- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 3, 2005

Mayor Tony Williams and the District’s senior lawmakers have a lot to boast about. After all, 10 short years ago the government of the nation’s capital was bleeding red and hemorrhaging taxpayers. Now, thanks largely to the strong-arming of the congressionally created control board, federal legislation that established an independent chief financial officer and a booming real estate market, the city is in the black, and has regained considerable respect on Wall Street. Still, all is not well.

D.C. Public Schools inarguably remain the one area still in need of considerable reform. As long as the city has “lousy schools,” a senior official told me recently, “we cannot pat ourselves on the back.” Indeed, the rates of every socio-economic ill in the District continues to rise — illiteracy, truancy and dropout, homelessness and drug abuse, unemployment and crime, HIV/AIDS and inattentiveness to chronic illness, teen pregnancy and unwed mothers, child-support delinquency and public assistance. All those problems stem from the fact that, for two decades, public schools have failed to appropriately educate the public.

The major contributing factor to that failure has been the spineless occupants of City Hall and school headquarters to reform education policies. Their failure to spend political capital on programs that turn young people into employable productive citizens means that another generation is set up to depend on government largesse.

Here’s how the definitive set-up works: The D.C. school system is an independent agency, which means the superintendent and the Board of Education submit a budget, but neither the mayor nor the legislature can mandate how budget dollars are spent. Even the city’s chief financial officer, who controls all purse strings, holds minimal sway over school policies. As a result, nearly two-thirds of the school budget goes toward personnel costs and one-third goes toward special education and English-as-a-second-language programs, with few dollars left to actually reach inside the classroom to the typical student.

The profound issue is not who is elected to City Hall or who sits in school headquarters. The profound issue is that the city’s old-school education policies, which have been in place since the city was granted home rule status by a Democratic-controlled Congress in 1973, are in need of drastic reform. No one of consequence is accepting of the challenge.

Ironically, the city’s leaders hardly lack knowledge of the school system and the ill effects it has on socio-economic factors. Our lone congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, attended D.C. schools. Our chairman of the D.C. Council, Linda Cropp, worked in D.C. schools and is a former member of the school board. Lawmakers Marion Barry and Carol Schwartz also served on the school board. Two other lawmakers, Kwame Brown and Vince Gray, also attended D.C. schools, and Mr. Gray is a former director of the D.C. Department of Human Services. David Catania is chairman of the Health Committee (and he left the Republican Party because, as a champion of homosexual rights, he couldn’t stand his party’s position on same-sex marriage). Sharon Ambrose is a former teacher. Jim Graham is a former chief executive of the renowned Whitman-Walker, which provides HIV/AIDS services. Kathy Patterson, chairman of the Education Committee, is a public school mother. Adrian Fenty represents many of the upscale neighborhoods that once prided themselves for being home to many of the city’s teachers and professors. Vincent Orange is married to a school teacher. As for our mayor, the “outsider” has tried but mostly failed to have any significant changes implemented. (Even he, too, mostly tinkered around the edges of reform.)

As for the school board, Peggy Cooper Cafritz, is known nationwide for ushering (and helping to sustain) what once was one of the nation’s premier arts schools, the Duke Ellington School of the Performing Arts. Yet, during her watch as president of the school board, Ellington is making waves not as a premier academy, but for its high truancy rate. Meanwhile, schools are now being run by a “new” superintendent, Clifford Janey, whose proposed budget for the next school year looks like warmed-over grits (and as any Southerner worth her true grit knows, that downhome staple is best when eaten hot off the stove).

To readers, I beg indulgence since you are unfamiliar with most of the names I mention. But, as I said earlier, individually as officials and collectively as the city’s political leadership they have failed to move outside the one-size-fits-all realm of public education. The lot of them have handed D.C. children and parents the shortest of all straws.

The only hope, it seems, is to place considerable faith that the double-income, no kids taxpayers (or Dinks) who moved into the city during the real estate boom won’t send their future children to D.C. schools or will leave here before their future children reach school age. While that might sound gloomy, the prospect will, at the very least, force the city’s financial hands to close underutilized schools and sell school buildings as the student population continues to shrink.

That is unless the political leadership and other stakeholders rise to the longstanding challenge and shake up the city’s lousy school system.

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