- The Washington Times - Friday, November 8, 2002

Say what you will about the victories and defeats voters handed out on Tuesday and there were some doozies. In my book, none is as important as the victory D.C. voters undeniably delivered to Peggy Cooper Cafritz, the president of the Board of Education.
Her margin ranked behind Eleanor Holmes Norton's in the congressional race and Linda Cropp's in the race for the D.C. Council chairmanship. While Mrs. Norton and Mrs. Cropp won votes in the six-figure-plus categories, Mrs. Cafritz beat her own remarkable 2000 showing (95,820 vs. 94,876). Her tally also beat the mayor's by nearly 20,000 votes.
This remarkable victory raises a couple of questions. While there is an ongoing debate as to whether a single issue defined voters' decision to return incumbents, is there a mandate for Mrs. Cafritz in the ongoing debate to reform schools? And, if Mrs. Cafritz is on an educational mission, what's her plan to succeed?
That Mrs. Cafritz won re-election was a given, since she had no competitors. No one would take her on. Not Mayor Williams, who neglected to endorse her for second term, and not the so-called children's advocates, who were quieter than the mice that scurry in school cafeterias, and not the janitors, whose job is to clean their, pardon the frankness, mice droppings.
To be sure, it's easy to criticize the Cafritz school board, but it's difficult to challenge Mrs. Cafritz, who, cannot be bought off by unions and other special-interest groups. Even Washington powerbrokers, quick to call her controlling and combative, even brusque and ornery now find themselves having to take a deep breath and deal with her in the fight to reform D.C. schools.
That fight, unfortunately, has been more skirmish than battle these past two years. The Cafritz board failed to accomplish much including revamping special-education programs and curbing the board's decade-long voracious appetite for overspending, and its repeated failures to order enough textbooks.
Perhaps it was because Mrs. Cafritz deliberately restrained her impatient self, trying to build coalitions and a rapport with the business community. Perhaps it was to prove to her critics that she could temper her blunt self. At any rate, she shouldn't have to shoulder all the blame for the board's failures.
Some board members were preoccupied with their political lives instead of developing school policy and overseeing the administration. One board member, who was appointed by the mayor, quit. The mayor's new appointee drew criticism. Meanwhile, back-door maneuvers to force Mrs. Cafritz to abandon her re-election plans created yet another distraction. Mrs. Cafritz didn't budge.
Her handy victory on Tuesday means she now has to face cruel and hard facts.
D.C. test scores are still abysmal compared with national rankings. Principals and teachers repeatedly request more money and more training, while accountability and student achievement are brushed aside. Janitors and engineers claim they are overworked. Per-pupil spending doesn't measure up, and the digital divide is as deep and wide as it was two years ago, when the D.C. Council and the mayor ginned-up the stupid idea of creating a half-appointed, half-elected school board.
Also, the school board's overspending and failure to lobby elected officials and the public sector has placed the master facilities in serious jeopardy. The initial plan called for all public schools to be modernized or built anew, pacing the projects at eight or 10 schools a year. That budget, too, has been blown. That mismanagement is stifling D.C. charter schools, whose growth in the region is unprecedented.
Moreover, this summer, D.C. Auditor Deborah Nichols released a scathing report that said $67 million in payments for special-education services were "unsubstantiated." The payments were made without reviewing and approving the accuracy of invoices, verifying that the services were authorized and determining the eligibility of students. There can be no excuse for such costly mistakes. Period.
All responsible parties must be held accountable. Period.
Indeed, when the academic lives of children, disabled and abled, are at stake, it is simply unconscionable that not one elected official in this city is raising Cain. Not one.
Seems their political lives are more important. Hush, hush, there now. If it's kept quiet, the blame can always be redirected after the elections.
Well, the elections are over. Everyone is comfy in their newly re-elected postures. It's time to speak up and out, and act on special-ed programs and other needed reforms.
Do you hear me, Mrs. Cafritz?

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