TAKE A CITY BUDGET crisis. Threaten to slash teaching jobs and school operating funds, and the situation is ripe for a volatile school board president to let loose a barrage of verbal punches at the mayor the way R. Calvin Lockridge did recently. Mayor Marion Barry, meanwhile, harbors about as much admiration for Lockridge and some of his colleagues on the bickering ineffective board as a mongoose for a cobra.
It's a classic case of political fiddling while Rome is burning, Rome, in this case, being our children. Does anybody really care?
We know that most of the students in Washington are capable of learning, capable of becoming nurses and electriciians, inventors and writiers. Yet they go out into an increasingly competitive world, many of them unable to read the want ads or figure out how to get a Social Security card or catch a bus.
But it has become clear that we can't expect the politicians to solve the problems of the D.C. schools. We've lost a whole generation of grown-up children waiting. Now we have to take matters into our own hands.
While it's convenient for the politicians to take aim at each other, the problems are more complex than that.
Many teachers are experiencing a deepening malaise. Lunch-time gossip in the teacher's lounge often finds them complaining about their jobs and their students -- "you can't expect much out of so-and-so, his mother's on welfare." Teaching is a hard job, but these kinds of expectations quickly become self-fulfilling prophecies. Too many teachers feel parents, administrators or the rest of us don't care or understand. So why bother? It's a secure job and a good paycheck twice a month.
As for the parents, they have trouble identifying with the school board and communicating with teachers and administrators. They want a good education for their children, but they don't know how to get it. Many feel they have their hands full just trying to make ends meet in today's rugged economy. And the few who do get involved with the schools find themselves relegated to "community awareness" committees or raising money for an extra set of drums when what really frustrates them is that their kids aren't learning to read.
Examples are all around us that show that when people give time, money and brainpower to help our children, it makes a difference. A group of World War II vets called The Prometheans Inc. sponsor an annual Career Awareness Fair in the schools and a program in which businesses adopt a school.Another group of four Washington men began working together last June to help a young man who had potential but was failing, pick himself up and get into Ballou High School's special School of Mathematics and Science.
But those examples are overshadowed by apathy. In 1977, only 10 percent of registered voters in the District of Columbia went to the polls for the school board election; in 1979, only 14 percent turned out. And when school teachers went on strike for 23 days in 1979 then newly elected Mayor Barry said later that he was shocked that parents weren't breaking down his office door, demanding a prompt end to the strike.
A lot of people seem to think that some black people just don't care about their children's education. That's simply not true. What is true, though, is that blacks too often have been vocal enough and have not been able to step out, take responsibility and work for changes in the schools.
Ironically, when the media do stories on problems in the D.C. schools -- like a recent series in this newspaper on the school board -- many black people seem to take the series as a personal affront. As one black professional commented to a reporter recently, most of the points in those articles were factual, interesting and provocative, but because they appeared in a white-owned newspaper, they came across as an attack rather than information.
We're not helpless though. I think it's time to give some of our time and energy to the schools. If nothing else, it's in our own self-interest -- either as parents or even taxpayers. These children are the future of our city.
Perhaps there's even a broader interest group that work for changes in the public shcools -- and not necessarily one made up solely of people who have children. There are people out there with time, if only a few hours a month, to enrich the lives of the city's children -- retirees, single people and couples who have postponed having children.
I'd be the first to admit that I don't have the answers. I'm just one concerned parent who, I must confess, put her kids in private school when confronted with the problem.
Yet, I continue to pay my taxes to see that others are educated and I care and I'd like to get my money's worth. Got any ideas? I'd like to hear them.