- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 9, 2006

Well, well. The election victories have been signed, sealed and delivered, and a new president of the D.C. Board of Education will be sworn in, along with a new mayor and new D.C. Council chairman, in January. While mayor-elect Adrian Fenty and Chairman-elect Vince Gray transition into their new posts, the school board already has given us a clear indication of how it plans to continue dragging policies in the wrong direction.

Robert Bobb, the District’s former city administrator, was elected president on Tuesday. The very next day, the school board voted 6-1 to abdicate its responsibilities regarding charter schools — with some board members arguing the oversight presented a conflict of interest.

Yet that conflict always has been glaring: The Board of Education has never endorsed school choice, so its oversight of charter schools has been sorely lacking. In fact, the number of schools that have failed in the past four years — and I mean both traditional schools and charter schools — has grown exponentially. Indeed, of the estimated 160 schools in the inventory of D.C. Public Schools, only about two dozen meet the bar of academic expectations.

Enter Robert Bobb, who won the citywide seat after two years of punditry. But the pundits weren’t discussing whether he would enter politics but which seat he would seek. He sought, and voters approved. A manager and reformer, and a man of considerable gravitas, Mr. Bobb knows when to substitute rhetoric with action, and he knows that solving long-term problems takes both short-and long-term solutions (with tweaking along the way).

That’s why it will be interesting to watch Mr. Bobb and Mr. Gray, who support all-elected school boards, and Mr. Fenty, who has said he wants to abolish the Board of Education and take over schools once he becomes mayor. All three officials-in-waiting say they want to move with a sense of urgency — and urgency is certainly called for.

In 2008, the ridiculous hybrid school board — five elected and four appointed members — reverts to an all-elected composition. This means voters themselves have changed the dynamics and are anxious to see who will survive the hurbly-burly world of big-city school politics.

Mr. Fenty has been polishing up on what other cities, including Chicago and New York, have been doing. But I wish the mayor-elect would pay closer attention to what is and is not going on right here in the nation’s capital. This is where low academic achievement is par for the course. This is where the principals and teachers and janitors and bus drivers and cafeteria workers and other union and nonunion workers get raises while children lose out and drop out.

This is where Mr. Fenty himself served as a key aide on the council’s Education Committee. This is where Mr. Fenty said he knocked on doors and heard voters’ pleas to fix the schools. This is where Mr. Fenty told Mayor Williams, “No,” don’t take over the schools. And this is where Mr. Fenty says “Children First” and exercises “First Children” by enrolling his twin boys in a private school.

Reforming D.C. schools is a daunting responsibility, and part of the evidence rests in the scores of reforms, studies and governance measures that have taken place since, 1804, when Thomas Jefferson served two presidencies simultaneously — as U.S. president and as D.C. school board president.

Several issues must be reconciled. Chief among them are the $2 billion that’s being quoted for modernizing the schools. How can that be? In 1998-2001 when I served as a parent on the D.C. modernization plan, the figure was $2 billion. How can that figure remain stagnant all these years later?

The other issue is allowing Mr. Bobb to have considerable insight on the school budget decisions that will be finalized in a few months. This only makes sense because it will be Mr. Bobb’s responsibility to work with Mr. Fenty and Mr. Gray on the policies and numbers come spring.

The school system must be truthful about the costs of the facilities modernization plan. A running joke began in the 1980s, when special interests took over the school system: There are three sets of school budget books: One for public consumption; one under the mayor’s desk; and one at school system headquarters. None of them was balanced.

Who’s the joke on now?

With test scores and every other measure of academic achievement proving children aren’t learning and teachers aren’t teaching, here’s hoping Mr. Bobb and Mr. Gray don’t wait until after their swearing-in ceremonies to begin moving with all deliberate speed. Mr. Fenty has already tipped his hand.

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