- The Washington Times - Monday, January 14, 2002

During these early months of 2002, what you will be hearing the most about is our budget. We asked the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) administration to produce, for the first time in recent memory, a budget based on what it really takes to educate the whole child in the DCPS. This is the first time a budget has been proposed based on children and their needs. The figure is approximately $979 million. For this school year, DCPS received $641 million from the D.C. government and Congress.

Will DCPS receive the additional $338 million from the mayor, the D.C. Council and Congress? Probably not. You will hear politicians say that it is foolish and irresponsible to ask for something that you know you will not get. I disagree for several reasons:

mParents deserve to know what we need to have to educate our children so that they can compete for good jobs and admission to the best colleges. Parents need to know what it will take to keep many of our children from dropping out of school.

mWe need to know what we do not have, and what our children are missing as a result of being shortchanged. We cannot impose achievement standards without giving them the needed tools.

•We need to educate our politicians, for they must understand what we need and why.

mIf parents and others understand the needs, they can become the most important forces in convincing the politicians about the seriousness of education. If parents and the community understand real budgets, and what that money will and will not buy, they will not be bamboozled by misleading numbers that politicians often throw around.

mIf the initial budget produced by DCPS and the Board of Education were not based on educational policy and principles and on the reality of our children's lives, it would be irresponsible, dishonest and lacking in integrity.

So, in order to get the truth to you, I am willing to take the criticism that I may receive for putting the astronomical sum of $979 million out there. The $338-million mountain may seem almost impossible for us to climb, but with your active support and participation, we will get there one day. If we hide in safe, carpeted cocoons and accept whatever budget marks we are given, our children will continue to receive second-rate educations for many years to come. But we can climb that mountain together and hoist the flag of DCPS on top of that mountain, knowing that we have, at last, done right by our children.

We have to build the collective will of the city so that the politicians know that education is not just something to talk about as our first priority. Education is something to do as our first priority.

Washington, as is the case with most cities, has limited finances. We spend more of these funds on social services (i.e., substance abuse, homelessness, alcoholism, victims of violence, premature births, HIV/AIDS, food stamps, communicable diseases, arrests, incarceration, parole, probation, foster care, teen-age pregnancies, etc.) than we do on education. Necessary? Perhaps.

It is necessary because we have neglected the schools for so long that every year, come June, we are graduating far too many young people who become statistics from teen-age mothers to unemployable men who cannot read, to inmates for our jail cells, to patients for our drug beds.

This must stop. Surely, we love our children more than this. We need to say that, if a choice has to be made because of limited funds, spend it on education. And, over time, the amount we have to spend on junkies, crooks, bums and convicts, whom we have created, will radically decrease. We must stop allowing our children to become the detritus of society.

While I think we must always try to help our broken citizens, it is criminal for us to doom our children to becoming broken because we refuse to spend what we do have on education. If we help the children now, there will be fewer broken citizens to help in the future. While continuing to advocate forcefully for what we know our children need, I will do my best to lead the Board of Education to work with the mayor and his administration to come up with a consensus budget to present to the council.

Rest assured, though, with your help, all of the politicians will come out of the budget process at least knowing that they have far to go to fulfill the promise of "fully funding" education. Then we can continue to climb the $338-million mountain the minimum our wonderful children deserve. In the meantime, we always will strive to do the best with what we do have.

Peggy Cooper Cafritz is president of the D.C. Board of Education.

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