Washingtonians elected their first Board of Education in 1968, six years before they got to choose a mayor and City Council. For those intervening years, the school board was the only political game in town.
It was also a hotbed of philosophy: What was the role of the public schools in a mostly black big city? What should be done to improve a system in which achievement had been dropping steadily? Were traditional teaching materials racially or culturally biased? Did scores on standardized tests really matter?
The first school boards were marked by acrimonious and divisive debates over these matters of politics and philosophy. At times Washington came to see board as an ongoing comic opera, such as during the Iranian hostage crisis when former board member Frank Shaffer-Corona was making calls to the Middle East -- at school system expense -- in a personal attempt to negotiate the hostages' release.
Within the last few years, however, the board has evolved into a calmer body; there has been a sustained push toward back-to-basics learning; and the schools appear to be making progress, both in image and substance.
The D.C. school system has opened the Duke Ellington School for the Performing Arts, a high school for budding performers, and Banneker High School, a model academic school that placed many of its first graduates in selective colleges and universities.
"Magnet school" programs have been established, such as the math and science program at Ballou High School in Southeast, in an effort to compete with private schools that have sapped the D.C. system of many of its brightest students.
"What we have seen is a gradual maturation of the board," said William Brown, president of the D.C. Congress of Parents and Teachers, the umbrella PTA organization. "We have less posturing now and more dealing with the educational issues that are important to the city and the school system."
Brown said that on some issues, such as increased security in the schools, the board fails to respond until a crisis is at hand. But for the most part, the board has been "very responsive" to city residents, especially on matters concerning "budget requests, the establishment of meaningful educational programs" and the selection of superintendents, he said.
"The question today is not how the board can be more responsive, it's how can parents make more demands to the board," Brown said. "Very few people attend community board meetings. The more we petition the board, the more responsiveness we might expect from them."
Before the first board elections, members were appointed by the judiciary. In 1967, when Congress voted to establish an elected board, the school system was being criticized by many as poorly managed and in disarray.
The idea of an elected school board was a step toward an elected local government. The boundaries of the city's eight wards were originally established for the first school board elections in 1968.
Just before Congress gave its assent to an elected board, Julius Hobson, a controversial civil rights activist who later became a member of the first elected City Council, won a lawsuit against then-superintendent Carl F. Hansen.
U.S. Judge J. Skelly Wright ruled that it was unconstitutional for the school system to use its rigid track "track system" to separate high achievers from slow learners. The slow learners, most of whom were black and poor, would always be poorly educated under such a system, he said.
In a second suit several years later, Wright upheld Hobson's contention that the schools had violated the civil rights of low-income blacks by allowing a disproportionate share of financial resources to be funneled into schools that served predominantly white, upper-income neighborhoods. The court ordered equal spending per pupil.
Against this backdrop, the first board members were anxious to have their say about how the school system should be reorganized, how resources would be distributed and what the goals of the system should be.
Rhetoric often flowed freely from the dais at board meetings, while large groups of parents or students often attended to press their concerns. The tenure of Barbara Sizemore as superintendent, from 1973 to 1975, perhaps marked the height of the turmoil in the schools.
Vincent E. Reed, who became superintendent in 1975 and is now a vice president of The Washington Post, reestablished a structured curriculum for the schools. A bitter teachers' strike hit the schools in 1979 and the board was still fractious at times, but public attention had turned to the new elected City Council.
In 1981, a new moderate majority was elected to the board with the backing of Mayor Marion Barry. With Floretta D. McKenzie as superintendent, the school board has been a relative island of calm.
Though the board is not the only political game in town anymore, it is considered a political minor league that has been used by several politicians as a training ground.
Barry was a board member, as were City Council members Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large), Hilda Mason (Statehood-At Large), Frank Smith (D-Ward 1) and Carol Schwartz (R-At Large).
R. David Hall (Ward 2), the board's newly elected president, said the goals for the immediate future are clear. "At the budget hearings recently, no one said, 'More money.' Most people said, 'More management, special education, textbooks.' So, we have to make some of our high priorities correcting management. Our goal is to build an outstanding and superior school system."