So after today there will be some new faces on the D.C. school board. Forgive the suspicion that most of them will be only waving their names before the public, given the board's history as a rest stop on the way to higher office. But the voters might yet turn this traditionally irresponsible race to their advantage.
They could insist that these new faces and some of the old ones pay some attention to a major problem in this city that was totally ignored during what passed for a campaign: adult illiteracy.
Most of the misery in this city is linked to the fact that one out of every six Washingtonians can barely read. A smart school board candidate would have pointed out the connection and noted that it is largely the fault of the public schools. Such a candidate might have called for creative financing to do something about it--like major surgery on board members' salaries and on the programs they run.
One out of six is illiterate. That means that one occupant in every three of those cheerful seats on the Metro trains is grateful for the next-stop announcements intended for the blind. It means one of every six shoppers jamming your supermarket on Saturday picks groceries by the pictures on the label. They fear nothing more than the shame of discovery.
With the gays out marching, illiterates are the last great closet constituency, a large pool of potential voters for anyone with sense to notice them.
Non-readers are more than just an embarrassment to our alleged educational system. In a city, they rapidly graduate from being school dropouts to jail drop-ins. Would you hire someone who couldn't fill out the application blank? Someone who couldn't read directions? The illiterates are often the unemployed and the unemployable, the jivers on the streets and the ones dodging the heroin bust-ups.
Half the inmates at Lorton Reformatory read below the fourth-grade level. Half the heads of households below the poverty line can't read an eighth-grade book.
Well, it is said, the schools have solved that by going back to basics. That's fine. There is now a competency test for third-graders, and it's harder to get a diploma. But that's not a program to deal with illiteracy. That's just sensible educating, a way to stop adding more illiterates to the streets. Those aren't third-graders out there in Meridian Hill Park.
The schools have to tackle the junior high and high schoolers who can't make it through McGuffey's Reader. Teachers have to be coached in seeing non-readers as people with a respectable problem that responds to proper treatment. And schools have to redefine "adult education" toward the literacy courses that the city needs far more than advanced Shakespeare or gourmet cooking.
In the upper grades, the non-readers are easy to spot. They are the loudmouths, the ones sneering enough to keep from being called on so their secret will be kept. A lot of teachers, sadly human, retaliate: "I was told I was stupid so often I knew it was true," said Craig, an 18-year-old now in one of our literacy programs.
But Craig lucked out, finding a teacher who took a personal interest in cajoling him back to the written word. Jonathan, now 27, wasn't so lucky: his remedial reading teachers had no books, no materials and 30 rowdy students each. "They'd tell me they got their education theirselves and I was just lazy if I couldn't get mine," he recalls. He now works as a messenger and wrestles with fourth- grade reading at my literacy organization.
Shouting and dancing, the Craigs and Jonathans of the city give the schools a bad name, terrify parents and are probably the major cause of middle- class flight. More blacks are leaving these days than whites, and for the same reason: better schools for the kids.
Teachers who would like to deal with all this, and there are many, get bad training: only six of the required 60 hours of courses deal with teaching reading. Volunteer tutors assigned to teach remedial reading often got no advice in the past; I know because many of them came to my organization for help.
The schools have betrayed their non-readers and ought to try to make up for it. Instead, the 1982 budget for D.C. basic education has been cut by 30 percent.
Yet there is money going to waste. The total D.C. school board budget of $248.2 million is second only to that of New York City, which has a few more students, to put it mildly. Our candidates have been hustling for part-time jobs that pay $19,600 a year--while the fabled schools of Montgomery County are guided by board members earning $7,200 each. In Alexandria, they earn $1,500, and in Fairfax County, the nation's 10th largest school system, they earn $5,500. D.C. board members don't need almost four times as much.
They certainly don't need all of the additional $248,600 that D.C. voters spend funding 22 staff aides, researchers and other help for the board. The other area districts spend zero dollars, providing no aides. That money could buy a lot of remedial reading, tutor training and basic literacy material.
What riper issue could there have been for a smart school board candidate? If any of them had vowed to deal with upper-grade illiterates, tackle adult non-readers and cut board salaries, they could have promised to put a dent in everything from noisy classrooms through street crime and welfare to middle-class angst. But it's not too late. The new board members should speak to city parents' real worries: basic skills, jobs, safety, costs. They could bring some respectability to a board that is now mainly an embarrassment. They might even do something to help the schools, and that would be an unprecedented credential for a board member trying to escape to higher office.