Clean Up This Mess!
Washington's Public Schools Are a Shambles, Arguably the Worst in the Country. The City's Would-Be Mayor Promises Reform . . . Again.

By Thomas Toch and Sara Mead
Sunday, October 1, 2006

Why can't we fix our schools?

It's the number one question on District residents' minds. It's the question Adrian M. Fenty has promised to make his top priority as mayor. It's the question that has bedeviled the city and its various governments for nearly four decades. But it doesn't look as though things are getting any better.

Here's the latest:

· The city's fourth-graders placed dead last in reading and math in a federal study of 11 urban school systems last year. · Only 19 percent of city schools -- 28 of 146 -- met modest reading and math standards under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

· Enrollment keeps plummeting -- from 80,000 a decade ago to 58,000 today -- as wholesale defections continue. · Even the charter schools that promised a cure have failed to meet lofty expectations.

It's a dismal record. Yet in many ways, it reflects the problems that plague any large urban school district -- a high concentration of low-income students, bureaucratic inertia, aging schools and crumbling infrastructure. City school systems from New York to Houston to Los Angeles confront the same constellation of challenges. Test scores have begun to climb in a handful of places, such as Boston, but urban school reform is slow, laborious work, and it's not at all clear just how far we can go in transforming urban systems.

But if the District's problems seem particularly intractable, it's because they are.

Schools in the nation's capital suffer from a special affliction: too many emperors. The continual battling for control over the school system among government officials and agencies -- as well as the congressional gorilla on Capitol Hill -- has resulted in ever-shifting priorities, an absence of accountability, low morale and waste. It has spawned an endless churning of leadership (six superintendents or acting superintendents in the past 10 years), promoted patronage and spurred endless political infighting.

These are hardly the circumstances from which successful school reform springs. Just the opposite: An outside audit of the school system in 2004 found that the District's hydra-headed power structure had left the city unable even to establish a vision for improvement. Indeed, the review concluded that the city had "no . . . strategy for raising student achievement."

Into this vacuum strides Fenty with a promise to "demand and deliver results."

But the mayor-in-waiting is not the first to vow to slay the District education dragon. And unless the many factions that lord over the city's schools can be persuaded to work together, he probably won't be the last.

The schools haven't always been a blot on the city's image. The school system was founded in 1804, and President Thomas Jefferson was the first chairman of the board. Dunbar High School, established in 1870 as the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth, was the nation's first and most prestigious secondary school for black students.

In 1950, the District had a higher percentage of residents with high school diplomas than any state in the union (now only 10 states have a lower percentage).

But events began to conspire against the city's kids as far back as the late 1960s, when the city erupted in race riots and the school board became the first home rule body. The riots and the advent of home rule caused many of the city's middle-class technocrats to flee the District and shifted the leadership of city institutions from public-service-minded citizens who sought to make city services work to political activists such as Marion Barry. Barry, who would become known for patronage and the decline of city services during his tenure as mayor from 1979 to 1991 and then again from 1995 to 1999, began his political career with his election to the District's school board in 1971.

What should have been a civil rights victory for District residents became an educational crisis for their children. As home rule was extended -- the city began electing a mayor and a City Council in 1974 -- the District's school system found itself at the mercy of a large and changing cast of political authorities. Today, the education chain of command runs through the superintendent of schools, the school board, an independent city finance director, the mayor, the City Council and Congress (which holds the city's purse strings, but where the House and Senate often disagree). Sometimes, the Education Department gets into the act, too.

It's a recipe for mismanagement, as the nonprofit Council of the Great City Schools confirmed in 2004. "The large number of political stakeholders in the District's schools," it reported in an audit conducted shortly before current School Superintendent Clifford B. Janey was hired, "makes it difficult to achieve a single vision for how low student performance should be improved."

The system's bureaucracy is one of the biggest impediments to change. Patronage became a problem in the 1980s. "We used to joke that we could do organizational charts by family -- who was related to whom," said one longtime District teacher and administrator. Fiefdoms resulting from a proliferation of federally funded school projects, and an absence of accountability made worse by the rapid turnover of school superintendents, also contributed to the breakdown of the central administration.

Today, the school bureaucracy is a virtual 19th-century relic. District school officials still don't know how many students show up every day. Last year, the central office had to go through nearly 13,000 personnel records -- by hand -- to make more than 10,000 payments to teachers and other employees who were owed paychecks and reimbursements, because the archaic personnel and payroll systems produce so many errors.

Until a couple of years ago, officials combed through boxes of teacher applications by hand, which helps explain why for years the system didn't begin hiring new teachers until the third week of August, and often didn't finish the task until the school year was well underway And until recently, it took two to three months on average to get supplies to schools, and the city had no inventory of its books and other teaching materials -- so it didn't know from one school to the next what topics its instructors were teaching.

