TWO PROPOSALS before the D.C. Council would change the school system's governance structure. Both are vast improvements over the status quo.
A bill sponsored by education committee chairman Kevin Chavous (D-Ward 7) would cut two members from the board, require ward representatives to win citywide support and eliminate the board's power to create public charter schools. The second bill, drafted by Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), would create a five-member board appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council, followed by a referendum in 2004 on an elected vs. appointed school board. Both bills would lead away from the kind of divisive and small-bore matters that consume today's panel. The Patterson proposal, however, goes farthest toward aligning authority with responsibility for the schools.
The council's consideration of changes in school governance has been snared in a hot debate over home rule, the role of grass-roots advocacy and ward representation on the Board of Education. Lost in the discussion are the interests of the one group in the city with the greatest stake in the schools: the children.
The most important question confronting the council is not the scale of community involvement in selecting a school board or the possible loss of a steppingstone for budding politicians. As Ms. Patterson said, "Effective council members with an effective mayor, with an oversight role for the school system, will strengthen our self-government, not reduce it." As matters stand, it is the mayor and council, not the school board, that fund the schools. It should be the mayor and council--the city's real symbols of self-rule--who are held accountable for leadership of the schools.
The overriding challenge is to create a school oversight panel with a mission and responsibilities focused on delivering for children. A new structure--whether it is the Chavous or Patterson proposal--will not immediately produce the high quality of teachers, principals or resources that the schools need. But both proposals should give the schools a governance structure that strengthens and promotes the whole system and--most important--improves academic achievement. The District has not had that kind of school board in the 30-year history of elected panels.