- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 18, 2000

Today, unless a majority takes the initiative to vote otherwise, the D.C. Council will grant preliminary approval to a proposal that would restructure school governance. The measure, which was reported out of committee on Friday, calls for empowering the mayor to appoint the superintendent with the council's confirmation and cut the elected Board of Education from 11 to seven members. Some are hailing the bill as a victory for democracy, while others say the legislation is a half-hearted attempted to fix what has not worked for decades. The legislation, however innovative, does not go far enough to empower the council.

The bill not only allows too much wiggle room for more excuses from elected school leaders, but it also leaves the council out of a critical decision-making process. As a matter of fact, it reinvests authority in the status quo: the elected school board. On the other hand, abolishing the elected board and creating a mayorally appointed one ensures upfront and constant oversight as with other big agencies.

This is especially needed in regards to the school system. Every facet of D.C. Public Schools is broken. Every stakeholder in the city, from the executive and legislative branches all the way down to the teachers and students in the classrooms, has conceded as much. Every year for nearly two decades budgets fell short of needs, substandard facilities were the norm and academic achievement met no one's expectations. Yet, despite those disturbing trends, parents, the mayor and the council were rendered powerless because the elected board had the ultimate say.

Indeed, even though the current 11 members of the elected school board try to distance themselves from the unruly and inept ways of boards past, many of them have agreed over the years that the "system" got the best of them. They also know the one constant in all the years of educational turmoil was, is, the "system" not the individual players themselves.

At present, as has been the case since the 1960s, D.C. voters elect members of the school board and those members of the board elect a president and hire and fire the superintendent. The board draws up policies and offers a budget to the council, but the legislature has no power. Sure, the council and mayor can tinker here and there, but the D.C. charter forces them to take the board's and superintendent's word for it that reforms will be implemented and monies spent accordingly. If severe problems remained, as was always the case, frustrated parents had to let the election cycle run its wayward course. While that suits stakeholders yearning for political power, there is no empirical data that even remotely suggests D.C. students fare best at the hands of an elected board.

According to council member Kevin Chavous, the educational panel chairman whose legislation is up for vote today, "If it doesn't substantially make a difference whether it's elected or appointed, then there's no question the citizens of the District of Columbia should have the opportunity to elect their members."

Begging Mr. Chavous' pardon, one can't help pointing out that bad decisions by the school board led to consistently poor test scores, low teacher morale, crumbling and unsafe school houses, inadequate supplies and questionable expenditures throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Essentially, those troubling trends will be reversed when, and only when, the power over public education rests with the legislative branch. It is lawmakers who must ensure that, when it comes to education, accountability rests with the mayor and the D.C. Council.

m Based on incorrect information provided by the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, a Jan. 6 editorial misreported that Congress would have to approve a D.C. charter amendment measure regarding public school governance. In fact, only the mayor and D.C. Council would have to sign the legislation.

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