- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 31, 2007

D.C. leaders have been talking of reform for the wreck of a public school system the past two generations, with each master plan implemented with copious amounts of money and ever-lofty rhetoric.

Now Mayor Adrian M. Fenty wants to assume responsibility of the schools, with the 13-member D.C. Council in line to control the school budget.

The latter is fraught with pork potential, with one ward apt to feel at odds with another as council members go about the process of divvying up taxpayer largess.

The politicization of who gets what is an old practice in the city, whether the political favor is a refurbished library, new recreation center or big-box tenant. That is just one of the problems with Mr. Fenty’s takeover plan.

Council member X will vote with council member Y if council member Y repays the favor over an issue dear to the constituents of council member X.

The new mayor certainly means well, just as every school superintendent who has dropped into town in recent years has meant well. The underperforming public school system is broken and seemingly impervious to reform, good intentions and per-pupil expenditures among the highest in the country.

That is partly because nothing can take the place of a two-parent home that values the importance of an education. In fact, the families that value education rarely allow their children to attend the city’s public schools beyond the elementary level. After that, those families either move to the suburbs or send their children to private schools.

This is an old fact of the city’s demographics dating to the 1950s and ‘60s, when the city gradually started to lose its middle class and began its pre-cipitous decline in population.

But rearranging the chairs in the classroom is not about to address the culture of failure in the city’s public schools. It is a culture of bloat and mismanagement, of dismal test scores, of learning centers in varying states of decay.

Given all the money that is thrown in the direction of the public schools, you would think the system could afford a couple of buckets of white paint for the Duke Ellington School of Performing Arts in Georgetown. You would think it would be incumbent on school administrators not to have schools looking like drab detention centers.

A visitor to the city, in passing Hardy Middle School in Northwest, said: “You mean they actually have students in the building? It looks like it should be condemned.” We have heard all this inspiring talk in the past. We have heard all the promises and vows to incorporate meaningful change. No matter how well-intentioned it all was, it went only so far.

There is no great secret in learning how to read and write, how to add and subtract. It takes a modicum of effort on the part of a student and a parent who is monitoring the progress of his or her child. It takes a certain amount of discipline and curiosity on the part of a student and a parent who recognizes the child’s strengths.

The college-or-bust belief in today’s high-tech society is misplaced. Any homeowner who has paid a landscaper, electrician, plumber, carpenter or painter understands the monetary value of those skilled in trades.

Mr. Fenty has every reason to be wary of Schools Superintendent Clifford B. Janey and the D.C. Board of Education that approved his $25,000 performance bonus and contract extension in December after the number of failing schools in the city rose from 80 to 118 and enrollment declined to 58,000 students.

Mr. Fenty may understand the financial usefulness of streamlining the system, of eliminating underenrolled elementary schools that no longer serve neighborhoods teeming with children. But he will have a hard time persuading a bureaucracy interested only in preserving itself and neighborhood activists who inevitably fight the prospect of a school closing.

Mr. Fenty plans to be yet another instrument of change in the public school system.

Alas, he won’t be the last.

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