In the next few weeks, Congress will have the opportunity to do its part for the D.C. public schools and the local reform program. Specifically, Congress should add $46 million to the school budget.
What should this money be used for? For two important items:
To increase D.C. teacher and principal salaries. School salaries in the city have sunk to the lowest level in the metropolitan area, from $1,100 to $15,000 below those of suburban counterparts. Hiring is not selective because there are so few applicants. The added funds would raise salaries to those comparable in the suburbs -- in return for more effective teacher evaluations and a 7 1/2-hour workday. Comparable pay and meaningful evaluation should produce better teachers, and a comparable day will clearly improve students' education. District children now spend too little time in school; their day is a half hour shorter than that in surrounding jurisdictions. While this may not sound like much, that amounts to two years less in the classroom over a 12-year period.
To add $10 million for emergency repairs to buildings with thousands of fire and building code violations. D.C. school buildings are in critical need of this emergency funding to meet a $150 million backlog of postponed repairs and renovations in scores of seriously deteriorated buildings.
Earmarking congressional money for these two purposes will help address some of the problems identified last summer by a blue-ribbon committee of business and civic leaders, government officials, educators and parents -- the D.C Committee on Public Education, or COPE. Its hard-headed and widely acclaimed report not only assessed the public schools but also formulated a reform program.
Last winter it endorsed a $97 million increase in the school budget for this next fiscal year in order to implement some of the reforms, which of course cost money. It proposed that half the cost be borne by the D.C. government and the other half by Congress, since the federal government's contribution to the District has declined to 14 percent of the total.
The D.C. schools, the city government and the private sector have already taken some important steps to fulfill COPE's plan:
Next year's budget, approved by the D.C. Council, includes $50 million in new funding for building repairs and other improvements, such as changes in the early childhood education program, in the curriculum, athletic programs, etc.
The school system recently acted to close a number of underutilized schools and to cut central administration. One hundred and fifty central office positions will be cut.
The private sector has donated millions of dollars worth of support and expertise to push reforms through, retrain staff and to implement programs that have succeeded in other cities.
Now it's Congress's turn. It's difficult to exaggerate the importance of obtaining this extra funding. The current D.C. teachers' contract expires in September. Without a commitment to better pay for teachers and principals, a better evaluation system and a longer school day for students, real advances cannot be achieved. We cannot afford to wait three more years.
The COPE report points out that the District already has a higher percentage of adults in jail and more police per capita than any other city. If Congress is serious about helping solve the problem of crime and drugs in the District, now is the time to act. The public schools should come first.
-- Rod Boggs and Mary Levy are legal counsel to Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools.