There are two Metros in Washington. One is a world-class, but now 30-year-old, subway system that carries about 660,000 riders a day and is central to life in and around Washington. The other is the Metro section of The Post, which, one assumes, is also a factor in the daily lives of those included in the paper's daily circulation of 704,700 (993,000 on Sunday).
For four days last week, The Post's Metro took on the city's Metro in a long but hard-hitting and well-documented series by reporters Lyndsey Layton and Jo Becker titled "Off the Rails."
The articles were much in keeping with a string of such special projects about the city that I've watched unfold in the past several years in this job -- from a powerful series on the police force in 2000, to reports on the death of children who were supposed to be "protected" by the District's social aid network, to stories about abuses in psychiatric facilities for troubled children, to a series two months ago about local medical boards' problems in disciplining doctors for substance abuse or lying about their records. There have been a dozen others in this time.
Last week's subway series has prompted a lot of mail to the newspaper, but little has come to me so far. That's probably a good sign for the series because people contact me mostly to complain. A statement by top executives of Metro, in the form of a flier, was passed out to passengers at 48 stations as the series was unfolding, saying that "we have already tackled many of the concerns raised" and that "plans are already in place to address other remaining issues." As public statements go these days, this struck me as quite open and civilized, making the executives' case while acknowledging that there are things that need fixing.
Now comes the derailment of this column onto another track. The two or three readers who called or wrote me about the series -- all of whom thought it was good -- also mentioned, directly or tangentially, the District's school system -- meaning, why doesn't The Post take the same kind of intense, focused, high-impact look at the city's deeply troubled, 65,000-student public school system?
During my years in this job, the paper has written hundreds of stories about the District's schools, while also covering several other adjacent school systems. It also runs a first-rate weekly "Schools and Learning" feature by reporters Jay Mathews and Valerie Strauss.
But many of the news stories about the schools are about process and politics, or they are based on reports and studies. These are important and help tell the overall story. But not many capture what for many District youngsters is the grim, daily reality of school buildings and classrooms, or record the voices of students and teachers about that reality. Some certainly do, such as an article by Strauss that appeared in the D.C. Extra last November about a visit to the dilapidated Bruce-Monroe Elementary School in the company of new D.C. School Superintendent Clifford B. Janey, who placed Washington's school buildings among the worst 5 percent nationally, including cities such as New York, Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles.
Some of the strongest observations come from columnists and editorial writers. Back in April, for example, columnist Courtland Milloy wrote about John F. Mahoney, a math teacher at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in the District who was being inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame. At a school assembly, Mahoney said: "For over 50 years, the District and federal governments have effectively ignored the children of this city. . . . The government is rebuilding schools in Iraq but is ignoring the schools where its own employees send their children. . . . The greatness of D.C. will, in the end, not be measured by its museums, its convention center or its baseball team but by how it deals with its future -- by educating its children."
Milloy quoted Noah Ward, one of Mahoney's students, talking about "holes in the ceilings with buckets underneath to catch the dripping water" and "broken radiators," and school principal Patricia Long Tucker said she was grateful that the ceremony for Mahoney had led to the burned-out lights in the auditorium being replaced.
Throughout my years here, the District's school problems -- and not just with its physical facilities -- have been like a low murmur in the background. There hasn't been a large number of callers and e-mailers but rather a small yet steady expression of concern. Maybe many people have given up on this long-standing problem, or perhaps given up thinking that it does any good to write to a newspaper. But solving the schools' problems seems crucial to the questions of whether new families will come to this city, whether families that are already here will remain, and what will happen to those with no choice.
The Post has contributed to the airing of many problems affecting District residents in many stories. But it's been a long time -- eight years -- since the schools have been the subject of the kind of Post series treatment that the Metro system got and that doesn't get discarded with yesterday's newspaper.
Speaking of impact, what in the world were Post editors thinking when they plastered the name of the Virginia-based consulting firm Booz Allen -- in type bigger than The Post's nameplate on the front page -- as the title of a special section in Thursday's paper. The section was about Washington's annual Professional Golfers' Association tournament to be held this weekend at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda. Booz Allen sponsors the event, but it didn't have to shell out any money to The Post for what looked like a free advertising section rather than part of a newspaper.
Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.