D.C. School Takeover Plan

David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 8, 2007; 2:00 PM

Post staff writer David Nakamura offers his insights on this week's D.C. Council hearing about the transfer of school oversight to the mayor's office.

Nakamura was online Thursday, Feb. 8 at 2 p.m.

A transcript follows.


David Nakamura: Hello everyone, we're a day after the most emotional school regovernance hearing so far. In case you missed it, a panel of parent activists engaged in a shouting match with council members, from the witness table and also afterward in the hallway at the John Wilson Building. We have full coverage on the site by my colleague Nikita Stewart and video of the hearing. And I'm interested in anyone has thoughts about Marc Fisher's column today basically saying that Superintendent Janey will be removed if/when Fenty takes control of the system.


Alexandria, Va.: What qualifies Fenty and the D.C. Council as being able to handle a huge educational problem along with the other city issues?

David Nakamura: One activist called Fenty the "hip-hop" mayor because of his youth (he's 36) and, presumably, inexperience. Another pointed out that Fenty has no education theory background, unlike Janey. Fenty's point has been that he needs control because the way things are structured now, the mayor and council can gripe all they want about the troubled schools but are limited in their authority to make changes. Yes, it's a big job considering all the other issues facing the city -- such as the troubled mental health department and other agencies. But Fenty says schools are the top issue among parents and therefore the mayor should be responsible for improving the system.


Washington, D.C.: I find it interesting that the new mayor wants to take control of the school board. Was he not aware of these problems when he was a council member? What did he do to fix any of these problems when he was a council member? The same goes for Councilman Barry. Not only is he presently a council member, he was mayor for three terms. What if anything did he do to fix D.C. public schools? I think that this is all a joke and the students, parents and teachers will suffer greatly. I'm glad that my daughter is graduating from the D.C. school system this May. May God have mercy on the children that have to suffer through this!

David Nakamura: This is a good question. In fact, as a Council member Fenty voted against Mayor Williams's plan to take over the school system. He was very adamant back then that changing the school governance was not the answer to fixing schools. In December, I went and got copies of the DVDs from council meetings in 2004 and quoted Fenty's words from then compared to his new position now. He says that he gave the superintendent two years to fix things and nothing has changed, so he's tired of waiting. His trips around the country also convinced him that taking direct control of schools is what big-city mayors are increasingly doing -- in New York, Chicago, Boston and LA.


Hillcrest: I am tired of government having proposals saying "trust me and come to find there is no plan, or a bad plan. Okay, he wants a chancellor-superintendent to report directly to him. But what are the specifics that will be carried out versus what is being done now?

David Nakamura: Indeed, Fenty's plan offered few specifics in terms of changes to curriculum, stuff that parents and students would expect to feel the most. The school board's alternative, by comparison, attached very specific performance goals, which were mostly greeted with laughs by the council because the goals were so ambitious. It's hard to move a troubled school system as fast as the board was promising. So far, Fenty has defended his plan as bringing more accountability because it gets rid of one layer of the bureaucracy (although it also creates new layers such as the independent construction authority and the office of the ombudsman). He says the chancellor -- whether that's Janey or, say, Miami's Rudy Crew, who Fenty really likes -- would be responsible for developing and implementing the classroom initiatives.


Washington, D.C.: Hi David,

I'm having trouble understanding what plan (if any) the people who are against a mayoral takeover of the schools have for improving things. All they want to talk about is spending more money. Well, D.C. spends more per child than any state in the country and we have little to show for it. I have no idea if Fenty's plan will work, but I know they can't get any worse.

David Nakamura: That activists say that superintendent Janey has developed a good plan (even Fenty says that) and that replacing him or restructuring governance will set things back. They also fear that the mayor will consolidate authority without checks and balances. In New York, the chief criticism of Mayor Bloomberg's takeover is that his administration is not responsive to parents or even teachers and principals, mandating a top-down approach. Parents fear losing influence over their children's lives, which is understandable.


Downtown D.C.: Does Vincent Gray bear blame for letting yesterday's Council session degenerate into a yelling and insults match? Dorothy Brizill and the D.C. Watch crew have blamed Gray's poor leadership skills for allowing yesterday's hearing to implode. Does Gray support Fenty's plan? Gray appears to have mayoral ambitions; how does that play into his handling of the legislation?

David Nakamura: Gray has not taken a formal position on Fenty's plan, saying he will wait until after the seven public hearings to make up his mind. However, he reacted almost angrily to suggestions from some of yesterday's panelists that the council did not have the expertise to make a decision on mayoral control. I think you had a mix of some of the most outspoken activist, digging in their heels on an emotional issue, facing off against a new council still feeling its way.


