With the elected D.C. Board of Education scheduled to have its broad powers restored on June 30, the District's political leadership has recognized the need for major reform.
For decades, the D.C. Public Schools have failed students, as reflected in reading and math proficiencies that are persistently below grade level. While many individuals and entities can be blamed, the board of education has played a significant role in what has -- and has not -- happened in the schools.
Over the past few months, several members of the D.C. Council, and more recently Mayor Anthony Williams, have proposed fundamental changes in the way the board of education is chosen. Appropriately, each of their proposals would reduce the size of the board and change the process of selecting its members to limit the fractious influence of ward politics.
Unfortunately, late last week a "compromise" was voted out of the council's education committee that, if enacted, almost would ensure that the public schools would continue to fail children for generations to come. Specifically, the committee decided that it would be a good idea if the mayor hired and fired the school superintendent, while an elected school board set budgetary, contractual and personnel policies.
To the committee's way of thinking, this proposal gives the mayor some of what he wants -- control of the superintendent -- and the council some of what it wants -- an elected school board. The problem is it won't work and may be worse than returning control to the current board of education.
Certain characteristics are common to every good school governance system around the country, and chief among them are a superintendent and a policy-setting entity (whether a school board or mayor) that work well together while fulfilling their respective roles to ensure quality education. Even a quick look at the history of the District's public school governance will reveal that those characteristics are missing.
For example, a 1992 independent audit found that the District's school board had failed to set a policy direction for the schools, and the financial control board's 1996 evaluation of the system noted that in the previous year the board had failed to evaluate the superintendent's performance. Changes to the school governance system must increase incentives for the board to fulfill such roles in an atmosphere that promotes reform.
Yet the bill reported out of the council's education committee would divide the management and policy-setting roles for the District's school system, providing an even greater incentive for those responsible for public education to grandstand rather than act in the best interest of the children. Moreover, no one seems to have figured out how the board will be able to require the superintendent to follow its policies -- except perhaps by suing her if she won't cooperate.
One proposal on the table would improve school governance. The mayor has argued that he should be given power to appoint both the board and the superintendent, placing ultimate accountability for all aspects of education in the hands of the mayor and the D.C. Council. The mayor's plan would align the school system's budgetary, policy-setting and managerial responsibilities and place them in the hands of a limited number of elected officials. That is a sound accountability structure that would encourage all parties responsible for the school system to work together to build a better school system.
Other acceptable political compromises might include election of the school board, but the council can't have it both ways. If it wants to vest managerial power in the mayor, it must do the same with the selection of the policy-setters. No other city or country has bifurcated these roles; given the District's history, it makes even less sense to do so here.
Tomorrow, when the council takes up the committee's bill, it has a chance to show that it is genuinely interested in children's education. To do that, each member should forsake the comfortable political compromise embodied in the committee bill and either support the mayor's approach or find some other solution that will strengthen accountability and improve school governance.
The writer is executive director of the DC Appleseed Center.