LAST WEEK, Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools issued a report card grading Mayor Anthony A. Williams on his 2006 budget for the city's regular public schools. It's not the kind of report card a student would want to take home. The grading covered his performance in 21 categories covering such items as the quality and retention of school staff, instructional programs, and special education. On a five-point grading scale ranging from "A: Superior" to "F: Failure," Parents United flunked the mayor in each of the 21 categories. But was it a fair test? We don't think so.
Grading the budget in the light of D.C. public schools' needs is a reasonable exercise. We question, however, whether Mr. Williams should be singled out for evaluation given the current school governance arrangement. In fact, with the mayor, a hybrid elected and appointed school board, and an elected D.C. Council all sharing responsibility for the school system, we would be inclined to use a grading system in which "pass" or "fail" is recorded instead of a letter grade. In that case, the mayor would earn a pass -- not because he has done well by the schools, but because it is difficult to hold him, and him alone, accountable for the system's many failures.
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Nearly five years ago, the mayor proposed a school governance arrangement that would have introduced real accountability. His original proposal, which we supported, would have allowed him to choose the superintendent and appoint a smaller, five-member board focused on policymaking. That arrangement would have lined up responsibility with authority for financing and overseeing school operations; it was geared toward policymaking, not electioneering and superintendent-baiting. Had the mayor's proposal been accepted, Parents United -- and the public -- would have been justified in holding him accountable for school performance. That is what he wanted and what the D.C. Council resisted. Unfortunately, the mayor caved in the face of strong opposition to his plan. Now we have an arrangement in which the school board is responsible for policy and for supervising the superintendent, the mayor and council are responsible for funding the schools, and accountability remains diffused. Governance, as Superintendent Clifford B. Janey is going to discover -- if he hasn't yet -- is as chaotic as ever. And we haven't even touched on that new creation misnamed "The Collaborative," an extralegal supernumerary consisting of the school board president, the council chairman, a council member and the mayor. They are supposed to backstop the new superintendent in ways in which they, and they alone, seem to know.
We agree with Parents United that many of the basic components of the D.C. public schools -- for example, K-12 course offerings and school facilities -- are inadequately supported. Determining funding priorities, however, is not the mayor's call alone. Failure must be shared among the various local authorities who insist upon having a say in the schools. Or at least until the going gets rough politically and parents and citizens rise up -- and it all becomes the superintendent's fault.