Threatening School Reform

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

IN UNDERTAKING reform of D.C. schools, officials two years ago wisely prescribed a limited role for the school board. Sentimentality about the city's first elected body protected it from elimination, but officials recognized its absolute failure in serving the interests of children. Yet already the D.C. Council seems to want to give the board more prominence.

The council, returning from summer break next week, will try to override Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's Aug. 26 veto of budget language appropriating nearly $1 million to the State Board of Education. It was the second time the mayor vetoed the measure because of fears that increased autonomy could lead to the board meddling in school operations. Five votes are needed to sustain the mayor's veto, and unfortunately, it appears that some council members are buying the notion that this is a minor matter that won't threaten Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's reforms. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), proponent of the change who is also mulling a challenge to Mr. Fenty next year, argues that the board's role in setting citywide educational standards and policy is not being enlarged.

Why, then, does it need a bigger staff and budget? With nine elected board members and three staff members, the board is already bigger than its counterparts in some states that have student populations far larger than the District's. Standards adopted by the board also apply to the public charter schools but, given their success and the capable supervision of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, the idea of extra attention from the state board only makes us more wary.

What does it say about D.C. Council priorities that it cuts funding for summer school so that only half the children who need to attend can do so, but it can come up with money for the board to hire someone to handle public relations for it? If this measure becomes law, what comes next? There has been talk of letting the board, not the mayor, hire and fire the schools superintendent. It's naive to think that this will be the end.

Some on the council may have buyer's remorse about giving the mayor control of education. They seem not to care that school openings have never been smoother, that facilities have never looked better, that test scores seem to be going in the right direction and that student enrollment -- despite second-guessing by the council -- appears to be holding steady. The schools aren't anywhere near where they should be -- but council members promised to give this experiment five years. We hope the public pays attention to who is living up to that promise and who is not.

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