State of the District Address
The fact is, we will never create a seamless system of quality public schools, charter schools and private schools until we adults get our act together.
So you might remember: Four years ago, I led a charge to change our school board because the status quo wasn't working. I said, "Accountability now, leadership now and change now -- our children can't wait any longer."
Well, they have waited. Their parents have waited. And things are pretty much the same. If this is the status quo, it's time for serious change.
Let's be honest: the Mayor, the Council, the Board of Education, DCPS, the CFO and the Superintendent don't work well together under the current system. Now, we are all good people-it's not about individuals. But we can keep reshuffling the deck chairs until the end of time, and it will not make the current system work.
We have overlapping agendas, a confusing structure, no clear accountability, all of which hurts our students.
If everyone is accountable, no one is accountable.
If we want to build a city of learning, we have to try a different approach.
First, just like every other state, we are required to set and enforce important standards of learning in all three sectors of our schools. But there is no one agency to do it. All our schools need research about what's working, and what's not. But there is no one agency to gather it. Parents need information about how their schools measure up. But right now, there is no one agency to provide it.
Instead, these key state functions are spread out over, get this: DCPS, the University of the District of Columbia, the State Education Office, and our chartering authorities. And what's more, our DCPS officials, who already have a lot on their plates, now have two full-time jobs-setting the goals and monitoring how they achieve them.
Could this be any more complicated or any less effective?
We need one state-level agency that can get the whole job done. Let's transform the State Education Office so it can set goals for all schools; give them the assistance to achieve; and then report their progress to us all. There is a bill before the Council that would do just that. And I urge the Council to pass this bill now.
Next, there must be one person accountable for our public schools.
Who do you go to right now? Well the Council and the Mayor provide the money, but they don't control how that money is spent. The Board of Education sets priorities. And the Superintendent implements them. In our public schools, the buck stops.nowhere.
That should change. And don't get me wrong. The Board plays an important role and it must continue to serve as the voice of our citizens. But there ought to be one person held accountable for our schools. So I'm putting out a Help Wanted ad tonight:
World class Chancellor of Schools needed immediately to turn DC schools around. Must have proven track record transforming schools or other complex institutions. Must have thick skin; excellent communication skills; and not mind reading unflattering descriptions of yourself in the press each morning. Must be willing to work long hours for citizens that expected results last week. Candidate should feel confident navigating the rough terrains of DC politics and forging partnerships with leaders from all sectors of our community.
New Chancellor is expected to shake things up immediately and replicate bold ideas that are already working, from performance bonuses for good teachers to small schools that challenge the myth that some students can't learn.
We will let potential candidates know they are being considered by leaking their names to the national press. That last part is a joke [pause] I hope.
Now even if we recruit a Chancellor with all these qualities, that leader cannot survive, let alone succeed, in our current structure.
Therefore, in the next ten days, I will propose legislation to give the Mayor authority to appoint the city's Chancellor and the Council the authority to confirm that person. The Council and the Mayor will have responsibility for making sure our school system lives within its budget and that its financial choices reflect the priorities of our citizens.
Now, as I said, the Board will remain an important part of our school system, but its role will change. This means the Council will now scrutinize schools like other District agencies. It means the Chancellor will be fully responsible for the budget, policymaking, and day-to-day operations of our public school system-and he or she will report to the Council and the Mayor. This will allow all of us to place confidence in an extraordinary administrator, set the game plan, then get out of the way and hold that one leader accountable for the results.
I know this may be controversial, but I wouldn't propose these changes if I didn't believe -- in the bottom of my heart -- that they are the in the best interest of our children.
But these changes are not enough.
I can't tell you how many people the other night at Ballou got up simply to offer their help as a mentor, a chess teacher, a coach, anything at all. It's the same everywhere I go, people telling me they want to do something. The time is now.
If we want to build a City of Learning, then we must say to all students in our Universities: Serve as tutors and mentors in our public schools. To all law firms, businesses and federal agencies who work in DC: Join with your colleagues and adopt a school in DC. To our philanthropists and foundations: I ask you to really help us eliminate the educational gap between rich and poor in our city. And to parents and guardians: Please get involved and stay involved in your child's education. No one has more influence than you do.
But it's not just public safety and education. If we are going to reach the top of that mountain, we must ensure that all people -- not just some -- have quality health care in our city.
I know this issue is emotional. I know there is some anger. But what we ought to get most angry about is that our infant mortality rate is nearly twice the national average. We ought to be angry that our HIV/AIDS cases are 10 times the national average. We ought to be angry that our chances of dying from heart disease or cancer are much higher if we happen to be poor or African-American.
When we set out to address these disparities five years ago, we had two systems of health care: A comprehensive system for the rich. A bankrupt system for the poor. Separate and unequal and inhumane. I said it had to end.
We know that good hospitals are part of the solution. So, yes, we want to see more improvements at Greater Southeast. And, yes, we will support Howard University as it builds a hospital with a full trauma center on the D.C. General site.
But, more than anything, we want to help people prevent disease before they ever show up in an emergency room. And that requires access to health insurance.
We began by expanding Medicaid to people most at risk-including children and those living with HIV/AIDS. But that still left a large group out-those who couldn't qualify for Medicaid and couldn't afford private insurance.
© 2004 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive