- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 25, 2003

Lots of people in Washington — from parents and teachers to Democrats and Republicans — have said they are surprised by Mayor Tony Williams’ push for school reform. They shouldn’t be. So far, the mayor is doing precisely what must be done to not only broaden educational opportunities for the city’s youth, but also to instill accountability in a school system that runs on automatic pilot.

Look at the hierarchy in the school system. The overwhelming majority represent the status quo — veterans of either the school system or the D.C. government who constantly cry for more money so they can continue to play games with lives of poor black and Hispanic children. Many of those same political veterans are accustomed to mediocrity — and worse — from students. It is their policies that call for throwing the babies out with the bath water.

The mayor is not alone in his push. D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp, herself a former teacher, and Kevin Chavous, longtime chairman of the council’s Committee on Education, are as concerned as the mayor. While these three Democrats don’t always on agree on how to reform schools, they have agreed on this: The system is broken.

Indeed, students in D.C. Public Schools consistently rank below their regional and national counterparts on standardized tests. In fact, D.C. schools have been failing students for so long that a study in 1996 showed that the longer a child stays in D.C. Public Schools, the worse he performs academically.

Many changes have been made in recent years. For instance, school authorities ended social promotions and refocused their literacy efforts in primary grades. A group of Bill Clinton-appointees established an emergency school board, which made a few inroads and brought in three new superintendents. Later, the council and the mayor convinced voters to switch from an all-elected board to a panel of elected and mayorally appointed members. The council even passed legislation mandating that children receive their textbooks at the start of the school year. Yet, none of the changes made in recent years — including raises for teachers, janitors and everybody else at the school though — has substantially boosted academic performance. In some cases, performance worsened — despite the fact that, since Mr. Williams became mayor in 1999, he and the council have increased funding for schools by 57 percent.

Unfortunately, the mayor and the council simply failed to get the school board and the school administration to even acknowledge the sense of urgency in reforming schools. Now, they want to take matters into their own hands.

In a Sept. 17 letter, Mr. Williams, Mr. Chavous and Council Chairman Linda Cropp told School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz that the request for funds to close the school deficit hinges on several things — most notably line-item budget authority. It was an unprecedented but necessary threat. The school system is an independent agency, and its No. 1 habit is overspending. Indeed, despite the CFO putting the administration on a strict diet the past four years, school officials still overspent by tens of millions of dollars.

The mayor and some heavyweights on the council are fed up, and making other precipitous moves. For instance, the legislation that revamped the school board sunsets next year. So, what to do? Should the mayor and council take full control of the school system (which is where I cast my vote)? Or should they leave things as they are (which created more problems)?

Here’s where the mayor is coming from. Following are the remarks he made more than two-and-a-half years ago in his State of the District speech after school officials vowed to institute drastic reforms. “Frankly,” the mayor said, “if we want to see real change, we simply must change the way some schools are run. And there is a right way and a wrong way to do that. The right way is refusing to let any school fail a child. The right way is giving parents more choices among public schools, including charter schools. And I believe the right way includes teaming up with proven educational entrepreneurs to reform our most troubled public schools. They’ve improved reading scores at some of our public charter schools, and they can do the same with other schools — working within the existing school system. Now, some may disagree with this approach, but I would rather be criticized for trying and failing — than for failing to try to improve the way we teach our neediest children. Because, whether we succeed as a city, and even as human beings, will be determined, not by how we care for those with the most, but by how we care for those with the least.”

After years of letting school officials have their way, it is indeed refreshing to know that city leaders are looking the other way. All that remains are the details. I can’t wait. When I know, you’ll know.

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