Let us state the case for Initiative 25, otherwise known as the D.C. Public School Support Initiative, which will appear on the ballot Nov. 3.
This initiative has two primary goals. The first is to emphasize the importance of quality public schools for the city's children. The initiative states that funding for public education is a matter "of the highest priority." The second is to establish a specific timetable for public hearings before the board of education, the mayor and the D.C. Council. These hearings would ensure that concerned residents can participate fully in the school budget process.
Initiative 25 would not require any specific level of funding for the schools. That decision would remain completely within the hands of the city's elected officials. In fact, the initiative was carefully drafted to avoid limiting in any way the independent budgetary authority of the mayor or the council.
Passage of this initiative is important despite the progress made under the leadership of superintendents Vincent Reed and Floretta McKenzie. The city's schools continue to face enormous problems, many of which are related to inadequate funding. Study after study has documented the need for significant reductions in class size, increased expenditures on tests, supplies and libraries and major repairs to restore dangerous and dilapidated school buildings. Despite the diligent work of school leaders and many residents, per-pupil expenditures in the District still lag behind those in most of the surrounding suburbs. In addition, teacher and principal salary scales have fallen far below those in competing suburban districts. At the same time, school spending in the District has consistently increased at a rate far below that of other major D.C. agencies.
Not surprisingly, inadequate resources have contributed significantly to serious educational problems that persist in the city schools. Test scores have improved steadily in recent years, but elementary scores still hover just at or below national averages. Junior high scores are lower, and the average senior high school student ranks at only the 30th percentile nationally. Coupled with a high dropout rate and some of the lowest SAT scores in the country, it is clear that the city's schools still need a great deal of support.
Strong leadership from a respected superintendent cannot substitute for inadequate resources. Unfortunately, in recent years we have seen far too many disputes involving the school budget in which insufficient opportunities were presented for thoughtful and independent consideration of programs. The inherent nature of the budget process, where the school board has exclusive responsibility for spending its budget but the mayor and the council actually set the level of overall funding provided, has made an objective determination of budget needs extremely difficult.
Historically, parents have not had a formal opportunity to appear before the school board until after the superintendent has submitted a proposed budget. No formal hearings have ever preceded the mayor's determination of his budget mark, and hearings before the council have usually been scheduled just before a final budget decision was reached. On numerous occasions parents and other concerned citizens have found themselves testifying late in the night, long after most council members have retired for the evening.
This process has been frustrating not only to parents but to the school leaders as well. One need only speak with outgoing superintendent McKenzie or her predecessor, Vincent Reed, to appreciate their difficulty in securing the funding needed to operate our schools. In fact, frustration over the budget process is undoubtedly a major reason why good administrators grow discouraged and depart.
Initiative 25 is not a panacea for the ills of public education in this city, but its importance should not be underestimated. It has been suggested that the very placement of this measure on the ballot has bolstered the commitment of the school system to seek reduction in class sizes this year.
The initiative has strong endorsements from a range of civic and community organizations, including: the D.C. Federation of Civic Associations; the Washington Urban League; Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools and the D.C. Congress of Parent Teacher Organizations. It has also gained the support of a many elected officials, including all of the candidates in last year's mayoral election. Its passage in November can send a clear signal that voters expect public education to be a major priority in the future. -- Roderic V. O. Boggs and Iris Toyer Roderic Boggs is executive director of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and an author of Initiative 25. Iris Toyer is the sponsor of the initiative and a former co-chairman of Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools.