- The Washington Times - Monday, July 21, 2003

Three years ago, when Paul L. Vance was named superintendent of D.C. Public Schools, we raised important questions: “Will Mr. Vance really and truly be his own man,” or “will the ‘new’ superintendent make it easy for the status quo to continue calling the shots?” At the time, parents and other taxpayers were grappling with low student performance, misspent funds, an inattentive school board, a poorly run special-education system and a frustrated teaching corps. Unfortunately, not much has changed. Moreover, the school board and Mr. Vance have yet to agree on a long-term contract, and the law that reformed school governance sunsets next year. Those issues raise yet another question: Should the school board offer Mr. Vance a long-term commitment?

In 2000, D.C. voters decided several school-governance issues. Chief among those changes, voters agreed to 1) Replace an all-elected board of 11 members with a hybrid nine-seat board whose members are elected and appointed, 2) establish an elected seat for board president and 3) redraw school districts, replacing the eight-ward configuration with four districts. At the time, the city leaders’ intentions were to bolster school reform and stop the board from meddling in the day-to-day affairs, which is the superintendent’s responsibility.

We said then that the referendum offers mere cosmetic changes and, therefore, would not substantially improve student achievement. What have the referendum and Mr. Vance’s best efforts produced?

mStudents still rank at or near the bottom on standardized tests.

• D.C. taxpayers are forced to spend millions of dollars each summer for summer school programs that do not boost student achievement.

• The superintendent “decentralizes” central administration each year. Last spring, for example, Mr. Vance and the school board said trimming the administration would save $16.3 million; a year later, he could not expound on the results of his own initiative, The Washington Times reported. Also, he cut jobs again this year.

• The superintendent does not know precisely how many people are employed by D.C. Public Schools.

• Overspending is a huge problem. The school board reluctantly voted recently to withhold raises and make other cuts to hold down spending by the Vance administration.

These problems with the Vance administration notwithstanding, the bottom line is that everyone and no one is being held accountable for the troubled school system. The perfect opportunity to right these longstanding wrongs is by granting the mayor and the council near-absolute authority over public schools, perhaps vis-a-vis a permanent advisory council that operates out of the State Education Office. Of course, that would mean no school board.

Before those legislative changes are put on paper, though, the mayor and the council must not let the school board offer Mr. Vance a lengthy contract. When Mr. Vance accepted the job, he publicly stated that he wanted to stay at least one year but no more than two years. Well, it’s been three years, and now is the time to end the shell game.

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