Poor test scores notwithstanding, the city's nearly 110,000 public schoolchildren might be taking back seats to educational politics as school resumes this school board election year.
Pupils are returning to city schools with some of the worst scores on standardized tests in the nation, but, among those who run the schools, the focus appears to be more on placing blame than restructuring the education.
"People are just as frustrated with the schools as ever," observed a member of the mayor's staff who watches the school board closely. "The only reason you don't see everyone leaving the school system is economics -- they can't afford it."
Bert Anderson, president of D.C. Citizens for Better Public Education, concurs. "There are some changes going on at the top of the school system," he said, "but the last place those changes will be felt is in the classroom . . . things in the classroom aren't anywhere near what they should be.
The biggest hope for better schools is the expansion of a program called Competency Based Curriculum, better known as CBC, a back-to-basics plan with a step-by-step manual for teaching every area of every subject. It was introduced in the school system several years ago.
CBC is Superintendent Vincent E. Reed's response to previous superintendents' so-called innovative educational theories of the 1960s, now politically unpopular. They and their theories came and went in the late 60s and early 70s, leaving an turbulent school system with a tarnished reputation.
Reed, a former shop teacher, plans to revive the schools with a basic, hard-work approach to schooling. CBC is the heart of that plan.
Last year, his method was used in approximately 60 schools, about one-third of all city public schools. This year, according to vice superintendent Elizabeth Yancey, it will be in about 120 of the 200 schools.
Despite its expansion, CBC as a teaching aid is still an unknown quantity. No one seems to know if it works. Reed and his staff have been its biggest supporters, but teachers frequently complain that it is pedantic, too arbitrary and narrow, and is not helping students to learn.
"I've asked for a briefing on CBC," school board member. R. Calvin Lockridge said, "but I haven't got it yet. I've heard teachers say it doesn't work and once a student leaves the D.C. school system after using CBC he'll be lost. . . . It is an intellectual crutch."
Besides expanding CBC, the school system is adding more counselors to schools and more teachers in a new Transitional Teachers program in elementary and junior high schools.
The program is intended to help students make the jump from small, neighborhood elementary schools to larger, area-wide junior high schools. Historically, District pupils going from elementary to junior high schools suffer declining grades and increasing discipline problems.
The additional transitional teachers will work with students during the sixth grade, the last year of elementary school, and the seventh grade, the first year of junior high school. The program is planned to provide a common thread between the two schools so that students adjust more smoothly.
Lower enrollment again this year poses another change in the school system. Official projections are that anywhere from 3,000 to 6,000 fewer youngsters than last year's 113,000 will return to city schools.
"The city's population is declining," explained Minnie Woodson, school board president, "and the new people moving into the city are young and childless, as I understand it, so that has to be reflected in the school system. But over 90 percent of the children in the city go to public schools."
But Woodson knows that a reasonably large percentage of middle-class parents, black and white, take their children out of District schools, and she is angry about it.
"Any parent that can afford it can send their children to private school if they want to," she fumed. "This is America. And they can blame the D.C. schools if they want an excuse to pull away, but a strong child, with strong family support can go through anything . . . a child is better for having rubbed shoulders with reality."
However, fully 10 percent of children eligible to go to District public schools do not. Their parents opt instead to send them to private or parochial schools. This year, for instance, the majority of the students enrolling in parochial schools are black, the one-third are non-Catholics.
Perhaps the biggest change in the D.C. schools this year will be political. The system is likely to experience an infusion of politics, spanning from the mayor's office and City Council to the school board and the teachers' union. The pitch will peak by November, when six school board seats are up for election.
Public relations -- politics by another name -- was at the root of the board-union contract standoff. The board's get-tough attitude during contract talks resulted from an effort to publicly demonstrate that its members are trying to improve the schools. They acted in the belief that the public holds them responsible for pupils who cannot read.
With teachers working a longer day and year, a new contract taking teachers out of decision-making on school operations, school board members say their principals and superintendent will now truly be responsible for the success or failure of the D.C. school system. They say the board of education will more justifiably accept political blame or praise for the state of the school system.
The teachers' union is campaigning, too, intent on making sure that political responsibility for the problems of the D.C. schools is not laid on teachers, but on the school board and the superintendent.
William Simons, president of the union, says the school board is out to destroy his union by demanding that teachers work longer hours and a longer year without a pay increase.
He wants to bring pressure on the school board from other politicans in the city, including Mayor Marion Barry, whom the union supported in his mayoral campaign, to give the union stronger voice in how schools are run. Simons is fighting to make his union a power in city politics: a union that politicans must deal with if they want to be elected.
But the union is undergoing internal troubles with politically apathetic teachers. Less than 10 percent of its rank and file voted in the last union election. To keep a core of teachers happy, union president Simons recently took 250 union members, leaders in their various school buildings, to a lavish Pennsylvania resort for what one person who attended called "relaxation and workshops."
City officials, including Barry, are taking a greater interest in education, or at least in those in charge.
Barry is supporting candidates in all of the school board races this fall, including Ward 5's Matthew Shannon, former acting head of the D.C. Labor Department. Barry aims to gain control of the school board, sources say.
The City Council has established a task force on public education, which includes two former school board members, council members Hilda Mason and Betty Ann Kane.
But the most politically controversial event so far were council member John Ray's hearings in July. The school board boycotted, and let it be known it wanted none of its employes taking part. Board members felt Ray was infringing on their political base and authority to run the school system. They saw the hearings as headhunting with their heads on the table.
William Simons and an angry group of teachers were among those who testified.
The school board itself is now on the verge of heated intramural politics. Woodson is not running for the school board again, leaving the presidency of the board open to two warring factions.
The minority group includes board members who once supported former controversial Superintendent Barbara Sizemore. They advocate more community say in how schools are run and favor different ideas, sometimes considered radical, for improving the school system.
The majority faction supports a back-to-basis approach to improving the schools with greater "accountability" from teachers and principals for the students they turn out. It is the faction that led the board during the teacher's strike.
But new faces which the election might bring could change the school board equation and the fortunes of Superintendent Reed, who signed his second three-year contract last year, and is riding a crest of popularity.
"He is seen as the one stable factor in the school system by students and parents," a city politician noted: "The union and the school board are seen as the ones messing things up."
One of Reed's recent successes is a rise in students' standardized test scores, which still remain below the national norm. Although scores have suddenly jumped before, only to be followed by generally low performance, there is widespread optimism that last year's better showing will be the first of many.
With the promise of good news ahead, the school system is increasing its advertising. Board members and Reed are sending out more letters and flyers, and advertising their school information hot-line telephone number on hundreds of city buses. Their campaign is aimed at fostering good feelings about the school system and the school board. They want to combat what they feel has been bad press for the past few years.
Reed also plans to wage a "get-to-know-you" campaign with the 6,000 teachers in the school system to combat teacher loyalty to their union instead of the D.C. school system.
As City Council member Ray said after his hearings, "Schools are becoming a political issue that the school board and the superintendent can't control anymore . . . you see all these people coming into town, they don't want to pay for private schools (or) Catholic schools. Now the schools are everyone's problem."