- The Washington Times - Friday, January 21, 2000

Even when African-Americans were only a short walk away from one of the world's most atrocious human chattel systems; even when they feared lynchings, burnings, and castration at the hands of white racists; even when they were denied a job, a meal at the counter, and a room in the hotel; even when Jim Crow slavery's first cousin took up residence; even when the physical structures of schools in their neighborhoods crumbled from neglect and their children were relegated to using decades-old textbooks, they understood the importance of a good, solid education. Which was the reason the Little Rock Nine, Ruby Bridges, James Meredith, Charlene Hunter-Gault and others braved threats against their lives.

The legacy the majority of African Americans wanted to bequeath to their children was the ability to read, write, analyze; to walk through the schoolhouse door into the American dream. Nothing was more sacred than that piece of paper the high school diploma, the college degree.

But, during the last two weeks, in this predominantly African-American town, what has consumed the debate surrounding competing proposals to reform the D.C. Board of Education hasn't been how best to educate our children. It hasn't been how to ensure our children have a fighting chance to reach for and hold the brass ring of success in the 21st century. It hasn't been about how the board, regardless of its composition, has repeatedly proffered flawed educational policies that have leaked into the classrooms, making it difficult to effect meaningful change in the intellectual and academic lives of hundreds of thousands of mostly black and Hispanic youths.

What has concerned the D.C. Council, led by Kevin Chavous, head of the Committee on Education, Libraries and Recreation and Parks, has been political entitlement: District residents are entitled to an elected school board because they don't have many opportunities to exercise their democratic right to elect their representatives.

But, the seven members who voted earlier this week to retain an elected board, albeit one reduced from 11 to seven, proved themselves myopic and wholly parochial. What's worse, they distanced themselves from the rich educational legacy that has long been a primary thread among peoples of color, particularly African-Americans even when they didn't have the right to vote. Moreover, they signaled that elected officials in the nation's capital aren't willing to risk their comfortable political positions not even for children and youth.

The debate, which thus far has offered predictable results, is one indication why the District consistently proves itself not-ready-for-prime-time. Now, as in the past, leaders passionately resist change, even in the face of indisputable evidence of failure. They willingly cling to historically inadequate and collapsing institutions, programs and policies even as the populace cries for change. For example, a few years ago, the majority of African-Americans in the District who were polled by The Washington Post indicated a desire for school vouchers. Elected officials, most of whom were African-American, decried Congress' efforts to impose such a program. Subsequently, thousands of parents registered their dissatisfaction with the District's traditional education system by enrolling their children in charter schools.

Now, yet again, in the name of democracy, council members thwart democracy. They refuse voters, many of whom are completely disgusted with the educational system, the opportunity to voice their support or opposition to Mayor Anthony Williams' plan to dissolve the elected school board in favor of an appointed five member policy-making panel and have the superintendent report directly to him. Instead, by their vote this week, legislators have guaranteed the District becomes the first place in the country to have its traditional public education system go completely or near completely charter.

Oh sure, the city will have its elected board, but in the final analysis, that board will have domain over an ever-shrinking D.C. Public Schools system. The disintegration of traditional public education will be the political legacy of this council, and more specifically of those seven members.

There is still time to salvage the mess it has made thus far of school reform. When it meets next month the council can reconsider this week's vote. It can choose courage over comfort. It can choose our children and our children's future over political expediency. It can choose to ensure accountability by voting for an appointed board of education and vesting in the Office of the Mayor the authority to set educational policy and to hire and fire the superintendent. It can fully rescue public education in the nation's capital from a decades-old antiquated system, choosing perceived short-term popularity for long-term success.

But, if members continue to find themselves too timid for the task; if during this budding political season, they remain averse to risk; if the trees in their front yards remain more important than the forest, at the very least, they should put both proposals an elected and an appointed board before voters. Which, everyone would agree, would be a remarkable demonstration of their highly touted interest in democracy.

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