think again. The candidates in this year's local races, including six D.C. Council members, have made such decisions on their behalf and, if recent deliberations are any indication, school governance will suffer as a consequence. We will not be having a serious debate on school management or academic achievement or even facilities. Truth be told, this is D.C. Council politics as usual.
And what, ask you, are D.C. Council politics as usual? Editors here will let the reader decide with the help of a short time-line, one that began Jan. 4 and ends, for now, on Feb. 19.
On Jan. 4, this newspaper reported that Mayor Williams wanted to abolish the elected school board and place himself and the D.C. Council in control of D.C. Public Schools. His comments were not exactly startling, but his explanation was succinct. "Three years from now, I know I'm going to be held responsible for what happens with our children and what happens with our schools. If I'm going to be held responsible, there ought to be some alignment of responsibility and authority." He is right, because there is no straight line between those two points. He was wrong to back down amid opposition from the D.C. Council.
The original debate turned on whether the mayor should appoint the superintendent and a school board. Then the council changed it to whether an appointed or elected board is best. Next the council debated whether the elected board should have 11 or fewer members. Then whether the D.C. charter should be changed to curb the policy-making powers of the school board. Then council members debated proposed wording for a referendum that would be put to voters. Finally, after all this, on Feb. 19, the council voted on none of the above.
Instead, it voted to establish a hybrid board, one with five elected members and four members appointed by the mayor and approved by the council. To accomplish that, the council proposes drawing up four school districts by merging Wards 1 and 2, 3 and 4, 5 and 6, and 7 and 8. In essence, the council wants to toss aside the current school district structure and created a new one. If, on the other hand, voters reject those changes, then the current elected board will continue politics, er, business as usual.
At this juncture, every politician in the District is positioning himself on the education front, but not one of them has taken the lead. Even the mayor, who started real public discourse, has thrown political curve balls and is now trying to figure out who's on first.
If voters do not have a say until fall, what happens with the elected board, whose full powers are slated to be returned in June? What happens to the appointed board and the superintendent? What happens to reforms expected to be implemented at the start of next school year? Should the city hold school board elections in the fall? If any or all of this sounds confusing that is because it is and deliberately so. "We just haven't determined the best way to address the problem," council member Kevin Chavous, chairman of the education panel, conceded on Jan. 19.
So you see the D.C. Council, getting into high political gear in early January, is pushing children aside for the sake of politics. In other words, council members are telling voters that they know what's best for you and your children when, in fact, the council has yet to address "the" problem, as Mr. Chavous said.
The council will never address "the" problem with D.C. Public Schools if it does not acknowledge "the" problem. "The" problem is not the mayor, or superintendent, or low test scores, or bureaucracy, or money, or the council, or the control board, or the elected board, or the appointed board, or the number of seats on either board, for that matter. "The" problem is the lack of clear, easily distinguished lines of authority and responsibility over what happens in the classroom. But you don't hear that from the D.C. Council.

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