THE D.C. COUNCIL'S education committee is scheduled to meet later this week to mark up pending school governance restructuring proposals. These range from a bill that essentially preserves the status quo to Mayor Anthony Williams's bold plan allowing him to choose the superintendent and replace the 11-member elected Board of Education with a smaller, policy-setting panel appointed by him and approved by the council. Of the five plans on the table, the mayor's package does the best job of reorienting the school governance discussion in the right direction: toward what's best for the children.
The troubled public school system remains a top concern of most District residents, in part because a succession of elected school boards has put political ambition, fixation with perks and preoccupation with minutiae above the educational needs of children. It is that failing record which prompts many parents and a broad coalition of public school advocates now to favor the mayor's restructuring plan.
Education committee chairman Kevin Chavous (D-Ward 7), an early champion of school board restructuring, has a chance to show leadership on this issue. Instead, Mr. Chavous has chosen confrontation, striking an adamant pose against the mayor's plan. "There's absolutely no way that there will be an appointed board," he declared recently. We hope his position will soften.
Mr. Chavous prefers a nine-member elected board, with ward representatives required to win citywide to overcome the parochialism promoted through ward-based elections. While those changes represent some improvement over the current structure, the Chavous plan does not remedy a chief failing of the current confusing arrangement in which an elected board is responsible for policy and supervision of the superintendent while the elected mayor and council are responsible for funding the school system. The result: accountability for educational progress and public school oversight is diffused among local authorities. Everyone can blame everyone else. That's not democracy in action; it's a continuation of the chaotic situation that confounds the system. The council can do better.
As of yesterday, a consensus seemed to be building in favor of the mayor's choosing the superintendent. If, however, that arrangement consigns the superintendent to report to, and serve at the pleasure of, an elected school board--no matter how chosen--then it hardly represents much of an advance. In addition, the mayor and council would be left exactly where they are now: as part of a governance structure that fails to fully reflect their responsibility for the schools. That means a future of more finger-pointing and buck-passing when problems emerge, and little else that benefits children. The mayor said, "If the council and the people are willing to put me in charge of public schools, then I'm willing to say, 'The buck stops here.' " That's courageous. Now, all he needs is a council with similar backbone.