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High-Quality Schools and Chopped Liver

In its infinite wisdom, the D.C. Council last week pronounced a free high-quality public education to be a basic right. The vote was 12-1. The measure--a proposed amendment to the city's charter--will go to the District's voters in November for approval, pending a confirmatory vote by the council next month.

Looks harmless--another feel-good gimmick by craven pols in an election year, right?

Wrong. It is of course all that, but it is also so much more: As Gary Imhoff and Dorothy Brizill note in DCWatch, and as a Post editorial said over the weekend, what looks like a relatively meaningless expression of hope that someday, somehow the D.C. public schools will get better is actually a dangerous, reckless adventure in lawmaking. If approved by the voters, this measure would open the floodgates for legions of lawyers who will win themselves second homes and big new boats by suing the heck out of the D.C. government over every single one of the school system's many shortcomings.

This is government by panicked cry for help from all the wrong places. Only council member Carol Schwartz had the guts to say no to this bit of foolishness, which would end up with D.C. taxpayers shelling out even more billions once the court cases get rolling. Lawyers would sue over the inequalities in resources at different schools, over the lousy conditions of the buildings, over the ineptitude of the teachers, over the failure to live up to No Child Left Behind provisions that make no sense for a city-only system such as the District's, and on and on. Nothing would necessarily get better for kids in the classrooms, but the system would have to add layer upon layer of bureaucrats to handle the lawsuits and the courts' orders.

The nightmare scenario is a repeat of what's happened since the right to an individualized special education course became enshrined in the law--a festival of lawsuits in which a relative handful of families win primo education for their kids, at taxpayers' expense, while the schooling for the run of the mill kids in town suffers terribly.

The message sent by this measure is even more broadly destructive: What does it say about the rest of the city's government if the charter of the District is amended to announce that the schools should be high-quality? What is the rest of the D.C. government--chopped liver? As for all the other services the city provides, it's just fine if they're mediocre or pathetic? No, there are only two purposes to this measure: Make it look like the pols are doing something about the schools other than mouthing the usual platitudes (even as their own kids, like mine, go to private or religious schools), and mortgaging the management of the school system to lawyers whose motives may be fine, but whose methods are destructive to the rest of the city's agencies and programs (and to the taxpayers' pocketbooks.)

If the city's elected officials want to address the quality of the schools, that's great--start discarding rules that limit the ability of principals to do their own hiring, grant local schools more authority to run their own affairs, move control of procurement and maintenance out of the school system's hands, clean house in the central office, create more opportunities for non-certified teachers from alternative career paths, and defy the testing mania of No Child Left Behind. But don't treat the voters like fools and seek to shut them up with a simplistic initiative that promises only to increase their financial burden.

By Marc Fisher |  June 28, 2006; 8:03 AM ET
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Why do the taxpayers have to be liable for things they have no control over?

In the spirit of "put your money where your mouth is," would it be possible to pass legislation which would make the Council Members and the School Board Members personally liable for the schools' shortcomings?

Posted by: Kalorama Kat | June 28, 2006 8:52 AM

"Run of the mill kids"? I thought all our kids were above average!

Posted by: Mill of the Commonplace | June 28, 2006 9:15 AM

Would it be possible for the city council to make the parents of inept DC schoolchildren personally responsible for their shortcomings? I think the District should have a right to a high quality public citizenry. Even if we can't make it a crime to bring up stupid children, we can at least establish civil liability for it, right?

Posted by: athea | June 28, 2006 9:43 AM

athea has a good idea brewing there. Actually hold the parents responsible since the kids are THEIRS. The only problem with that idea is that as soon as some of the parents try to discipline their kids, the kids cries foul and the parent goes to jail. Also, some of parents are actually afraid of their teenage offspring.

Posted by: Where to start?? | June 28, 2006 9:48 AM

I don't know that parents are afraid, so much as that a small but civically-destructive percentage of them simply have personal matters that concern them more and don't want to be bothered minding (or feeding) their children.

Good and sensible column, Marc.

Posted by: Mark | June 28, 2006 10:05 AM

The article in todays issue about housing touches on education. I'm not saying that all of the underachieving schools are in poor(neglected) neighborhoods, but I'm sure they account for great number of failing schools. As time goes on and the face of the city changes, the education will change also.

Posted by: J | June 28, 2006 11:18 AM

I really wish you would stop writing about topics you know so little about. You show your complete lack of information and understanding of this issue within the very first paragraph. The Council did NOT give final approval to the bill and it does not go to voters in November, yet. The Council must first take a second vote, called 'second reading', in July. Only then is the bill approved.

And perhaps you should survey the laws around the country before labeling this a "feel good gimmick" that's "destructive". The charter amendment has been in the works for a few years now. It's not something that popped up in an election year. And what it does is catch us up to nearly every other state in the country by recognizing education as a fundamental right in our state constitution, the District Charter.

