- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 18, 2003

Trying to grab the reins of the D.C. Public Schools budget is like trying to pen a squealing, runaway piglet. Just when you think you’ve nabbed the little rascal, it slips out of your hands.

When Marion Barry was mayor, the joke used to be that there were three separate school budgets: one in City Hall; one paraded in public; and one closely guarded by the school system’s central administration. What they had in common is that all three were awash in red ink. And who, do you suppose, was the butt of that joke? Taxpayers, who knew not the truth and continued to believe schools were given short shrift, and students, who were supposed to be the beneficiaries of increased funding but instead were mere pawns.

These days not much has changed — except that these days, when it comes to spending, school authorities have gone hog wild.

Today was supposed to be the day that D.C. school officials identified, as promised last week, the 771 workers who were to be laid off to help close an estimated $38 million deficit. Instead, we learned this week that the layoffs likely would be averted because school officials “found” millions of dollars in their budget and that City Hall is on the hunt for millions more.

Now, neither of those figures — the 771 layoffs and the $38 million shortfall — was pulled out of thin air. They are as real as the $21 million in raises that constitute the bulk of the deficit. Yet, precisely one week after school officials announced the pending layoffs, they reversed themselves.

Meanwhile, there was more disappointing news regarding student achievement. A report released this week by the Council of the Great City Schools found the District’s instructional programs “incoherent” and student results “abysmal.” Worse still were the findings released this week by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, “which placed the city’s student performance at or near the bottom of every measurable category except one — white fourth-graders,” The Washington Post reported yesterday.

So, while school officials squealed about money, or the lack thereof, we discovered (for the umpteenth time) that teachers aren’t teaching and, as a consequence, that students aren’t learning.

Of course, promises were made all around to reverse the misfortunes of students who, through no fault of their own, appear destined to lives of illiteracy, poverty and uselessness. The superintendent promised to institute change. The school board president promised to reconsider the layoffs, and the mayor and lawmakers promised to find additional school funds.

Honesty, as you know, is the not the best policy for any politician. Lies and deception are beholden to nonpartisan politics. Recall the promise of the Republican-controlled Congress to give vouchers to parents who want to remove their children from the D.C. piggery? Instead of focusing their attention on the future generation of Americans, Republicans favored increased spending on another entitlement (Medicare) and war (to the tune of $86 billion). And with the pressure of presidential politics coming to bear, expect federal funding for domestic programs, especially education, to be less generous next year.

Congress and City Hall have a few options to exercise in the name of leaving no D.C. child behind. The first is passage of a voucher plan for low-income families. The second is bipartisan support for legislation that would grant the mayor and the D.C. legislature line-item control of the budget for D.C. Public Schools — a budget that currently stands just this side of $1 billion. Exercising that option means changes by Congress.

The other option rests squarely in the laps of D.C. officials. The mayor must be given control of the school system, which is an independent agency, and he must be given the authority to appoint a superintendent in conjunction with the legislature. As things now stand, the independence of the school system means the mayor and the legislature can complain all they want because they have no control over the two most important and inseparable bottom lines — the budget and student achievement. What that has wrought is four years of huge deficits and abysmal test scores.

“Reform schools now” must be the mantra in 2004, and youngsters should be the primary beneficiaries. If children can’t read or calculate, they will not grow up to be soldiers or politicians, doctors or lawyers, Masons or plumbers. They won’t even be able to be a janitor in the very schools where they weren’t educated because they won’t be able to read the sign that says “Janitor’s closet.”

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