Northwest D.C.: It's pretty clear that Janey is out of a job as soon as Fenty's plan passes. His pathetic "blitzes" to fix up the schools are two years too late. He comes up with a schools renovation plan that will take 15 years to finish. Only after Fenty's electoral sweep did he suddenly decide to up that schedule so that it will take only a decade. He cannot properly oversee proper maintenance of schools and reacts only when The Post or other local media highlight the deplorable conditions in a particular school. Then Janey announces a blitz to fix the problems at that school. Janey may be a good educator, but he's a horrible administrator. Bobb may be a much better administrator, but he's showing up several years too late for the job.

David Nakamura: Fenty generally agrees with your assessment of Janey and I don't think Janey has impressed the Fenty team with his performance over the past couple weeks. Janey hedged repeatedly when asked by the council and media whether he preferred Fenty's plan or the school board's plan. And he reacted very defensively to Jack Evans' question about a critical audit of the school system. To be fair to Janey, it was politically difficult for him to take sides, and Evans sort of ambushed him on the audit. But Fenty likes bold, decisive leaders in the model of, well, Fenty.


Washington, D.C.: The question of whether Mayor Fenty or City Council members are "qualified" to run the school system is irrelevant. The school system has been run by one "qualified" superintendent after another for years, and not a darn thing has changed for the better. Why do I support a takeover? Easy -- the mayor and the City Council can't do a worse job than the one being done now.

David Nakamura: That's one way to look at it and I think some council members do see it that way -- we've tried everything else and nothing's worked, so we need to try this.


Phoenix, Ariz.: How much has the ongoing takeover attempt in Los Angeles affected Fenty's strategy?

David Nakamura: Fenty visited LA as part of his best practices tour before taking office. He got there on a day that Mayor Villaraigosa suffered a political defeat when the school board named a superintendent while he was out of town. The LA system is so big and sprawling that it's not necessarily comparable to here. Villaraigosa has had a hard time winning even more moderate control, but that's in part because he has a tougher political road with a state legislature and because the LA system is overseen by more than one board, I believe.


Metro Center: How does one become a "schools activist"? Does it come with a good benefits package? Because based on the video of yesterday's hearing, it doesn't look like a person needs to have kids in the schools or much intellectual brainpower to become an activist.

David Nakamura: To be fair to the activists, they are passionate people who are to be commended for attending meeting after meeting about schools, often late in the night. And having gone to some of those meetings myself lately, I can tell you that not a lot of other people are attending.


NE D.C.: Does the mayor's plan affect charter schools? I am very happy with my daughter's charter school and don't want charter schools to be harmed by this plan.

David Nakamura: Yes, Fenty has incorporated charters into his takeover plan. Basically, he reduces the chartering authority from two entities to one. He believes this will help unify the chartering process.


D.C.: A comment: I believe that teachers in each building almost anywhere know who the good ones are and who the drones are, and this goes for the central office staffs as well. It seems that not much attention is being given, or reported, on just what teachers (and building custodians) feel and have to say about what's going on with the Fenty debate. The apparent silence is deafening.

Your take?

David Nakamura: Very good point, although the teachers' union has recently come out against both the school board's plan and Fenty's plan. I agree that we should seek out more teachers and principals, but they, like Janey, are in a tough position because if they speak honestly about either plan they might fear retribution depending on what the council does. Also, it should be known that council member David Catania and others are eyeing the takeover as a way to get into the teachers' union contract and giving principals more leeway in firing bad teachers.


Washington, D.C.: Is the Washington Post represented on the Federal City Council? What is the FCC's position on the school takeover?

David Nakamura: The Federal City Council is a group of area business leaders and the Washington Post's Chairman, Donald Graham, is a leading member. In fact, his father helped found the organization, I believe. The FCC's goal is to help provide solutions to structural problems vexing the city and region, as a way to improve the community in which they do business. For a long time, some schools activists have questioned the motives of the FCC because the group has been involved with the schools, even suggesting superintendent candidates. Fenty's deputy mayor for education, Victor Reinoso, was the FCC's COO before joining Fenty and the FCC helped pay for a report on DCPS that Fenty commissioned to support his takeover.


Washington, D.C.: I am a resident of Ward 4, which is currently without a council member. I find it very unfortunate that Mayor Fenty chooses to steamroll his school takeover plan while residents of Ward 4 and one other ward do not have adequate representation.

I don't know at this point which of the competing plans is better. But I do not at all appreciate these tactics. And I am concerned about a mayoral takeover of schools (by an unproven mayor who doesn't even have his own children enrolled in the public schools) and regression on home rule.

I would appreciate your comments.

Thank you.

