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Autonomy for D.C. schools
(Published October 6, 2003)

Fundamental change, not incremental tinkering, is needed to create excellent public education in the District of Columbia.

Unlike most exemplary public school systems across the country, the Districtís public schools have never been structured to provide clear lines of authority and direct accountability to the tax-paying public. No other jurisdiction in the United States elects a school board that must statutorily -- and constantly -- beg tax money from an elected mayor, city council and U.S. Congress to be able to carry out its legal responsibilities.

This needs to change.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams and some D.C. City Council members should be commended for recognizing the need for such a structural change, but they are over-reaching to even suggest that the schools be added to their already heavy burden of reforming the long-troubled management of many other D.C. government services.

The mayor and council should clean their plate before they ask for seconds.

The Districtís public school system should be autonomous. The system needs to be run by a non-partisan elected school board, which answers to no one except D.C. voters. The school board needs to be given a dedicated source of local taxes to fund the schools, and the board needs to be vested with authority to annually set the tax rate to meet the schoolsí budgetary needs.

There is nothing experimental about such a system, which does not peg its success on the popularity of a handful of politicians. Thousands of well-run public school systems across the country that are structured in this manner -- with property taxes as the traditionally dedicated funding source -- have a long track record of proving that such autonomy works.

Most, if not all, members of Congress can point to public school systems within their own constituencies that succeed with a similar structure. Some members of Congress, no doubt, even served on their local school board early in their political careers.

So why must the Districtís public schools continue to be the nationís guinea pig? Why must politicians continually try to reinvent the wheel in the nationís capital?

It makes sense for the District of Columbia to have a proven system of public education that works for the majority of citizens, not myriad short-term projects that offer wider opportunities to a select few.

And implementing a proven system does not require a lot of time. Fundamental change demands immediate results, not years of waiting for improvements to occur.

Next year, the D.C. City Council will become empowered by the Districtís home rule charter to abolish the existing D.C. Board of Education and take over control of the public schools, if it so chooses. Unbeknownst to many D.C. residents and voters, the charter change approved at the polls in June 2000 to restructure the school board also pre-authorized the council to decide in 2004 -- without further public input -- how the schools should be managed.

A public dialogue about the future of public education in the nationís capital must begin now, not after partisan politicians create even more problems for the schools by gaining virtually absolute authority over D.C. childrenís schooling. Too much politics is the biggest problem facing D.C. Public Schools today. Itís difficult to see how handing over full control of the schools to the council and the mayor can improve the situation.

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator