'Are D.C. students always expected to do more with less?'

Almost five years ago, I was hired as superintendent to work for the public school students of this city. To me and my employer, the D.C. Board of Education, "working for" children's education clearly meant: raise academic achievement; produce graduates who get and hold jobs or go on to college; responsibly manage school employees and resources; and provide a strong voice for both the educational successes and needs of our students.

It is the latter issue -- the educational needs of D.C. students -- that lies at the heart of the current debate regarding next year's school budget. And this is not a matter that will respond to any political quick-fixes. This topic should be the focus of long-range planning for the city, not merely an annual hassle to scrape together just enough dollars with which to make do.

First, however, the budget debate at hand must be resolved. The mayor's recommended $380 million budget and the D.C. Council's $382 million figure are simply "keeping afloat" measures. Even the school system's request for $396.2 million shouldn't be viewed as a miracle worker.

With the full budget request, we will be able to make only some slight improvements in very critical areas: reducing the size of secondary math and English classes; improving special education services; decreasing student/counselor ratios; continuing plans to offer early intervention to prekindergarteners; and having enough teachers to prevent any further overcrowding of elementary classrooms.

These are by no means the only educational needs of our students, but they are essential problems to address if the schools are to continue their recent path of modest progress. The difficult judgments about who gets what and in what amounts will still remain, but city approval of a full budget request would signal some halt to the hypocrisy of paying lip-service to the importance of quality education and paying so little to get it.

While we attempt to secure the added $14 million to $16 million to make the small gains next year, I am forced to question whether our city leaders took notice of the major infusions of support for education that other states have made in recent years. Did the "Nation at Risk" report exempt this city from its scathing findings about the condition of U.S. education?

And whether we like it or not, D.C. schools are continually compared to neighboring metropolitan schools on matters such as test scores, dropout rates, college admissions, youth unemployment, etc. In fact, we are stacked up against Maryland, Virginia and other school districts on virtually every measure except funding. It is extremely difficult for me and for all D.C.'s educators to witness our counterparts in Montgomery County, with an enrollment of only 5,000 more students, receive a budget that exceeds ours by nearly $65 million.

Are D.C. students always expected to do more with less? Fairfax County spends from $70 to $100 on textbooks and classroom materials for each secondary school student, Montgomery County provides about $90 per pupil, while D.C. can only afford a little more than $50 a piece for its junior and senior high students.

These comparisons aside, the D.C. school system vigorously sought -- and received -- assistance from our community, which would benefit students but not carry a burdensome price tag. We asked for volunteers to help tutor, to aid teachers, to run before-and after-school remedial programs and to provide a host of other services. The number of school volunteers has almost doubled every year since 1981; last year more than 17,500 people worked as volunteers in our schools. We asked the private sector, federal and local governments to join our efforts to improve education and now more than 70 local and national businesses and 50 agencies are school partners. The generosity of these people and the enrichment they have brought our schools should not be underestimated, but these efforts do not supplant the need for realistic, progressive financial support from the city government.

The schools have established a record of gaining some ground in the areas of achievement, attendance and graduate success. As superintendent, I am proud of those accomplishments, and I also am glad that our schools are more secure and that disruptions are minimal, that we have resolved labor differences through negotiations and that we've streamlined administrative operations. But I must also pose the hard questions: Is the price we paid for that peace and relative stability in our schools a dangerous complacent attitude that we already are doing enough for education? Can we be satisfied with slow, steady progress when so many students are still not reading on grade level, do not have adequate math skills and are defeated to the point of giving up? Isn't it time to step up the pace?

The Board of Education and I recognize the fiscal constraints that the city has faced, and in previous years as well as in developing the 1987 budget, we pared down the school system's requests in light of the many competing demands upon city dollars. The mayor and city council subsequently further reduced these budgets.

Consequently, in the last three years the school system has received the smallest percentage of increases of nearly all the city agencies. In the period from 1983 to 1986, the D.C. courts budget increased by 87 percent; employment services by 64 percent; human services by 51 percent and corrections by 33 percent. The school budget appears at the bottom of the list with only a 17.3 percent increase since 1983.

Although the rhetoric is perhaps overworked, it remains true that an earlier investment in sound education would have offset some of the city's need to pour more money into prisons, criminal justice and welfare. Graduating more young people from high school capable of holding down jobs and providing for themselves might have saved the city the recent anguish and public furor over opening a makeshift "neighborhood jail."

And the most tragic aspect of this history is that until substantial investments and long- term planning for education are made, the city will find itself spending more and more dollars on these very same agencies. Because the fact is: education remains the one proven preventive to an array of societal ills. Education is still the only route out of poverty for so many, and our city is long overdue in paving that road to self-sufficiency.

Too often, the vision of national and local government does not extend beyond the date of the next election. We have succumbed to the view that every move is a political act and, therefore, requires a hasty political response. We need to abandon this mentality. Clearly, the problems of schools here and across the country will not be resolved with only annual discussions of educational needs or patching together school budgets from year to year.

Unquestionably, the District needs a fully funded school budget of $396.2 million for the coming year. But the discussion of education in this city should not end when the gavel does ring down on some final dollar amount. School system, community and city government leaders need to engage in comprehensive planning to address the long-term educational requirements of our children. Just as the city envisions the development of the Potomac waterfront or the economic revitalization of downtown D.C. in years to come, so must it also determine a view of our educational goals for the future and proceed with a plan to realize those objectives. Such a discussion should include estimates of the money needed to achieve the desired educational goals and some advance funding commitments.

The children of this city would profit greatly from more forward thinking and planning about the kind of education they need and deserve. The city itself will reap the rewards of an investment well made.