It's clear D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams lost a major fight on Tuesday when the city council defeated his proposal for a mayor-appointed school board.
The question is: Who won?
At one level, of course, democracy did. We residents of the nation's capital don't get much representation for our taxation. We get to vote for president and vice president, for a nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives, for a mayor, city council--and a school board.
By what logic could the mayor want to diminish that limited franchise by demanding the authority to appoint the school board and also to name the superintendent of schools, currently chosen by the elected board?
Williams, a few days before the 10-to-2 vote against him, insisted he wasn't looking to pad his own power, merely to rescue a troubled school system by putting the responsibility, the authority and the accountability for education in the hands of the city's top elected official.
He had just returned from one of a series of public meetings on the proposal when we spoke last Saturday, and he wasn't very optimistic. People really are worried about losing the ability to vote for school board members, he said--and not surprisingly. When you vote a school board member into office--and have the power to vote that member out of office--it gives you a special kind of access, and you get special attention to your school-related concerns, Williams acknowledged.
"But what does the access really mean in a failing school system?" he wondered. "There's no connection between a three-hour conversation with your ward representative on the school board and anything that's happening in terms of education. People worry about losing control if we go to an appointed board. Well, they're losing control already. The charter school movement is as strong in D.C. as it is anywhere in America, and it's because parents are understanding the disconnect between the board and the success of the schools their children attend."
But how would appointing board members make it better?
Williams accepted a musical analogy: If the city's eight wards each elected their very favorite singer to a citywide choir, no one would expect the resulting octet to make great music. One might excel in gospel, another in opera, two more in show tunes and the rest in everything from anthems to Negro spirituals to madrigals. You'd be hard- pressed to get anything musical accomplished--and not because there was anything wrong with any of the eight.
The mayor wanted to be the "musical director"--putting together his own school board ensemble that would include a mix of technicians, pedagogues, planners and business experts virtually impossible to achieve through elections. Such a panel, he believes, would depoliticize the process and set a national pattern for how to do school reform.
He saw other advantages as well. Reducing the number of board members from 11 (eight from wards and three at large) to a mere five--all of whom would be paid only on a per diem basis--would save both confusion and money, he said. Making them (and the mayor-appointed superintendent) accountable to His Honor would put education within the context of the whole range of city services and responsibilities. A mayor could be voted out of office for failure to improve the schools.
He might have mentioned, but didn't, the fact that an appointed board of experts would be far less likely to get involved in the operational detail--"My child didn't get any milk last week, and the toilet isn't working"--that elected board members find impossible to avoid.
But the city council said no--perhaps because it doesn't believe the mayor knows enough about educational reform to deliver on his rhetoric, perhaps because it considers the loss of democracy too high a cost to pay for reform.
There's been some temporizing talk about allowing the mayor to hire and fire the superintendent, subject to school board approval--an idea Williams says he would veto as too confusing. But the bottom line is, the mayor has lost perhaps the boldest initiative of his first term.