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What if…?

(Published February 14, 2000)

When this city’s voters go to the polls in November, they will elect a majority of the D.C. Board of Education.

Regardless of the present debate over changing the governance structure for our public schools, voters must still elect six members of the currently constituted 11-member school board on Nov. 7.

It’s the law.

As the situation now stands, voters at the same election will have the choice to accept or reject two separate, competing proposals to change the way the D.C. Board of Education’s members are chosen. One proposal – the mayor’s – calls for an appointed school board under the mayor’s control. The other proposal – the council’s – eliminates two at-large seats on the elected school board and requires the voters citywide to elect the school board president.

While the current debate has focused on these two options for changing the city’s home-rule charter, little attention has been paid to the third option that exists.

What if the voters just say "NO" by rejecting both "reform" proposals? What if neither proposed charter change gets the required majority vote for approval?

It would mean we keep the status quo.

By excluding that possibility from the public debate, our elected and appointed leaders are rushing headlong into a situation that could leave us with a school board far more dysfunctional than the current board has ever been.

What is the incentive for any serious, qualified candidate to seek election to the school board in November, given the current climate to invalidate that election with a charter change? Why would anyone in their right mind expend their time, energy and money to seek election to a position that might be eliminated immediately after the election?

Already, we have heard the mayor’s and council’s proposals referred to during public debate as a "referendum on the mayor and the council," rather than a serious attempt to improve the quality of education for the city’s public schoolchildren.

Control board chairman Alice Rivlin has noted recently that there is no definitive difference in the quality of education delivered to children by an elected or an appointed school board.

The District’s daily newspapers – foursquare behind eliminating the elected school board – keep erroneously hammering the current school board for its inability to properly run the public schools.

The truth, however, is that most members of the current school board – elected to reform past dysfunction – have NEVER had the authority to carry out their mandate.

The control board seized the school board’s authority in November 1996 – the day after the last election in which voters elected a majority of the school board. Nine of the current 11 school board members have never had the power to run the public school system. Only Ward 1 representative Wilma Harvey and Ward 5 representative Angie King Corley have ever served on an empowered D.C. Board of Education.

This city’s political leaders need to stop using D.C.’s children as pawns in their transparent raft of power grabs. Give the power back to the people – the parents, the citizens, the taxpayers. We don’t need paternalism. We need democracy.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator