- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 18, 2007

Each of the top three leaders of D.C. government — Mayor Adrian Fenty, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray and School Board President Robert Bobb — has heard over and again what parents, students and school advocates are pushing for, and that is improved student achievement. Unfortunately, at present there is no legislation to address that singular issue. Instead, the council and the board are pondering two worthy legislative proposals that call for a meeting of the minds.

Mr. Fenty’s proposal would restructure the public-education power grid and place full authority under the mayor, but the council would be given line-item control of the school budget. We fully support the budget initiative. The school board in its legislative proposal essentially would only realign itself, institute an insignificant increase in standardized test scores and set an 18-month deadline. The problem with both plans is that neither articulates how to raise student achievement.

That substantial flaw means that it is now up to the three leaders to begin triage: Develop a compromise that strikes the proper chords for operations, finances and academics. The board already has taken a significant step on one front by signing off on a new chief operating officer for D.C. Public Schools (Abdusalam Omer). The current cold spell, the failure to upgrade restrooms, poor athletic and physical education programs, the failure to inform parents about lead in the drinking water and other failings during the past two years prove that the former COO wasn’t up to the task. When it comes to modernizing facilities, DCPS must stop spinning in crisis mode and begin executing already funded and well-thought-out maintenance plans. Teachers, students and parents are all on record saying that when a school closes because of a lack of maintenance, teaching and learning get tossed aside.

On the financial side, the city’s chief financial officer, Natwar Gandhi, told lawmakers just last week that he is “confident” school authorities will correct their notorious spending habits. “The schools,” Mr. Gandhi said, “are my top priority.” Meanwhile, Mr. Bobb, even amid all the distractions, has lost neither his footing nor his focus during the several weeks he’s been in office. As he said Thursday at a Citizens Forum sponsored by The Washington Times: “At the end of the day, whether the mayor is in control of the District’s school system or whether the school board is in place, it’s incumbent on our entire community to hold either governance structure accountable for one thing and one thing only, and that is to improve student achievement in the District of Columbia.”

Indeed, while governance structures and superintendents have come and gone and school authorities have been inattentive to overspending and an oversized facilities inventory, the unconscionable constant has been low student achievement. Among urban school districts, such as Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles, New York and San Diego, D.C. student performance ranks in the basement. (That’s why we characterize a 10 percent increase on test scores as insignificant.)

Mr. Gray, who deserves a commendation for the unparalleled (and sometimes heated) public hearings on such a vital issue, has said he has yet to make up his mind on the two proposals. He has given particular pause to the board’s self-imposed 18-month deadline to boost achievement — and rightly so, since stakeholders have been pushing the board in that direction.

It’s now obvious more than ever that DCPS hasn’t, isn’t and can’t act with a sense of urgency — a word used by Messrs. Fenty, Gray and Bobb. Finally, however, the District has the right mix of managerial and political experience to take the school-reform issue head-on. The next step — the one that must be taken before the council votes — calls for the three leaders to put their heads together and work toward a legislative compromise. They’ve done it before. What is at stake if they don’t work together this time, however, is far more important than a baseball stadium.

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