Empty Promises

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

DISTRICT SCHOOL officials' plan for improvement is as disappointing as the education provided to many of the children who go to city schools. Rather than a road map for turning things around, it is yet another indictment of a failed system. Members of the D.C. Council who subjected the school superintendent and board to a withering cross-examination yesterday are correct in their judgment that time has run out for another chance.

In a bid to prevent a takeover of the school system by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), the Board of Education is pushing a proposal that essentially asks the council to give it 18 months to get the schools on track. Among the more incredible claims is the promise that 10 percent more students will test at the proficient or advanced level and that D.C. schools will outperform every other large city in the nation in assessments. Keep in mind that no other urban district has ever been able to boost student achievement so much in such a short time. As council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) aptly put it: What magic do they plan to use and why on earth have they been sitting on it for the last 30 years?

The most damning aspect of the board's plan as well as of its performance in running the schools is that it seeks emergency legislation to enact reforms it already has the power to undertake. And, frankly, should have undertaken.

The council doesn't have to pass a bill for the school system to reconstitute failing schools or make needed repairs. So how come a school such as Ballou Senior High School, which was supposed to be reconstituted, remains untouched while its students struggle and fail? Why did it take, as Mr. Gray asked, two years to get windows replaced at a school in his ward or 3 1/2 months, as council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) wanted to know, to get bulbs for playground lights?

Those are questions to which there really weren't good answers. We understand that President Robert C. Bobb and some of his colleagues are new to the school board; they're certainly not responsible for past problems. But neither did they present any persuasive explanation of why a governance system that has failed for decades might suddenly be made to work. Many of the outcomes being promised by the board are initiatives that have languished under Superintendent Clifford B. Janey in his two years in office. Equally troubling are new concerns by auditors about how the schools are spending public money and the risk this poses to the city and its finances.

Badgered yesterday into finally taking a public position on the mayor's school plan, Mr. Janey came out in support of the Board of Education's bid for more time. It's the one thing this city and its children can't afford.

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