- The Washington Times - Friday, January 7, 2000

The District's home-rule preservationists and election border guards are at it again. Predictably, and sadly, these people deem the city's governing charter and maintenance of institutional prerogative of far greater importance than the lives of residents particularly children. Each time there is any talk of making amendments to the inadequate and antiquated document that transferred quasi-independence to the District, people start talking about democracy and the absolute necessity of retaining the current frayed governing structure.

It's not surprising, therefore, that they decry Mayor Anthony Williams' proposal to transfer power and authority from an elected D.C. Board of Education to one appointed by him and approved by the D.C. Council. This new appointed board would be composed of five members with greater expertise and experience in education policy than the current popularly elected 11-member panel who must only satisfy the criteria of being District residents for 90 days before picking up nominating petitions and never having been declared mentally incompetent.

Opponents of the mayor's proposal wax nostalgically over the elected board, saying it is the first democratic institution in the District. They argue that although the council and the office of the mayor have a tainted past no one has suggested dissolving those elected bodies. Current members of the education board say, "Don't penalize them for the sins of their predecessors." But the offenses of the past also are those of the present: the unequivocal denial of a decent and competitive education for our children.

In this city, bold, substantive initiatives capable of permanently altering the dysfunctional government and culture often become victims in the battle for territorial rights. Elected officials fight to retain their power. Bureaucrats want to keep their nice paychecks. Civic leaders want to maintain their influence. All the wrong things are sacrosanct.

Preservationists want us to believe democracy will die with the dissolution of the elected school board. The mayor's proposal requires a referendum; voters get to make the final decision. Besides, what good is democracy when a large portion of the city's population could be characterized as functionally illiterate. The city's half-billion dollar public education system has failed that group and the previous generation miserably. Some graduates from District public schools can't even read the ballots to say nothing of having the analytical skills to discern who is the best candidate and how the candidates' public-policy stances might affect them.

What is of greater importance: a clearly dysfunctional 30-year-old institution or equipping a future generation with the intellectual, emotional, material and spiritual resources it needs to tap into the American dream successfully?

These are hard questions. They go to the soul, morals and values of this city and must be answered as the debate heats up. "We have to decide we're not going to just muddle through," the mayor says.

As a sign that many agree something must be done, four council members have introduced legislation to change the school governance structure. All want a smaller board; two have suggested a whole or partially appointed body. Mr. Williams is the only one to propose an appointed superintendent.

In July, I urged the mayor, council and the financial control board to create a State Commission on Education, appointed by the mayor and approved by the council, which would have direct policy oversight of all institutions including charter schools and the University of the District of Columbia. The elected board of education would be dissolved permanently. The superintendent would be appointed by the mayor and report to the mayor, but would be guided by the commission.

My call for action then, and now my unwavering support for Mr. Williams' proposal come not out of concern for an institution that has become an empty symbol. Rather I am moved by the plight of children. Where else in the country can it be documented that a school system erodes the academic achievements of children the longer they remain in it? Where else would residents and elected officials tolerate such an atrocity?

Opponents argue that the control board's takeover three years ago has not produced any significant results. They are right. The control board appointed trustees who lacked sufficient critical management skills and educational policy knowledge to define or aggressively advance a reform agenda. Instead of leading, they have acquiesced to a superintendent who may flaunt adequate academic credentials but who is no manager and has yet to get a handle on the system. Adding insult, Arlene Ackerman has developed an awful reputation for being imperious and impervious to parents and District officials.

None of these arguments for the dissolution of the education board may assuage home-rule preservationists, who are locked into symbolism. But, to quote the mayor's chief of staff, Abdusalam Omer, "This is not about the board of education. This is about the children."

We cannot continue to give cover to a system that permits our children's brains to atrophy and their futures to dry up like raisins in the sun.

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