THE QUESTION should not even have to be asked. The District's public school facilities, many of which are more than 65 years old, are in deplorable shape, and the tide of deterioration is swamping the system. But parents, community and business leaders, and all residents concerned about the city's schools should be worried about the priorities of the District's elected officials. While classroom ceilings are falling, boilers are breaking down and school bathroom facilities become health hazards, the mayor and the D.C. Council are moving in lock step toward dipping into the city's limited treasury to join with Howard University in building a $400 million, 250-bed, state-of-the-art hospital that cannot be justified either by cost or purpose. If residents ever had a need to speak up on behalf of a neglected public school system, now is the time.
Two actions seem warranted if the schools are to have a chance. First, put the brakes on the proposed hospital, a budget-draining and unnecessary expenditure if there ever was one. The new facility may serve the interests of the politically ambitious, but practically every expert who has examined the District's health needs agrees that a new high-priced hospital does little to meet the challenges confronting the city's medically indigent. Second, residents can line up behind school modernization legislation that is scheduled for markup in the council next week. The choice should not come down to spending on a sumptuous hospital or modernizing D.C. public schools. But if it does, the schools should win hands down.
The bill to be marked up before the council's education committee, chaired by Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), provides more than $1 billion in capital funding over 10 years to modernize the city's public schools. Revised from a week ago, this new bill funds the program by spreading the revenue-raising proposal over the broader business community -- a position that the hotel and tourism industry and the Federal City Council supported in hearings last week, according to a news release from Mrs. Patterson. Increases in the commercial real estate tax and the cigarette tax and forgoing an additional income tax reduction scheduled for 2007 should, she said, mobilize sufficient revenue to fund the program.
The bill's most important feature is the dedicated revenue stream it provides. The major problem plaguing the school facilities program through the years has been the lack of predictable, stable funding at a level to improve school facilities. The school board president, Peggy Cooper Cafritz, speaking of the need for an infusion of dedicated capital resources, said in a release, "We want to make sure that another generation of children does not have to endure our failure to provide a safe and decent environment in which to learn."
The D.C. Council's action will soon tell whether public education is a priority in the District or just a political talking point.