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.
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