The most glaring example of the system's bureaucratic shortcomings is its special-education program. Last year, the system spent more than 25 percent of its budget on its roughly 10,200 students with disabilities. And it spent about $118 million, or 15 percent of the budget, on the roughly 2,400 District special-education students enrolled in private schools. That's because the District failed for decades to evaluate many students for disabilities in a timely manner or to create adequate programs for those who need help. As a result, it has found itself forced under federal law to pay for students with disabilities to attend private schools.

The cost is prohibitive for a school system that already has money problems. It's local lore -- and an oft-repeated talking point among Republicans in Congress -- that the District's schools are awash in cash that only needs to be put to better use. In fact, the city's congressionally approved $1.05 billion operating budget generates less funding per student ($12,612) than do Alexandria ($15,871) and Arlington ($16,464). And while Prince George's County ($9,638) and Fairfax County ($11,915) spend less than the District, Montgomery County spends nearly the same.

Meanwhile, the exodus of the black middle class to the suburbs over the past three decades has left District schools with a large population of students living in circumstances that are more expensive for schools to overcome. Sixty-four percent live in or near poverty. Sixty-eight percent live in single-parent homes, and 52 percent live in homes without a parent who works full time. Other area school systems don't have to confront the consequences of statistics as daunting as these.

District residents have been voting for decades with their feet -- either moving to the suburbs or placing their children in private schools. But more recently, even those of lesser means have opted out as a possible solution to the schools crisis seemed to shine on the horizon -- public charter schools.

Congress sanctioned the creation of the publicly funded but independently run schools in the District in the School Reform Act of 1995. The schools are able to hand-pick teachers and principals, spend their money the way they want, and decide what and how they are going to teach their students.

In the past decade, while the city stood by and did nothing, 17,800 of its students -- about 25 percent -- fled to these schools. That cost the system about $140 million in lost revenue last year, and much more if you count the millions wasted on maintaining vacant or underused school buildings.

And yet charters haven't proved to be a magic elixir. Their mixed performance points out just how tough it is to educate disadvantaged urban students.

Some of the new schools, such as the D.C. Preparatory Academy, the Knowledge Empowers You (KEY) Academy and the School for Educational Evolution and Development (SEED) and Howard Road Academy, are outstanding. But others have struggled; only five of 40 eligible charters met No Child Left Behind standards last year. And 12 have been closed because of financial problems and poor performance.

In addition to charters, a fledgling voucher program also draws students from the public schools. The two-year-old program, courtesy of outgoing Mayor Anthony A. Williams, the Bush administration and Congress, gives about 1,700 students as much as $7,500 for private school tuition. To dampen opposition, Williams reimburses the school system for the lost revenue.

Recently, however, Janey has begun defending his turf against charters and vouchers. He has called for a moratorium on charter schools and is talking about creating public schools that mimic charter features.

Whether he's successful in fighting the tide of school choice or not, the expansion of charter schools isn't likely to be unlimited, because of a dearth of the education entrepreneurs needed to start them and the talented teachers and principals needed to run them.

The need to fix the D.C. public schools isn't going to go away. And Janey, who ran the schools in Rochester, N.Y., for seven years before coming to the District, is trying to do something about it. He's moving on several fronts, urging broad changes that include:

· Introducing an ambitious 100-page master education plan that tackles many of the District's toughest school problems. · Importing tough new standards and tests from Massachusetts -- a courageous move, as the tests resulted in lower scores last spring. · Buying new textbooks and trying to reduce the time it takes to get supplies into schools. · Partnering with the New Teacher Project, a New York-based nonprofit, on teacher hiring, a move that increased applications by 160 percent over two years. · Announcing a 15-year $2.3 billion plan to build 23 schools, renovate 101 and close 19 by 2021.

Janey hopes the last effort will help address his special-education problem by creating state-of-the-art facilities that will discourage parents from seeking budget-busting private placements. Tied into the plan is a proposal to transform the city's struggling high schools into theme academies -- some academic, others vocational. Janey also wants to expand preschool programs, increase the length of the school year and increase after-school and summer-school programs.

That's an impressive roster of changes with the potential to make a difference. But the question is whether the superintendent -- and probable mayor-to-be Fenty -- can navigate these and other reforms through the treacherous bureaucratic and political landscapes that have made ours one of the nation's worst school systems. Other urban school systems are beginning to ratchet up student achievement using reform blueprints similar to Janey's. But the difference is, they're not Washington.

Thomas Toch and Sara Mead are co-director and senior policy analyst of Education Sector,

an education-policy think tank in the District.

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