Jonetta Rose Barras
Jonetta Rose Barras
Opinion Writer

D.C.’s children don’t have time to wait

The D.C. Council sometimes overcomes its collective myopia, narcissism and operational dysfunction to enact visionary public policy that changes the lives of citizens for the better. Last week was not one of those times.

The council flatly refused to provide additional funding to D.C. Public Schools and charters with a preponderance of students from low-income and working-class families. Many of those children enter school without the same level of preparation as their middle- and upper-income counterparts. Education experts have argued that such disadvantages can be eliminated by providing more intense academic programming, including extended days, weekend academies and consistent tutorial services.

Jonetta Rose Barras

Jonetta Rose Barras’s weekly column focuses on local life, government and politics, with an emphasis on the District. With more than 20 years’ experience reporting and commenting for the Washington Examiner, Washington Times, City Paper, WAMU and other outlets, she is a familiar voice in the D.C. region.

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Despite an impassioned plea by at-large council member David Catania (I), seven legislators — Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), Chairman Pro Tempore Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and at-large members Anita Bonds (D), David Grosso (I) and Vincent Orange (D) — voted against a plan to allocate $32 million in fiscal 2014 to charters and DCPS for those students.

The money was there. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi had upgraded revenue projections for fiscal 2013 ($85.9 million) and 2014 ($92.3 million). Mendelson and his crew chose to spend $50 million of the $92.3 million on various sundry things — some of them worthy but many without the powerful rippling effect of a quality education. The council also approved $23 million for clarifying and lowering sales taxes. Another $18 million was set aside for yet unannounced recommendations by a tax review commission.

Normally, I would argue that new revenue should be returned to taxpayers. But D.C. schoolchildren are in trouble.

Catania and five other council members offered a solution used in other jurisdictions: a weighted student formula that would provide an additional $544 in funding for each low-income child for the 2013-14 school year.

Opposing council members were all trees and no forest. They focused on process and timing. Ultimately, they declared it best to wait until September when a so-called funding “adequacy” study, which already has taken two years, is finally completed.

District residents already have waited too long. Superintendents, administrators, teachers and politicians have walked off with hundreds of thousands of taxpayers’ dollars while the city’s children have suffered.

Sure, some improvements have been made since mayoral control was implemented in 2007. Much more must be done — with urgency. Consider these reasons: Speaking this month before the council’s Committee on Public Education on nine legislative proposals designed to sharpen school reform, DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson acknowledged that 75 percent of her schools are underperforming.

Citywide, less than half of public school students, including some who attend charters, are proficient in reading. The DCPS has one of the the lowest graduation rates in the country. The achievement gap between whites and black and Hispanic students is one of the largest in the country.

“The shape of the world will not permit us the luxury of gradualism and procrastination,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his book “Why We Can’t Wait.” That point remains relevant.

There is a public-education crisis in the District. The claim of school choice is a cruel joke.

Henderson wants additional money. Interestingly, in a June 24 letter, Mayor Vincent C. Gray asked the council to approve $23 million “to bridge the gap until the recommendations of the adequacy study can be incorporated into the mayor’s 2015 budget.”

Mendelson and others chose to provide additional funding for recreation fields and centers. They gave incentives to the motion picture industry to make films here; many D.C. high school students can’t even read a movie script.

Money for adult literacy may seem like a good idea. But has the council also set aside funds to help the next class of functional illiterates who will graduate from city public schools while everyone waits on an adequacy study?

Some folks have cast Catania as an ogre. This is not about him — although as I have traveled around the city, many people have praised his aggressiveness, even when they have voiced opposition to some of his legislative proposals. The quest for additional money for low-income children, they said, is the morally correct course of action. They have credited Catania with reigniting the school reform debate.

A few years ago, the mantra in the John A. Wilson Building was that quality education for poor children was the “civil rights issue of our time.” If those people meant the movement begun with Brown vs. Board of Education and advanced with the Montgomery bus boycott, they surely know those efforts weren’t gabfests. They involved intense and aggressive campaigns.

D.C. residents who, like Catania, are tired of waiting for the arrival of quality education, particularly in low-income communities, may want to remember King’s comment about that civil rights movement: “It was the people who moved their leaders, not the leaders who moved the people.”

jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com

 
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