David Nakamura: Yes, the fact that there are open seats in wards 4 and 7 has been an issue. Many parents are asking that the council delay a vote on Fenty's plan until after the May 1 special election to add the two council members (and an open school board seat representing wards 3 and 4). But Fenty came from ward 4 and Gray from ward 7. There are also several at-large members, so both Fenty and Gray have dismissed the issue.


Washington, D.C.: Why hasn't anyone questioned Fenty or the other Council members (except Brown and Mendalson) on why their children don't attend D.C. Public Schools? There are still great schools at the elementary level. Also, while I don't support the plan...I am no DCPS Cheerleader. How many folks on the school board are parents and how many have kids in the DCPS system?

David Nakamura: Fenty has said his twin sons, who are in a private school, will attend a D.C. public school after the third grade, which is when they will graduate their current school. We've reported this several times, but Fenty has mostly brushed it aside saying he's always been forthright about it. Still, it's fairly hypocritical of him.


Bowie, Md.: Does the D.C. Council need any more evidence that the mayor should take over D.C. schools? Every start of the school year, and during winter, there have been issues with the school buildings and nothing gets resolved. Now, four schools have no heat and there was a news report last night that indicated there was no real immediate action to rectify the problem even though Janey talked a good talk.

David Nakamura: Fenty agrees and said these are some basic managerial issues. The question is: If he gets control, what happens next year? If there are any lapses, he's going to take major heat. In New York, in his first year in charge, Bloomberg closed some schools but didn't know where to send the kids and publicly admitted to screwing up.


Falls Church, Va.: I have heard a lot about improved facilities and curriculum, but what is the mayor's plan for attracting highly qualified teachers to DCPS? Many of the most qualified teachers head to the suburbs for better pay/working conditions. Does Mayor Fenty have a plan for addressing the human resource function, which is one of the most broken parts of DCPS?

David Nakamura: This is a very good question. Good teachers are hard to find and mostly I hear Fenty and others talk more about their strategies for firing bad teachers, as opposed to their strategies for hiring good ones.


Washington, D.C.: With all due respect to Mr. Janey, what has he done with the funds that have been allocated to repair dilapidated schools? It's a disgrace that Bannker couldn't get its problems with the gym--problems parents complained about for years--addressed until faced with national embarrassment on ESPN. Duke Ellington, my brother's alma mater, had a similar issue with its dance floors. Nothing proactive was done about that situation until it was highly publicized in The Post. Now we have boiler problems resulting in 50-degree temperatures indoors.

Exactly when do things become unacceptable to the people in power? And how many of the current school board members aren't using their positions as a stepping stones to something else?

David Nakamura: The pace of the school system's effort to modernize facilities is at the core of Fenty's frustration with Janey. Fenty was the one who introduced the billion-dollar school modernization legislation that the council eventually adopted a couple years ago. But so far, not much of the money has been allocated to improve the buildings. Fenty wants to speed that up with a new, semi-autonomous school construction authority whose CEO would be appointed by the mayor.


Capitol Hill, D.C.: Mr. Nakamura:

Is it true that the DCPS spends more per student than any school system in the surrounding jurisdictions? (Maybe more than all but a handful of school systems across the nation?) If so, then money by itself is NOT going to fix the schools. Any more than giving the mayor control of the school system will.

In my brief encounters with the DCPS -- at a one-on-one level -- I have come to believe that the system is so dysfunctional that it can never be fixed using ordinary means. Those working in and for the DCPS have too much invested in the current system to allow any true change to take place.

My sense is that the only real fix would be to abolish the current system -- yes, fire everybody. And then create a new system from scratch. People who want their old jobs back would have to compete for them against other candidates. All candidates for a job would have to answer exactly the same questions. Perhaps all candidates should be interviewed behind a screen, so no personal qualities except perhaps the voice by itself would be able to sway the panel selecting the candidates. Outside experts should be brought in to run the transition, including all the hiring decisions.

Having just written that extreme proposal, I have no belief that anyone in the D.C. government or in the DCPS would accept it. Even if the changes promised total success (whatever that is).

What hope for change can the parents, the taxpayers and the children of D.C. realistically hope for? Superintendents come and they go, and the whole mess just stays the same.

Yes, I know that this proposal is extreme. And I also realize that the voters would never stand for it.

David Nakamura: I would be careful to propose reconstituting the entire system. Although it sounds good, the truth is that other places that have reconstituted individual schools have sometimes found that they have even less qualified administrators and teachers than they started out with. But the patronage of the current system is a problem.


David Nakamura: Thanks for the terrific questions, everyone. There's still a long way to go before the council makes its decision so stay tuned.


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