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Another option for school reform

(Published January 24, 2000)

The warring factions in the school governance debate need to stop what is quickly degenerating into the same kind of "petty bickering" they decry about the current system and get a grip.

Congressman Tom Davis, who chairs the D.C. subcommittee in the House of Representatives, shouldn’t be paternalistically threatening to take away a decision that rightfully rests with the voters of the District of Columbia — in the name of democracy, of course.

And this city’s elected leaders should display the intestinal fortitude — and some real leadership, for a change — by crafting a truly bold, workable plan to reform the way the D.C. public schools are governed.

The arguments in favor of the proposals currently on the table are becoming ludicrous, to say the least. Among them:

•D.C. voters should remove politics from the city schools by turning them over to partisan politicians — akin to the Vietnam-era reasoning of "destroying the village to save the village."

•D.C. voters are incapable of electing a competent Board of Education from the same pool of registered voters that they somehow manage to elect a supposedly competent mayor and city council.

Time out! Who’s scripting this garbage? Are our leaders at One Judiciary Square not stopping long enough to engage their brains before they open their mouths?

Why has no one among our elected leaders even bothered to suggest that this city model its school governance system on the way most school districts in this country operate? Why must the District of Columbia constantly attempt to reinvent the wheel — and ultimately end up with a flat tire?

What this city needs to truly reform the public schools is to separate the governance of those schools from the rest of the city government. Get rid of the potential for political deals that trade away the future of D.C.’s children.

The question never should have become one of making this city’s voters choose between an elected or appointed school board.

The question should be this: "How do we improve the ability of our elected school board to ensure academic excellence in D.C. Public Schools?"

As a starting point, D.C. voters might consider giving our elected school board members a hefty pay raise — or drastically cutting the pay of council members, or both — in the interest of parity. Surely, if our superintendent of schools is worth $25,000 a year more than our mayor, then our school board members must be worth more than the paltry $15,000 a year we pay them — while we hand council members $80,000 a year and more. Where is the logic in this situation?

Our elected school board needs the staff, the resources and the authority necessary to run the schools through the superintendent the board selects.

We need to give our elected school board taxing authority to fund our schools — a power held by most school boards throughout this country. We need to dedicate part of this city’s tax base — such as the commercial and residential property taxes that are dedicated by many other communities — for funding our public schools, rather than continuing to create Byzantine funding formulas.

Mayor Williams asks us: "Who will be ultimately responsible for our children?" The answer is perfectly clear: The voters of this city need to take responsibility that is rightfully theirs.

And if the mayor and the council undemocratically get in their way, then the voters need to show them the door.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator