A strong foundation, but no time to slow down
The Post asked the front-runners in the D.C. mayor's race: "How will the challenges facing the city for the next four years be different from the last four? What will you do to address them?"
Four years ago, when I ran for mayor of the District, residents everywhere told me that the single most important challenge we faced as a city was fixing our broken public schools, which had failed our young people for more than a generation.
Today, I could not be more proud, as mayor and as a father of three young children, of the progress we have made in transforming our schools from a symbol of dysfunction into a national model for education reform. Our students, teachers and administrators, under the leadership of Chancellor Michelle Rhee, have made unprecedented gains, and they deserve an enormous amount of credit for their hard work. But there is so much work left to be done.
Gone are the days when broken windows, boilers and air conditioners caused children and teachers to suffer in their classrooms. Textbooks and computers are no longer mothballed in warehouses. We are spending more than $250 million a year to modernize our facilities. Our pools, fields and libraries are the envy of school districts across the country. From H.D. Woodson to Walker Jones to Sousa Middle School to the School Without Walls, our kids finally have the first-class facilities they deserve.
Great teachers are the key. We put in place, for the first time, a system to measure teacher performance. And we reached a landmark agreement with our teachers union under which we will pay high-performing teachers some of the highest salaries in the country.
In the classroom, our students' test scores are improving faster than those of students in almost every other city in the nation. Our graduation rates are climbing. Enrollment is up. Last year the District's population increased by more than 10,000, and parents are starting to say what had been unthinkable a few years earlier: They are keeping their families in the city because of our schools.
These changes have not come easily. We shook up the central office bureaucracy, closed more than two dozen schools and fired poor-performing teachers. In 2007, when I came into office, 95 percent of teachers received "excellent" performance evaluations while just a fraction of our students were reading at grade level -- it was a system that put the interests of adults ahead of children, and our children deserve better. Chancellor Rhee has made one tough decision after another, and it is my job as mayor to support her efforts 100 percent.
Across this city, we've taken this same approach to tackling our most complex problems -- the tough issues politicians refused to address year after year. And while we have ruffled some feathers along the way, we have achieved some incredible results.
Our streets are safer. Under the leadership of Police Chief Cathy Lanier, crime is down across the board. The homicide rate is the lowest it has been since 1966, and we're on track to bring it down even further this year.
Despite the worst economy since the Great Depression, we've created thousands of jobs, financed more than 11,000 units of affordable housing and delivered more than a dozen new parks and recreation centers in neighborhoods that had not seen real investment in decades. We brought grocery stores, restaurants and retail east of the Anacostia River and to Georgia Avenue. The Target-anchored DC USA is the capstone to more than a $1 billion in new investment in Columbia Heights.
We are taking care of our most vulnerable citizens. We provided more than 1,000 permanent homes for our homeless families and veterans. We've expanded children's health insurance so that every child in the city has access to high-quality health care, and we provided summer job opportunities for more than 18,000 youth.
We are continuing to improve the delivery of basic government services -- rebuilding and professionalizing the departments of Motor Vehicles and Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, and the Office of Contracting and Procurement -- without spending more. We produced four balanced budgets and reduced spending in a tough economy without raising taxes or skimping on services.
We laid a great foundation during my first term, but there is so much left to do. In many ways the challenges that lie before us in the next term are the same ones we faced in the first. Like any leader, I have made my share of mistakes, and I've learned some valuable lessons. You have my promise that I will continue these aggressive reforms with a more inclusive approach and an even greater urgency to deliver for our residents. What I will never do is go back to the ways of the past. The great pace of improvement that we have begun must continue.
The writer is mayor of the District.