DURING A WEEK in which two of the D.C. school board's more accomplished members announced that they would not serve a second term, the school system was making news in other ways -- some quite unflattering. The stories about school funding problems and the presence of alleged adult sex offenders in school buildings made the impending loss of appointed school board members Roger Wilkins and Charles R. Lawrence III that much harder to take.
The school board benefited from the mature and thoughtful leadership that Mr. Wilkins provided; it would have become more credible and effective had he occupied the post of president. Likewise, Mr. Lawrence's experience as legal scholar and former principal brought luster to the fledgling board of elected and appointed members. Regrettably, Mr. Lawrence leaves in frustration. He said in a January statement that he "repeatedly and unsuccessfully sought to meet with the mayor to discuss my possible reappointment, and it became apparent that for whatever reason the decision to forgo discussions with me was deliberate." If true, that's no way for a mayor to treat his appointee.
The two departing members leave serious problems behind. A report by education advocacy group Parents United for D.C. Schools helps illuminate the state of public education in the nation's capital. On the one hand, the report puts to rest certain myths about school spending: that central office bureaucracy consumes much of the budget; that District schools lead the nation in per-pupil spending; that the school system has lost count of its students; and that the city spends a higher proportion of its funds on special-needs students than suburban schools do. None of those frequent allegations is true.
On the other hand, the report depicts some of the challenges. As of last fall, 67 percent of D.C. students were classified as low-income and thus entitled to free or reduced-price lunch. Seventeen percent were in special education, 13 percent were classified as being in a language minority, and 8.7 percent had limited English proficiency. All require extensive support. Since fall 1990, D.C. school enrollment has declined by nearly 13 percent. But the number of special-needs students has increased by 50 percent in public schools and by nearly 600 percent in private school placements -- yes, 600 percent.
On top of such basic problems, the school system can't even keep children safe. A janitor was arrested last week and accused of sexually abusing two children in a school bathroom two years ago. Two days earlier, a teacher was arrested after being accused of fondling a 17-year-old student in his classroom last month. And early last week, a third employee, this time a part-time coach, was arrested and charged with fondling two middle school students in January. As a testament to the ineffectiveness of the school system's human resources and security offices, the part-time coach had pleaded guilty to a sex offense involving a minor two years ago and his name was listed on a Maryland database of sex offenders.
Help wanted: new school board members ready to take up where Mr. Wilkins and Mr. Lawrence left off.