IT SEEMS it is time for another reminder of what the District of Columbia public school system was like before mayoral control. School didn’t start on time each fall because buildings weren’t ready. Textbooks stayed stacked in warehouses because the central office failed to deliver them to classrooms. Teachers were hired and principals appointed for who they knew, not what they could accomplish. Students didn’t learn because no one expected them to.
Reminder of those terrible years when the elected school board was in charge is needed because — as hard as it is to believe — some members of the D.C. Council seem to want to turn back the clock.
Two bills chipping away at the mayor’s authority have been introduced. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), chair of the Education Committee, wants to establish the Office of State Superintendent for Education as an independent agency and extend the term of superintendent from four to six years. The bill would strip the mayor of the ability to remove the superintendent at will and give the agency authority to hire all its personnel, rather than giving the mayor discretion in filling some positions. A proposal by council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) would go even further in the wrong direction, transferring authority over the agency from the mayor to the elected State Board of Education.
The mayor, under both bills, would still have authority over the schools chancellor, but the legislation — along with a proposal to create a new agency under the D.C. auditor to collect and analyze school data — is the opening gambit in an effort to diminish the mayor’s role. Critics of the schools have seized on controversies over graduation rates and the former schools chancellor as rationale for the changes.
To be sure, city and school officials made serious mistakes. But the system that is now under attack proved capable of responding and correcting. People lost their jobs, and fixes were made. Mayoral control gives the public someone to hold accountable. Council members who think more checks and balances are needed might want to consider whether they could be doing a better job of exercising their existing oversight responsibilities.
Too many children still don’t perform at grade level, and the achievement gap remains far too wide. But mayoral control has brought progress. Schools open on time, classes have books, teaching has improved, the curriculum has rigor, and — most important — more students are achieving. It makes no sense to begin dismantling a structure that has produced results.