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School Struggle Out of an Old Playbook

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, January 6, 2007

"When elephants fight," goes the saying, "only the grass gets trampled." So here's a warning to 58,000 D.C. public school students: Run for cover. The city's newly elected young bulls are about to butt heads over governance of the public school system. Such fights have occurred before. But when they happen, public education usually takes a pounding.

That lesson hasn't prevented our newly minted mayor, Adrian Fenty, from forging ahead with his plan to take direct control of the school system. The prospect of a clash with Fenty also hasn't stopped newly elected school board President Robert C. Bobb from bulking up for a turf fight. And new D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray isn't standing on the sidelines, either. He's nicely positioned to derail any school governance scheme not to his taste.

No doubt about it, there's gonna be a rumble over the schools. And when the dust settles, the real losers won't be the politicians.

Frankly, the District's been there, done that.

Do you recall the name of the first D.C. mayor to propose downgrading the school board to an advisory body and requiring the superintendent to report directly to him? You say Tony Williams? No, it was Marion Barry.

In his last term as mayor, Barry went on record favoring a shift in authority from the Board of Education to himself and the D.C. Council. Barry proposed placing the superintendent under his direct authority, demoting the school board to an advisory commission and requiring the state education agency that controls federal education funds to report directly to him.

Barry didn't get his chance, however. The D.C. financial control board beat him to the punch and grabbed the schools first.

Ironically, the predicate for Fenty's plan -- that the school system is in a "state of emergency" -- is also borrowed from an old playbook.

The financial control board declared a "state of emergency" in D.C. schools 10 years ago, and it transferred authority from the elected school board to an appointed board of trustees. The control board also fired the superintendent and hired retired Lt. Gen. Julius W. Becton Jr., giving him extraordinary powers to overhaul the system.

Teeth were gnashed and garments were rent in the community. But the control board, Becton and the trustees, led by former Brookings Institution president Bruce K. MacLaury, said a radical restructuring would lead to academic improvements and strengthened school management.

What, you may ask, was the impact of that takeover on basic literacy skills, dropout and graduation rates, and teacher accountability? Did it provide the kind of education students need to compete for, find and hold jobs? The results speak for themselves.

In the space of a dozen years, the school system has been governed by an elected board, a congressionally created financial control board (and its appointed trustees and Army general), a hybrid elected-appointed school board, and a line of superintendents that stretches around the block.

Now the curtain is rising on new D.C. political theater to be staged at the John Wilson Building. A giddy press corps is lined up to review the actors' performances.

Will Fenty retain top billing? Will he be upstaged by Gray or Bobb? Are there members in the council's supporting cast who might steal the limelight? Keep an eye on three wily characters -- Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and kingmaker-wannabe Jim Graham (D-Ward 1).

It will be a quite a show. But chances of the fight actually benefiting children are about as good as those of the Atlantic Ocean being emptied next week with a teacup.

That's because the focus is on gaining power and control, not on children.

Pushing aside the school board and granting the council line-item control over the school budget, as Fenty proposes, invites lawmakers to micro-manage school spending and operations. Any wonder it was Barry who first proposed that scheme?

Likewise, the appointment of former school board member Victor Reinoso as deputy mayor for education may give Fenty an acolyte close at hand. But Reinoso, in experience, stature and moxie, is no Joel Klein, the sophisticated New York City schools chancellor. Besides, where does this leave Superintendent Clifford Janey?

There's more to education than good test scores. A good education improves one's ability to think and communicate. That kind of education should take place in the classroom and at home. In the District, both areas desperately need strengthening. A plan that does that is worth fighting for. Anything less, and all we have are a bunch of pols thrashing around for control . . . until all the grass is gone.

kingc@washpost.com

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