- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 10, 2006

It’s been 11 years since federal and local authorities began reconstructing the District of Columbia, which was as bereft of effective leadership in 1995 as it was financially bankrupt. But while the city’s fiscal house has been in good order for several years, its public schooling mechanism is as dysfunctional now as it was in 1996, when a nonpartisan study, “Children in Crisis,” concluded that the longer a student stays in D.C. Public Schools the worse off he is academically.

How and why this is still the case has more to do with political pimping than the socioeconomic standing of the majority-black student body. Indeed, prior to winning limited home rule from a Democratic-controlled Congress in 1973, D.C. leadership focused like laser beams on making sure that children received quality schooling. That was the case even during segregation. And afterward, when a track system opened doors to post-secondary education and pushed vocationally inclined students toward the trades, D.C. Public Schools effectively prepared graduates to enter college, the workforce or the military.

The downward spiral began when members of the D.C. Board of Education became less interested in families’ academic and economic lots and more and more interested in their own political hides. Members of the board, who had to run for office, became classic politicians — i.e. using the school board as a platform to City Hall. As their clout grew, the salaries of teachers and principals grew larger, affording the bulk of the teaching corps new homes in the suburbs. The unions exercised their newfound muscle by successfully demanding that City Hall hire more school employees. But while the workforce grew, rote and critical thinking were replaced with a teacher’s classroom mantra, “I’ve got mine, you’ve got yours to get.”

This sad state of political affairs led to consistently high unemployment rates, high crime rates, shameful illiteracy rates and unbelievable public-health pathologies — in a city of magnificent intentions that Americans should be, but aren’t, proud to call the capital.

In the past decade, D.C. Public Schools has had a succession of superintendents, school board members who dream of spring boarding to City Hall and a PTA that could no more spell the word reform than the 16-year-old who dropped out of high school. In fact, there have been but two substantial reforms to D.C. schools — and both were at the hands of federal authorities. One established charter schools and the other established public-funded vouchers for poor families.

City leaders would have you believe in a third reform: a hybrid school board in which the mayor appoints some members and the voters elect some others. This debacle was intended to make the board an apolitical entity. But it didn’t. While City Hall took the politics out of electing board members, it didn’t take the politics out of the politicians.

The vice president of the school board, a woman named Carolyn Graham, wants to be board president. Her heart is in the right place. But, frankly, her leadership on the school board has failed to make any measurable improvements where they matter most — inside the classroom.

Another candidate, a man named Robert Bobb, wants the presidency, too. He announced this week that he is resigning his post as city administrator because he wants to focus like a laser beam on educating children. Mr. Bobb, like Ms. Graham, knows the rhetoric and when to espouse to it. Smart politicians always do. That’s why they all adopt variations of the slogan “Children First.” But rhetoric doesn’t educate children, and it certainly won’t shakeup D.C. Public Schools.

Unlike Ms. Graham, Mr. Bobb has been an effective administrator in cities on the East Coast, in between and on the Left Coast, including serving as city administrator when “Governor Moonbeam,” the quixotic Jerry Brown, was mayor of Oakland, Calif. After being recruited as city administrator for the Williams administration in D.C., he became known as an executive who utilizes a bulldozer to move political dung (though a shovel is kept at the ready).

As I said earlier, what D.C. children need and taxpaying stakeholders have been demanding is a school system that prepares graduates for college, the workforce or the military. Getting there won’t be easy. After all, D.C. Public Schools has been dysfunctional for 30 years.

Voters everywhere seemingly prefer politicians who are charismatic and label themselves progressive. The District has been there and done that to the detriment of its haves and its have-nots in this city — which is not just any city, but the capital.

School leaders and City Hall have focused an unforgivable amount of political capital on retaining superintendents, remaking the school board fixing school buildings — and to no avail, because test scores remain abysmal. Buildings don’t ensure quality education. Just ask any parent or grandparent who attended a segregated or makeshift schoolhouse in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

We must stop making excuses.

The poor and the working class would be better off with a school board president who is willing to ride a moonbeam into D.C. Public Schools headquarters, turn back the hands of time a couple of generations and track what’s going on inside the classroom. It’s just that simple. And the right man for the job would relay that precise platform on the campaign trail.

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