Our city has taken great strides in the last year. Government is working better. The Y2K crisis passed without incident. Businesses are investing in the District again, and new homeowners and renters are streaming into the city. At the millennium celebration, we showed the world a city resurgent, a beautiful city with good reason to be optimistic about our future. But all is not well.
How meaningful is our recovery when our schools are failing to provide even the most basic skills to many of our students? What's the meaning of "revitalization" to a third-grader who can't read, a seventh-grader who can't use the Internet or a 12th-grader who lacks the basic civic knowledge every citizen should have? What's the meaning of "renaissance" to a 16-year-old who, like one-third of our students, drops out of high school? And how healthy can our democracy be if the next generation of voters can't read the ballot card?
More than 3,000 residents at the Citizen Summit in November sent a clear message that education is one of our most urgent priorities. We have failed our children, and we need solutions. That's why I'm proposing dramatic changes in school governance -- moving from an 11-person elected board to a five-member appointed board. Names for the board would come from a nominating committee composed of citizens reflecting the broad diversity of our city. Under my plan, the superintendent would be part of the mayor's cabinet, reporting to me and working directly with other agency leaders with me to bring about major improvement.
It comes down to a simple concept: accountability. Right now, if you're not happy with the quality of our schools, where do you turn? The elected board of education? The board of trustees? The superintendent? Congress? The control board? The mayor? The council? It's a confusing system designed to fail; no one has clear authority to fix the schools, and no one is clearly accountable if things don't improve.
I believe our schools must improve. I'm willing to be accountable for making those improvements. I would demand better cooperation among the schools and other agencies in our government that serve children. I would create an alliance with businesses and nonprofit partners around a citywide agenda for improved student achievement. I would launch a comprehensive initiative to recruit, retain and retrain our teachers and principals, so that we have the best team of educators in the nation.
The school board ought to be about goal-setting and policy-making, not microcmanaging and politicking. It should not be viewed as a training ground for political aspiration but a leadership body dedicated to providing a high quality education to all children and young people in our city.
Some people have asked me if this proposal would diminish the limited democracy available in the District. Nothing could be further from the truth. This proposal would make our elected officials -- the mayor and the council -- more directly accountable for high quality education. I want this plan to be adopted by the most democratic means of all: a citywide referendum this spring. And if it passes, I want voters to have the chance to remove the appointed board through another referendum after four years.
A good education ensures that a democracy is replenished with thoughtful citizens. Some of the darkest chapters in American history have been written by those who sought to deprive African Americans and others the right to a high-quality education. Our schools must serve the young men and women who will be entrusted with the reins of civic life in the not-so-distant future.
I hope that the council will seriously consider this proposal as the debate moves forward and that the citizens of the District will have a chance to create a new system in a citywide referendum.
-- Anthony A. Williams
is mayor of Washington.