Rights, Wrongs and the Real Task for D.C. Schools
Rarely will the names of D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer and Clarence Thomas be mentioned in the same column. But this week's topic is education, and the three figure prominently in the debate over the role of public schools.
Fenty's interest was demonstrated by his takeover of the District's schools and his request to be held accountable for converting a failing urban school district into a "world-class" system.
Likewise, the bitter clash between Breyer and Thomas last week in school desegregation cases reflected their passions on the issue.
And the connecting tissue of their respective positions is race.
Last month, Fenty assumed control of a school system that had been legally segregated until 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education (in the District, the deciding case was Bolling v. Sharpe) that governmental segregation of students by race was unconstitutional.
However, in the nation's capital, the unanimous rulings failed to produce the kind of integration the court promised.
A report issued in March 2005 by Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, marking 50 years since the school desegregation cases, declared that "the long overdue promises embodied in Brown and Bolling have not been fulfilled for the children of the District of Columbia. The promise of an end to racial isolation remains unfulfilled."
Fenty inherits a system whose student body is 84 percent black. Most D.C. classrooms east of Rock Creek Park hardly reflect the racial makeup of the city, which is 57 percent black.
Last month I returned to my alma mater, Dunbar Senior High, to deliver the commencement address to the Class of 2007. No white graduates were present. My Class of 1957 had the same look.
Now, as then, there are D.C. neighborhoods where children can attend classes from kindergarten through 12th grade and seldom encounter a white classmate. That's segregation -- maybe not in law, but in fact.
Equally important, Fenty now oversees a system in which overall student achievement levels fall far below those in majority-white school districts in neighboring Maryland and Virginia.
How will he achieve his "world-class" school system? Will it be the system of integrated primary and secondary education the court envisioned in '54? Or will the measure of success be top-quality teachers; renovated buildings; and test scores, graduation rates and college acceptances that match or exceed those in neighboring majority-white districts?