Ask the NAACP, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, DC Parents United, or a host of other organizations and civil rights activists -- this charter amendment to guarantee a high quality public education is something we should be proud the Council is acting on and something we should all support this fall.

Posted by: Try Being Informed | June 28, 2006 11:34 AM

"As time goes on and the face of the city changes, the education will change also."

Don't be too sure that a demographic change will bring improvement in schools. Just who is buying in the District? Singles, empty nesters, gays and lesbians- fine folks all but not a group particularly likely to agitate for better schools. School change is very difficult. You need concerned parents, dedicated teachers, safe and well equiped facilities, and supportive administrators. You need all these things and you need them all working in concert. Easiest way to start is to lure back the private school crowd. OK, who wants to go first?

Posted by: kurosawaguy | June 28, 2006 11:36 AM

I believe all students have a right to high-quality schools, and that we as a society have the moral and social obligation to offer this.

Our nation has decided that everyone has a right to emergency medical care, whether they can pay for it or not. That's a legal right, enforceable in court -- and an EXPENSIVE one.

The same should be true for a high-quality education, which is NOT as important as high-quality roads or a high-quality Metro system. All children should have the opportunity to become politically and economically powerful citizens, no matter their parents' income.

You point out that special education students have a right to an appropriate education, and that many have benefited by asserting this right. Why shouldn't general education students have a similar right?

Yes, it's expensive to provide kids with a good education. (Most private schools spend MUCH MORE on their students than does DCPS or any other public school system). And you're right that defending lawsuits could cost taxpayers money.

We have failed to create high-quality schools for all, though we do have some schools in DCPS that are of very high quality. I HOPE we can make this happen on our own initiative, without the involvement of the courts -- and I think this can still happen.

There are some very positive signs, including the unanimous passage of the School Modernization Act, which will provide DCPS with $3 billion over the next 15 years to rebuild its school buildings -- which, incidentally, you also opposed (

But if we can't, or if we can't do it quickly enough, then kids and parents SHOULD be able to take us ALL to court.

- Marc

Posted by: Marc Borbely | June 28, 2006 11:38 AM

Althea's idea of holding parents liable for their kids' stupidity will result in several law suits. The first will be against Althea's parents.

Posted by: Kalorama Kat | June 28, 2006 12:54 PM

meant to write, above, that high-quality education is MORE important than high-quality roads or high-quality Metro.

Posted by: Marc Borbely | June 28, 2006 1:06 PM

Kurosawaguy- Lesbians adopt, and single people get married. Development in the district is not slowing down, and the amount of political savvy young adults are increasing in neglected areas.

If they chose to raise a family in The city (I think they will) then they will become advocates for better education w/o a price tag. That means better public schooling.

Posted by: J | June 28, 2006 1:50 PM

The point that I wished to make is that many of those most attracted to homebuying in D.C. are those least likely to make schools their first priority, i.e. those who do not or do not yet have children. Improving schools can't happen overnight. If you have a five year old ready to enter the system this fall, it's already too late to effect much change in her elementary school in the relatively brief time she's there. The first element of change is a critical mass of parents determined to improve things and ready to put their children (and themselves) into the system.
Oh, and what's this "Lesbians adopt." Like nobody else does? Gay men don't? Straight couples don't?

Posted by: kurosawaguy | June 28, 2006 4:55 PM

According to a new website ( set up by a group of education and business leaders, the District of Columbia spends 60% more than the national average in total expenditures per public school student (for 2003 it was $14,542 vs $9,136), while our public school students rank at or near the bottom in math and reading proficiency scores.

Included in these outlays include capital improvement expenditures. The DC public schools spend 156% more per public school student than the national average for school building improvements (for 2003 it was $2,573 vs. $1,003), while our facilities continue to rot in disrepair.

In response to the fraud, waste and abuse that guts a yearly school budget already exceeding $1 billion, the Council, in its infinite wisdom, has decided to add ineffectual language to the DC charter that appears to expose DC taxpayers to more financial liabilities.

Instead of spending even one more red cent on DC public schools, we (and the Council in particular) need to determine why we as a city spend more money than just about every jurisdiction in this country and continue to suffer catastrophic academic results.

I think we all need to respectfully ask the Council to explain to us why they have decided to waste time and money on this proposed charter amendment instead of figuring out why we spend so much now and accept so little in return!

Posted by: DC SW | June 28, 2006 5:21 PM

Our infrastructure is older than most, and our special needs edu program was defunded with the result that our tax dollars now pay for private schools for special needs students. Add to that a history public of mismanagement, a perminent entrenched workforce, and serious FCHS social issues, and you've got your answer.

Posted by: Mark | June 28, 2006 5:43 PM

"this charter amendment to guarantee a high quality public education is something we should be proud the Council is acting on and something we should all support this fall."

Its going to take much more than a loud declaration without any substance behind it.

Posted by: pete | June 28, 2006 11:44 PM

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