IN THE D.C. Council's Education Committee last Friday, the needs of public school children and the political self-interests of three members collided. Political expediency won. Committee chairman Kevin Chavous (D-Ward 7) had an opportunity to craft a school governance proposal that would end the infighting and parochial micromanaging that have plagued District schools for years. Instead, by a 3 to 1 vote, his committee opted for an arrangement that preserves the school board as a political stepping stone and sets up the superintendent as a punching bag for vote-hungry board members.
Under the Chavous plan, which will be reviewed by the full council today, the biggest losers are parents hungry for a well-governed school system--and students. Instead of giving them a five-member policy-setting school board appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council--a board composed of citizens with knowledge in education, finance and other areas needed to oversee a complex, multimillion-dollar enterprise--Mr. Chavous convinced his colleagues that a scheme closer to status quo is better. To be sure, his plan would allow the mayor to appoint the superintendent. But the elected school board would still be empowered to dabble in spending and other managerial decisions and could block the firing of a failing superintendent.
Mr. Chavous's next big change is pure cosmetics. He reduces the elected school board from 11 to seven, and pairs the eight political wards into four "special school districts." That merely means there will be seven rather than 11 board politicians torn by personal squabbles, hounding the superintendent in behalf of cronies, protecting bad principals and playing politics. Mr. Chavous ignored the experience of Cleveland, Chicago and Boston, which put fixing troubled schools above special interests. With their school systems in bad shape, those cities had the guts to reassess school governance and scrap the political arrangements that made educational reform impossible. And those cities, now with politically accountable mayors exercising power over education, are witnessing a rise in test scores.
The Chavous plan promotes business as usual--lagging test scores, abysmal drop-out rates and continued flight to private or charter schools. No other major school system in the country has adopted anything resembling the Chavous concoction.
But that may suit some council members just fine as long as the plan pits the mayor against the elected board and the board against the superintendent, and leaves the council free to second guess them all. Instead of building in real accountability and fixing the schools, the Education Committee put in a political fix. It will be a sad day in the District, and a disaster for public schoolchildren, if the rest of the council meekly goes along.