Betting the Ranch on the D.C. Schools
Adrian Fenty played it smart throughout the long, long campaign for mayor. He was the young dynamo, the man who would work tirelessly to make the city work again. Like all 463 other candidates, Fenty assured audiences that he was fed up with the failures of the city's public schools and he promised dramatic change.
But it wasn't until late in the campaign that Fenty put any meat on that promise. What he finally came up with was a plan modeled on the change in school governance that has taken place in several other big cities, most notably New York and Los Angeles, where mayors have supplanted school boards and taken over administrative authority or oversight of the schools.
Yesterday, the D.C. Council voted 9-2 to approve a mayoral takeover, essentially stripping the D.C. school board of its authority and paving the way for Fenty to push out Superintendent Clifford Janey and put in a handpicked successor, quite likely Rudy Crew, who is now the chief of the Miami-Dade County schools in South Florida and who previously flirted with taking the Washington job.
At yesterday's council hearing, the toll that the months-long debate over the mayoral takeover has taken was clear in the brittle emotions and sniping comments coming from the elected officials. Council member Carol Schwartz, one of those two Nay votes, ignited a nasty little debate when she accused her colleagues of collaborating with the mayor: "I know the deals have been struck."
"I don't know what that means," Cheh said of the "deals" comment. "I'm voting for it because it's the right thing to do." A more angry Harry Thomas Jr. (Ward 5) called Schwartz's words "an affront and misrepresentation." Catania challenged Schwartz to prove that any member of the council had done anything untoward.
"I have been aware since the get-go," Schwartz replied, that "Issues were allowed to be made by colleagues that if they were allowed to include this or that, I'd give it my support. That actually took place."
Catania summarized Schwartz's accusation as a description of "the normal deliberative process," causing a number of council staffers to snicker in the wings off the dais. And indeed, that is what happened: Fenty made his proposal, council members told the mayor what they needed in the legislature for them to support it, and the deal was done.
Far more important to most of the council than the sausage-making of this bill was the sense that all of Washington's elected officials will be judged by whether they finally do something about a school system that is dysfunctional to the point of having messed-up financial records, routinely failing to spend already allocated money on essential repairs, and being chronically incapable of improving student achievement.
"If creating a system of accountability is making a deal, then, yes, I had a discussion around a deal," said Council Chairman Vincent Gray.
Here's a stat that Gray used that pretty much says it all: In the past year, the District has added 11,000 new jobs as businesses expand and the city's long-struggling retail sector finally springs back to life. Over that same period, the number of D.C. residents who are employed dropped by 800. Which means that companies are finding that D.C. residents are incapable of performing well enough to handle many of those new jobs, so they hire from outside the city.
Obviously, we've been down this road of school reform too many dozens of times over the past two decades. And I have strong reservations about the notion that an improvement in the governance of the school system will necessarily have a real impact on what happens in the average classroom. But there are many matters that could be improved by better management and oversight: Building repairs, financial controls, textbook distribution, procurement and many other business side aspects of running a school. In theory, cleaning up that large chunk of the operation should make it easier for the system to focus on education, but that's not a certain logical line.
Schwartz sought and failed to win support for a citizen referendum on the change in control. The hunger for quick change is palpable. "Every day we wait," said Marion Barry, the Ward 8 council member, "another child is being sent to the dung heap. Let's not tarry."
Catania warned against the danger of sentencing yet another generation of D.C. schoolchildren to "a second-class status." Nobody wanted to hear Schwartz's warning that the council and city government already have too much on their plates. Nobody even bothered to respond when she noted that yesterday's paper included a report on the woeful shortcomings of the District's care for the mentally retarded--and that's an area that the mayor already took control of some years back.
Bottom line: Nobody really expects miracles from this takeover, yet very few--and hardly anyone on the council--believe it makes any sense to stick with the system that has failed so spectacularly.
Adrian Fenty has won his first big victory, but everyone who has come before him to this task has failed. Everyone. He is to be admired for taking on the biggest issue in the city. Now he's made Washington's #1 headache all his own. Let's watch.
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