The best superintendent in the world cannot make D.C. public schools a success -- not overnight, not in a year, not in 10 years. That's because District school administration is a minefield of inefficiency and blame.
Suppose we were designing a school governance system from scratch. What would work best?
A balkanized, convoluted budget process or a clear and concise one? A jury-rigged structure with multiple layers of responsibility and control, or an entity elected or selected for the purpose of education?
The answers are obvious. To have clear accountability, the schools must have one entity in charge -- a school board with revenue authority in which responsibility and accountability coincide. That means, "Hands off, city hall," and, "Hands off, Congress."
Yes, the Board of Education has had its lightweights and heavyweights, scoundrels and saints, reformers and flibbertigibbets. But an enlightened citizenry should monitor it and replace the poor performers. The alternative, fractured government, won't work -- ever.
Washington's public schools also lack a designated source of revenue. The schools need one, because the existing budget process is too lengthy, too prone to argument, too laden with finger-pointing and ultimately with no accountability lodged in any of the many entities that dabble in it. In many jurisdictions, property taxes fund the schools. The downside is the inequitable property valuation among the many school systems within a state. The District doesn't have that problem, so property taxes could be dedicated to the schools.
With a workable system in place, the city can have schools that work. Articulate an optimal program -- for example, class size of 15, a counselor for every 200 students, fully equipped sports teams in every high school. Then cost it out, and fund it -- not a dollar more, not a penny less.
Put appropriate management, personnel and payroll systems in place that are tailored to the schools' needs and coordinated with the school year instead of a fictitious fiscal calendar. Reward teachers and staff who go the extra mile and who make progress; support, retrain or ultimately dismiss those who do not.
One other thing: Demand the possible but not the impossible. Don't perpetuate the political error of over-reliance on standardized test scores. Such tests are useful diagnostic tools, but people tend to forget that, by definition, half of students everywhere always will score below the 50th percentile.
Kids also have only the abilities they receive by nature and nurture -- the gifts they're born with and those they receive from supportive parents and community. When the socioeconomic middle and upper ranks opt out of public schools, guess who remains? The less gifted and the less fortunate. Is it any wonder that they don't score as well on standardized tests?
A former District principal recently noted [Close to Home, Aug. 1] that white students in District elementary schools do as well as white students nationally, and black students in D.C. public schools perform as poorly as black students anywhere in the country. So this is a national divide, too. Schools that succeed, though, take students from where they are and move them toward realizing their potential.
We've had reform plans that looked good on paper, but we've never seen them through. We can keep making the same mistakes with our schools. Or maybe, finally, we can get real about providing a good public education for Washington's children.
-- Jay Silberman
is a former member
of the District Board of Education.