- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 4, 2007

Watching over the last several weeks a stream of education experts, concerned parents and disillusioned youth speak before the D.C. Council about the school-reform act introduced by Mayor Adrian Fenty, I was reminded of the Stand for Children rally a little more than a decade ago. About 200,000 people converged in 1996 on the Mall. There were, as there always are on these kinds of occasions, powerful and inspiring speeches calling us all to fight on behalf youth. All too soon, however, the fervor lost its heat. Far too many parents, civic leaders, government officials and others, including myself, continued to give lip service without investing sweat equity.

This realization smacked me when I listened to young person after young person at a recent public hearing — one of more than a half dozen wisely convened by Council Chairman Vincent Gray to receive comments on the mayor’s bill. These youth spoke of being abandoned by institutions and individuals on which they depended to support and guide them.

I have been an active father in the lives of my own daughters. My youngest — twins — attended, for a time a D.C. public school, Key Elementary. But in truth, my focus was never quite beyond them, the status of their school and their educational achievements. While I am not alone in this regard, there is an opportunity for the legislature to correct this atrocity and put this community and its leaders back on course. It can and should pass the mayor’s reform bill. This is our moment to Stand for Children.

The council, which also has before it an opposing bill submitted by the D.C. Board of Education, could seek to combine those two proposals. In general, this is what the legislators should do:

1) Give the mayor complete control of the public-education apparatus, including the ability to accredit, monitor and independently evaluate charter schools and the ability to independently evaluate the effectiveness of the federally financed voucher program.

2) Establish, as requested by the mayor, a new Department of Education, which may be headed by a deputy mayor for education or another individual nominated by the mayor but confirmed by the council. (There is some redundancy in the mayor’s plan, which calls for a department of education and a state office of education. The latter should be eliminated.)

3) Create a state board of education responsible for the development of education policy, including curricula; teacher and principal qualifications, standards and certification; review and evaluation of school system performance and achievements; and conducting an annual summit on the state of public education, along with regular public hearings around policies and procedures to help the mayor and chancellor better gauge public opinion.

4) Allow the mayor to select a chancellor, but require that the nominee be confirmed by the council and that the state board provide a nonbinding resolution expressing its views of the nominee.

5) Create a subcommittee of the council committee of the whole charged with monitoring the independent school modernization authority, which will renovate existing schools and build new facilities over the next seven years. The subcommittee should have two to three staff members and have subpoena powers in the event that investigative public hearings are required. Set specific realistic academic benchmarks with timetables that the school system under the mayor-controlled model will be expected to achieve over the next three years.

6) Provide for a citizen referendum on the mayoral governance model that coincides with the 2010 general election. This gives the mayor optimal time to effect measurable improvements.

Changing the culture in the District, which, sadly, places far too little emphasis on children and families, requires more than sharply constructed legislation, however. It requires a communal commitment: expanding the cadre of dedicated and informed advocates; sending parents back to school; and engaging citizens who believe they have no vested interest in a $1 billion public-education system.

What we have seen over these last several weeks at the John A. Wilson Building is a good start toward instigating and sustaining a community that cares about children. As the council begins its final deliberations, we, the citizens, should not believe the job to have been done. The hearings actually were the easy part.

We still must track the legislature’s development of the final school-reform bill, ensuring that it provides for the proper education and training of our children, guaranteeing that they are ready to compete for jobs in and outside of America. We have to be in the chambers when the full council vote occurs, keeping score of those who would deny this opportunity to our children and exacting a price on election day. We must be there when the mayor signs the legislation — the most important in the history of the District of Columbia — and we must remind him frequently that we expect him to deliver on the promises he made leading up to the bill’s signing.

It will be our job to hold the mayor, his education team, and yes, ourselves, accountable — every day. Then, and only then, can we rightfully assert that we are standing for children.

A. Scott Bolden, a former chairman of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce and a former chairman of the D.C. Democratic State Committee, is a partner with Reed Smith LLP.

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