- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 1, 2007

The battle over reforming D.C. Public Schools was a set up, and if stakeholders aren’t careful they will lose sight of what the so-called advocates and other special-interest groups want. Make no mistake, their goal is not to raise students to a higher level of learning. Their goal is to maintain control of school funding. Specifically, they want to maintain control of the distribution of that money.

The set up began when Adrian Fenty won the Democratic mayoral primary in September and he was immediately crowned wunderkind and a shoo-in for the November general election. Indeed, Mr. Fenty won 89 percent of the votes in the general election — the same election in which voters sent a change agent, Robert Bobb, to the presidency of the Board of Education and a respected social-services leader, Vince Gray, to the chairmanship of the D.C. Council. While the three officials have a full plate of issues confronting them — from policy missteps on the socioeconomic front to the ominous HIV/AIDS crisis — only one issue has created a deepening debate across the city. And that is education reform.

The Fenty school-reform legislation would restructure the entire school system by placing all operations under the authority of the mayor and giving the D.C. Council line-item budget authority. The independent Office of the Chief Financial Officer would retain spending controls. The bill also would strip the Bobb school board of its independent authorities. The council held several (often contentious) hearings on the bill, and a vote is anticipated in April. The mayor reportedly has shored up a majority of yes votes, and, if the measure is passed, it would require, as all D.C. laws do, congressional approval.

The legislation, as Messrs. Gray and Bobb are keenly aware, shouldn’t pass in its current form because it lacks a substantial academic component. After all, although the mayor’s legislation explicitly addresses accountability, its fails to articulate what’s most needed to ensure success for the city’s long-suffering school-age population—academic achievement. Fortunately, lawmakers rewrite and amend legislation all the time, and the measure proposed by Mr. Bobb serves as a good guide on academic benchmarks for students and teachers.

A long-distance runner, the mayor won praise and endorsements for his energetic campaigning. The media, meanwhile, labeled him a whiz-bang gadgeteer because of his proficiency with BlackBerry devices. The question is whether he is as adroit politically.

Mr. Fenty has substantial support for his school plan outside of City Hall. An influential faith-based organization, the Washington Interfaith Network, just this week endorsed the Fenty bill. “Reforming D.C. schools is first and foremost about political will and leadership. Mayor Adrian Fenty has both. He brings the drive, urgency and commitment necessary to change [D.C. Public Schools] culture of indifference and low-performance. Most importantly, Mayor Fenty wants to be held directly accountable for school performance. D.C. youth deserve the best and they should be the direct responsibility of the city’s top leaders,” said Co-Chairman Lionel Edmonds, pastor of Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church. Surprisingly, the (eyebrow-raising) ) Washington Teachers Union, which has 4,200 members, also backed the plan (probably because it lacks an academic component, so it lets teachers off the hook).

What the mayor faces, however, (and the lawmakers by default) is a continued onslaught from special-interest groups that, while very vocal over the years, never effectively couched their petitioning on behalf of student learning. One group, for example, famously battled the school system over fire-code violations. Another focuses on high schools. Some groups contest charter schools and other school-choice initiatives. As for the PTA, it has been as relevant as the school board in effecting academic reform in recent decades.

But regardless of the “special” interest of the special-interest group, they seemingly share a common thread — the potential for politicizing schools if the school board is disbanded, as the Fenty measure proposes. That argument stands on wobbly legs.

The very beginnings of the school board are rooted in politics. The D.C. Board of Education has served as the city’s No. 1 elected institution since 1968, when a Democrat-controlled Congress passed legislation granting the District an elected school board. Ever since, the schools — and the children who attend them — have been a political football, with politicians and political wannabes utilizing the system to springboard themselves into City Hall. This is fact despite the “nonpartisan” nature of school board members and candidates, who are prohibited from running on a “party” ticket. (Lawmakers Marion Barry, a Democrat, and Carol Schwartz, a Republican, are classic, but not the sole, examples.)

Politicize schools? Please.

It’s about the money. Which schools will be permitted to control their own purse strings — for teachers, for nutrition, for maintenance staff, for labs, libraries and technology?

It’s about lobbying for the money.

The D.C. school system has not had an overhaul since 1968, and regardless of the measuring stick used, students have consistently come up short. This is an emergency.

Education was the No. 1 topic in last year’s elections. The voters gave Messrs. Fenty, Gray and Bobb what they asked for, and now it’s time to give back.

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