- The Washington Times - Friday, February 4, 2000

Even before the D.C. Council voted this week to give citizens the opportunity to decide in the November general election whether public schools should be governed by an elected, nine-member Board of Education or an appointed, five-member panel as proposed by Kathy Patterson, Jack Evans and Mayor Anthony Williams, the leadership void was evident and the propaganda war had begun.
The mayor, for the sake of political expediency, was ready to sign on to a plan that he knew did not "address the core issues of accountability." Luckily, council members, like the mayor, lacked the courage of conviction and couldn't stand by their original proposal either. What followed was venomous rhetoric.
Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican, predicted the decision to take the matter to voters would cause an irreparable schism in the city. David Catania, the other at-large Republican member, seething over the breakup of a coalition that had pushed for a hybrid board of elected and appointed officials, pointed to the "big moneyed" interests as potential hijackers of the school debate. Ward 5's Vincent Orange, joining the early histrionics and budding vitriol argued that this opportunity for residents to exercise their democratic rights will result in a race and class divide. To quote Ward 7's Kevin Chavous, "Folks, it just ain't so." The debate that has ensued around school governance cuts across racial and class lines. What the discussion has lacked, however, is a real focus on the victims of this perpetually failing institution.
Since city leaders want to go there, let's talk race and class:
The population in today's D.C. Public Schools is largely African-American, Hispanic and Asian. (During 1998-99 school year only 3,059 white students were enrolled in public schools). Many of the 71,899 students enrolled in 1998-99 were eligible for free or reduced lunches, attesting to the fact that their families are at or below the federally designated poverty line.
Whites and many middle-class black and Hispanic parents have responded to the system's failures by either: a) enrolling their children in private or parochial schools; b) keeping their children in District public schools through elementary grades and then enrolling them in private junior and senior high schools; c) standing in line at 3 a.m. to register their children in what are perceived as the best schools in the city, most of which have long waiting lists; or d) getting out of Dodge, flying to Montgomery County where people seem to understand why public education is more important than political entitlement. In other words, upper- and middle-class residents have had both the resources, know-how, and political muscle to shield their children. Their status and that of the moneyed interest means they can continue unfazed by the present system and don't really have a dog in the school governance fight.
Poor and working-class blacks and Hispanics, however, are without the requisite finances and connections to seek an alternative to public schools. Until the creation of a small pool of public charter schools, these families who also desire top-notch education, have watched as their children became entangled in the morass of infighting, disjointed educational policy, poor implementation strategies, lazy or underpaid teachers, politically connected unions, crumbling, outdated facilities and equipment, and superintendents driven more by job security than student achievement. African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians from poor or working-class families have been left to languish in this wholly dysfunctional system. They are the victims. They are the ones held captive to the ineptitude, myopia and political shenanigans of so-called leaders.
If the debate around the best model for improving the management and academic achievements of the school system is to devolve to class and race, let these be the questions probed: Why do middle-class African-Americans, like those on the council, continue to hold on to failed programs and concepts as other African-Americans and Hispanics of lesser fortunes are destroyed by poverty and illiteracy? Why do middle class African-Americans, liberal whites, and now, shockingly, Republicans in this city hold on to symbolism as if it were some real treasure, instead of fool's gold, leaving misery and bankrupt futures in its wake? Why do some of these same people continue to assert patronizingly, they know what's best for poor, working-class blacks and Hispanics? Why do they persist in refusing to give poor and working-class residents a choice in education? Why do they insist that giving these people an opportunity to choose for themselves whether they wish their school system to be governed by an elected nine-member Board of Education, or a five-member mayorally appointed body is tantamount to the opening salvo in a race and class war?
Certainly, given the facts, it will be nearly impossible to blame whites or the "moneyed interest" for the failures of the Board of Education. And it will be next to impossible to say that those with the most to gain by an improved school system and governance structure will be whites and the moneyed interest. Still some the fraudulent among us will try. The political acrobatics in the District are always amazing.

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