D.C. Schools: A Job for the Mayor

In 1996, Steve Harlan and I, as members of the District of Columbia financial control board, went to Chicago to observe urban reform in action in the police department and the schools. Steve was the control board’s lead member on the police, and I was the lead on schools. All of the control board members felt that these two areas—schools and police—represented our greatest challenges.

The Illinois legislature had turned the schools over to Mayor Richard Daley, and he in turn appointed a five-member board of trustees and a chief executive officer to run the schools. The experiment in urban reform that we observed was impressive. Following our visit, the Chicago school officials—including Gerry Chico, board president, and Paul Vallis, chief executive, and their staff—met in Washington with the full control board to discuss precisely why and how they were turning the school system around.

In October 1996, we five control board members took the unprecedented action of stripping most of the power from the elected school board and appointing a board of trustees and chief executive officer in their stead. We were acutely aware that this decision would perhaps be the most controversial action we could undertake. We also knew that to maintain our credibility, we had to place a time limit on the reforms.

I remember still the phalanx of reporters, school activists and ordinary citizens who gathered at the Luther Place Methodist Church when we unveiled our plan. Many in the audience deeply resented what they viewed as further erosion of the fragile home rule that existed. The creation of the federally appointed control board had already been a mighty blow. Now the citizens were being told that their duly elected school board members had lost their power too. Yet we knew that the schools had to be fixed, so we persevered.

Four years later, Washingtonians are faced with the uncertain reality of what to do next. Critical reforms have been made, but there is still a long unfinished agenda. The D.C. Council must soon decide what form of governance it will submit to the voters in a May referendum. Will it be the “same old, same old” process for electing a representative from each ward, or will it be bold enough to stand for true change and, yes, even true democracy? As I see it, many District voters feel that their right to choose school board members, no matter the qualifications, to run a half-billion-dollar educational industry is far more important than the rights of the District’s children to get an excellent education. I did not believe then nor do I believe now that the right to elect one’s representative is synonymous with the rights of the children to have a fighting chance to succeed. Pray tell me how have the children of this city benefited from duly elected yet incompetent, individuals who ran a school system that produced thousands of functionally illiterate children?

Now to the future. Mayor Williams has staked out a laudable position. He says turn the schools over to him, and he will be accountable for furthering the reforms. And, most important, the buck will stop with him. The mayor understands clearly that this city’s home-grown work force depends almost entirely on good schools. At a time when the high-tech industry in Northern Virginia is posting thousands of job openings, our graduates should be first in line to get the entry-level jobs. It is unfortunate, but too many are consigned to lives of underachievement because we continue to focus more on who is going to govern the schools than on how to produce graduates who can compete in a vastly changing technologically driven economy. We can make this city grow and make it viable in economic development only if we build excellent schools.

The superintendent has done an excellent job, but she cannot succeed so long as she has to answer to Congress, the council, the control board and two school boards. So I say that we should let the mayor run the schools and hold him accountable. The council can ill afford to bring a proposal to the citizens that gives us the same song and dance, cloaking it in the buzz words of “democracy” and “home rule.” We citizens should be too mature to accept such folly.

As the council marks up its bill on school governance, it appears to be leaning heavily toward making very modest changes. Members should be made to explain to the voters why the children of this city deserve the right to the best education and how those rights supersede any parochial political concerns.

For too long the children have been used as pawns by people who want to run for the council or become mayor. The school board has been that route, but we should all stand up now and say: “No more.”