No Role Models Here

Article excerpt

The U.S. Department of Education said last week that the nation's public and private school enrollment rose a fourth consecutive year amid a second baby boom and increased immigration. At 53.2 million, enrollment eclipsed the 1998-99 school year by 500,000. To be sure, debates on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue will focus on educational policy as well as funding, as states and localities try to come to terms with the added pressures of both increased enrollments and aging facilities.

The nation's capital, whose children return to school one week from today, will have to reckon with those demographic shifts as well as more deep-rooted troubles. It will not be pretty because the petty politics, years of inflated enrollment figures and stubborn bureaucracy left the D.C. Public School system in shambles, unable to tend to the needs of special education students and risking the educational lives of the District's mostly black student population because of a profound inability to reform itself from within.

A handful of examples:

* A majority of the elected D.C. school board ousted its president by a majority vote (6-5) in July amid allegations of wrongdoing and poor leadership. She was reinstated with the proviso that all correspondence pass the desk of a newly formed executive oversight committee. This vote of no-confidence rings loud and clear.

* Some members of the school board have said they plan to oust the superintendent next year simply because they did not hire her.

* The mayor proposed moving the District's public university, the University of the District of Columbia, but reneged under heavy criticism from school officials and students, as well as cries of racism.

* Management and financial problems continue at UDC, which had to sell off assets last year to wrestle down a more than $16 million deficit. Last school year, UDC trustees were so disinterested they could not even get a quorum together to discuss critical issues. The university is now under investigation by the FBI amid allegations of misappropriations and thievery.

* There is no single board or panel to ensure all makers of educational policy and reforms are reading the same book, let alone the same page.

Thanks to the control board, which snatched control of the D.C. Public School system in November 1996 and hauled in UDC officials to reinstate a small measure of accountability, modest changes have already been made. UDC still festers. But some reforms are in place in public schools. A nagging years-long lawsuit about school fire code violations was settled, the bar was raised on parents, students, teachers, principals and administrators - and test scores began inching up last year. …