John Payton, who died March 22, was a great friend not only to our nation but also to the place he called home — the District of Columbia. To his local and national work, John brought an incredible combination of brilliant thought, deep commitment to principle and unswerving dedication to improving the lives of those who most needed help. Everyone who loves Washington should take a moment to observe this tremendous loss and remember a great man.
I met John in late 1995, when he and the other four members of the original D.C. Appleseed Center board hired me as executive director of the nonprofit, which works to solve pressing problems facing the city. At the end of Appleseed’s first full and quite successful year, the organization faced an enormous dilemma — one that could have sent the organization down the wrong path.
The triggering event took place in November 1996, when the congressionally created financial control board took over the District’s public school system.
With fiscal management of the city improving, everyone committed to bettering the city knew that ground zero for reform had to be the District of Columbia Public Schools, where few kids received the education they needed to succeed in life. There was no evidence that the D.C. Board of Education — which was better known for fighting to keep open half-empty school buildings in members’ wards than for acting to improve curriculum or teaching — could attract, hire or retain a superintendent who could lead needed reforms.
Yet the control board’s takeover was almost certainly illegal. The structure of the school board was written into the city charter, which also contains provisions for how the charter itself can be amended. Nothing in the law authorizing the control board allowed it to change the charter.
Appleseed had a choice: Give in to urgency and follow the straightest path to reform or stand for principle and fight an illegal action by an unelected body. After a lengthy debate, the Appleseed board chose — by a single vote — to sue the control board to reverse the takeover. John cast the deciding vote. He knew from his days as D.C. corporation counsel that desperately needed reform almost certainly would not be led by the school board. But he also made emphatically clear that he (I still recall his words) “would not be part of an organization that failed to stand for the rule of law.”
Appleseed filed suit and eventually settled with the control board, which returned power over the school system to the school board. Then Appleseed began a project to properly change the governance of the schools. Our research and advocacy helped pave the way for the enactment of a law — approved by referendum — to fundamentally restructure school governance, including a sunset clause that ultimately led to the mayor’s assuming responsibility for DCPS. In the end, our city benefited more than would have been possible had the control board succeeded, because the structural change that took place ultimately led to improvements in student outcomes that have long outlived the control board.
Originally opposed to the lawsuit, I learned a great lesson from John (and his colleague Alan Morrison, who filed the lawsuit): Successful pathways to needed reforms can and must be grounded in principle.
I had the great privilege of working with John in recent months on a project to improve our nation’s community colleges, where so many of the African American students that John cared deeply about are trying to gain the skills they need to succeed in life. As with everything else he worked on, he asked (and helped answer) the tough questions, demanded adherence to principle and pushed toward solutions that would improve the lives of vulnerable Americans.
Our city and nation are much better off for John’s time here. His presence will be missed, but it will also endure in the many people whom he showed how to find thoughtful solutions to persistent problems and ground those solutions in principle.
The writer, currently a higher education program director at the Aspen Institute, was executive director of the D.C. Appleseed Center from 1995 to 2001.
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