- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 13, 2003

These are tough times for public schools in the District.

Gang violence is rising. School buildings are crumbling. An embezzlement scandal plagues the teachers union. The superintendent abruptly quits. And with a budget deficit of about $21 million, school officials said last week they would cut 771 jobs — 545 of them teaching positions.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams recently referred to the school system as a “slow-moving train wreck.”

Police have gone to schools numerous times to break up fights, some between rival gangs. They have boosted patrols around particularly troublesome schools, but violence persists.

Devin Fowlkes, 16, a promising student and football player at Anacostia High School, was shot and killed outside his school on Oct. 30. A 15-year-old girl was wounded. Police do not believe either was the intended target. A 15-year-old boy has been charged with first-degree murder.

“When you have the kind of poverty that breeds the kind of frustration that leads to violence, it is going to seep over into schools,” said Peggy Cooper Cafritz, president of the school board.

The situation makes it difficult for teachers to teach and students to learn, school officials and parents say. And many students can’t get the help they need at home because of this stark statistic: 37 percent of the city’s adults read below a ninth-grade level.

The problems are prompting some parents to remove children from public schools. Enrollment has fallen nearly 16 percent since 1998, from 77,111 to 65,099. During that period, 10,147 students chose instead to enroll in the 22 publicly funded charter schools created in the city.

“It’s kind of criminal when you look at the facilities our students have to go to school in,” Mrs. Cafritz said.

Some students say the problems are getting too much attention.

“There’s still learning going on here,” said senior Alisha Barnes, 17, president of the Ballou High School student government.

Nathaniel Cole, 16, a junior at the School Without Walls, a public high school, said, “A lot of us feel the media is placing too much emphasis on the negative.”

But the negatives are plentiful:

• The average school building is more than 65 years old. Fixing all the infrastructure problems is pegged at $2 billion over 20 years.

• Former Washington Teachers Union President Barbara A. Bullock and three others have pleaded guilty to stealing $4.6 million in union funds. Four others have been indicted. Bullock admitted embezzling more than $2.5 million during the six years she headed the union.

• D.C. students performed poorly on the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress reading and math tests for fourth- and eighth-graders.

cThe city is looking for its fifth superintendent since 1995, after Paul L. Vance abruptly quit last month, citing frustration.

City and federal officials are fighting over how to fix the myriad problems. President Bush wants to use the District as a test case for using taxpayer money to send children to private and religious schools.

Under a five-year plan pushed by Republicans and agreed to by congressional negotiators, $13 million would be provided to let at least 1,700 poor children attend private or parochial schools. In return, D.C. public schools would get an extra $13 million in federal funds.

Board of Education member Dwight E. Singleton opposes the idea.

“Charter schools and private-school vouchers are instruments of exploitation and experimentation that members of Congress are reluctant to impose in their home states,” he said.

Mr. Singleton and some other board members said Congress does not spend enough on the District’s schools, and they want more time for the board to implement changes made in the past two years.

Before 2001, the school board had no power. Instead, a presidentially appointed financial control board to help the city get its finances in order also had authority over the schools.

Mr. Williams, whose support of vouchers led to clashes with Mr. Vance and board members, has been lobbying the D.C. Council to change the way the school system is run.

He said he favors either making the schools a separate agency or allowing the mayor to appoint all of the school board members. The mayor now appoints four, and five are elected.

“We ought to do one or the other, not this kind of hybrid blend, which is clearly not working out,” Mr. Williams said.

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