IT IS significant that, when it comes to governance of the D.C. public school system, only two city council members--Vincent Orange (D-Ward 5) and Harold Brazil (D-At Large)--seem pretty much wedded to the status quo. Most members rightly shrink from the prospect of returning full oversight powers in June to an elected school board that has shown itself to be hopelessly ineffective; they have chosen to cosponsor legislation that would significantly restructure D.C. school governance. Today, Mayor Williams is scheduled to add to the discussion by proposing a five-member board and superintendent to be nominated by him and approved by the council. With the mayor and council pushing in the same direction, an opportunity exists to build genuine accountability into the operation of what is arguably the city's most important public service.
In the years since the control board seized the schools in November 1996, the elected board--even with reduced responsibilities--has continued to demonstrate a capacity for little more than infighting and squabbling at the expense of students. The elected board has done little to warrant a restoration of its powers. Too often it has been--and remains--a political sandbox and springboard to higher office, driven by parochial concerns and a penchant for micromanagement that end up harming the educational process. The school system was failing the students when the control board acted more than three years ago. As in other cities--Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit and Boston--it desperately needed to be remodeled. While improvements have occurred since Superintendent Arlene Ackerman took over, the need remains. Public education in the District has a long way to go before excellence is achieved.
That the current structure for running the schools falls short of what's needed where children are concerned is not at issue, except for those residents who regard an elected school board as a symbol of self-government. Council members Orange and Brazil, who are among that group, have proposed leaving the basic board structure unchanged, merely requiring the board president to be elected at large instead of by board members. That won't get the job done.
A proposal by council education committee chairman Kevin Chavous (D-Ward 7), which has attracted nine cosponsors, would reduce the current board by two, require ward representatives as well as at-large members to win citywide and eliminate the board's power to create charter schools. Council member Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6) also proposes to cut the board's size and allow a hybrid of elected and appointed members. Ward 3 member Kathy Patterson's bill, which the mayor's proposal most closely resembles, envisions a five-member board appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council with a referendum in 2004 on an elected or appointed board. Mayor Williams takes the Patterson proposal one step further by requiring that the superintendent likewise be appointed by the mayor rather than the board.
Of all the proposals, the Williams-Patterson measures go farthest toward placing accountability where it belongs--with the elected mayor and council who must provide the funding for the schools and have oversight responsibility for school expenditures. Their plans, which are proposed on a trial basis, are not a retreat from democratic government. To the contrary, they are the alternatives that would best allow active and engaged citizens to hold the appropriate officials responsible for the performance of the schools.
Council member Chavous has promised early action on the bills so the issue can be placed before the voters in May for necessary changes in the home rule charter. With cooperation and leadership among the mayor, council reformers and the control board, school governance--and the best interest of children--may finally get on the right track.