Tell me that the city isn't spending enough on its public schools and you'll get no argument from me.
Tell me that the way to fix it is to place on the November ballot the initiative sponsored by Parents United for D.C. Schools, and I'd want to think about it.
Oh, I'll sign the petition, all right, and assuming you care about public education in the District, I'd urge you to sign it too. Organizers of the petition drive are less than halfway to gathering the necessary 13,800 signatures needed to get the initiative on the ballot, and they're running out of time.
But even if they succeed, how much good will it do? Probably more than I believe and substantially less than they hope.
The initiative would do two things: It would allow the voters of the District to declare that public education is "of the highest priority," and it would institute special public hearings on school funding. It would not mandate any additional spending -- you can't do that by referendum and initiative under the D.C. Home Rule Charter.
According to Rod Boggs, executive director of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which represents Parents United, the District not only spends less money on public education than do the surrounding jurisdictions with fewer disadvantaged youngsters to educate, but it also spends less than it should in terms of its own budget. Listen:
"Over the past three years, the budget of the Corrections Department has risen over 47 percent; the Human Services budget has risen over 54 percent, and the average city agency has increased by 30 percent. During the same period, the school budget increased by only 18 percent."
And what conclusion do you draw from that? For Boggs, the conclusion is that the mayor and the council have assigned the schools a lower priority than virtually all other city functions.
I reach a different conclusion. The cost of providing welfare and other human services and of running a splitting-at-the-seams prison system is rising faster than the salaries of teachers, which constitute the major share of the school budget. The teachers may deserve higher pay, but providing it will not automatically improve public instruction.
The other provision of the initiative may be more to the point. Traditionally, the public has not had much chance to influence the school budget until after the numbers are submitted and trimmed by the mayor's office. Under the Parents United proposal, public hearings would be held well in advance of budget submissions. That's probably a good thing, but unless we are willing to propose that our taxes be increased to pay for what we demand, it isn't likely to make much difference.
It will pass, all right: either in November (if the organizers get lucky on the petition drive, which must be finished by July 7) or November of next year. In fact, it isn't even an issue. Not only has every school board candidate pledged to support the initiative, but so has every incumbent and challenger for every local office you can think of.
The public hearing provision may be the more important feature of the initiative, since it will offer the opportunity for school advocates to educate the public on matters of priorities and comparisons and costs.
For instance, Boggs makes the point that the test scores of District pupils are often compared unfavorably to those in the Washington suburbs, but scant attention is paid the fact that the suburban school systems routinely outspend the District.
He makes another point that might be even more significant. Parents United, he said, after studying the national reports on the sad state of public education, concluded that in terms of what the reports recommend, the District schools are underfunded by some $30 million to $50 million.
Are we willing to tax ourselves to raise anywhere close to that amount of new money? And if we aren't, what will it mean when we say (as we surely will) that public education in our city is "of the highest priority"?