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Native Intelligence
Where's Ward 3 when it counts?
(Published September 23, 2002)

By DIANA WINTHROP

It was a lovely Indian summer morning as I watched neighborhood children, some with their parents, walking past my house to the elementary school just a block away. It may be cliché, but these kids looked adorable in their blue-and-white uniforms that have been encouraged by the school as a way to help reduce unnecessary financial pressures on their parents.

As I enjoyed the view, I was waiting to listen to yet another D.C. City Council hearing on how elected officials plan to shortchange these same children again this year as they have in years past.

I'm not sure why I am troubled two weeks after the primary that voters approved returning half of these council clowns for another term. It may be from hearing that council members knew way before the election that the District is not only broke, but the red ink is flowing.

This "shortfall" isn't the little one that Mayor Anthony A. Williams and council Chairman Linda Cropp explained but, rather, a whopper. The fact that this council thinks it's okay to take more money from these kids to pay for their egregious mistakes is the worst betrayal.

And what's more depressing is that voting parents are placing the blame on the wrong people - blaming the school system and the school board instead of the mayor and the city council, who, in turn, place a lot of the blame for the projected $323 million deficit on the 9-11 tragedy.

What I find most distressing is hearing Councilman Jack Evans talk about the need for across-the-board cuts. The "Evans mantra" of sharing the pain during tough times is what I call the Big Lie. Cutting education spending is disastrous for most D.C. families whose children do not attend Ward 3 elementary schools. For parents of Ward 3 schoolchildren, budget cuts are an "inconvenience," rather than painful. To equate "inconvenience" with shortchanging less-well-off children is unfair punishment.

I honestly was thrilled watching that Friday morning education roundtable. I can't recall watching a more unified and determined group of advocates for children draw the line in the sand. Colorful, though sometimes controversial, school board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz was unanimously backed up by the entire board - both the elected and appointed members. The board and the school system spoke with one voice. The unity contrasted sharply with those terrible past years of acrimony and division when politics, race and class were more important than the children.

It was also a day of eloquence for the board and the school system, which was a sharp contrast to the council members who begrudgingly admitted that the school system has made improvements.

Roger Wilkins, a respected educator and civil rights activist and, I suspect, the eldest school board member, said: "We have already made our contribution to the problem this city faces. We have already taken (the school budget) down to a level that is inadequate. We do not believe, in good conscience, we can reduce the services."

Constitutional law professor Charles Lawrence spoke of the resource inequities his children receive at their neighborhood school, compared to those in Ward 3. Lawrence noted that most parents cannot afford to subsidize the public resources given to his children's Ward 4 school.

Now, Professor Wilkins and Professor Lawrence are not opponents of parents doing all they can to assure a quality education for their children. I also agree. But when I look at the resources in those Ward 3 schools compared to my neighborhood school, it is heartbreaking.

Murch Elementary School parents in Ward 3 pay anywhere from $200 a child annually up to a cap of $500 per family as a fee for better education. The Home and School Association at Murch has a six-figure budget that provides the school with five full-time classroom aides; a full-time aide for the guidance counselor; stipends for research for teachers; money for the media center; stipends for the art, music and foreign language teachers; and, most importantly, all of the teachers and the principal begin each school year with a stipend to buy whatever they need for their classrooms for the beginning of each school year.

In my neighborhood, dedicated teachers and the principal use their own money.

Horace Mann Elementary School charges families $1,050 per child (they do subsidize parents who can't pay) to assure every classroom has an aide and their children have a quality public education. Lafayette Elementary (once in Ward 3 and now redistricted to Ward 4) charges fees as well and, along with auctions and fall fairs, raises money for their aides, teachers and support staff.

My neighborhood school is lucky if it can raise $5,000.

I don't oppose Ward 3 parents paying for what most say are minimum needs for a good public school education. I am troubled by their lack of visible advocacy for all children attending public school in the District.

Wards 3 parents and their voices are not the ones I hear advocating for children when there are proposed budget cuts for the school system. The only time I hear Ward 3 parents become part of the political dialogue is when their schools might be directly hurt. It is unfortunate that Ward 3 parents have more political clout with the mayor and the council than other parents throughout the District.

It is not a crime to be rich. It isn't a crime to have money to provide for your children. But it is a terrible crime to be silent when other children are hurt by budget cuts.

I am hopeful that someday Ward 3 parents find it unacceptable that my neighborhood school lacks resources. I really look forward to the day when we can no longer say, as District I school board member Julie Mikuta commented during the hearing, "once again, back-to-school time feels like hack-the-schools time."

All of our children deserve better.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator