Education Reform Now: D.C. Students and Schools Can Perform

Article excerpt

There is change afoot in D.C. public schools, and the stakes for both local politicians and students are very high.

The D.C. Council's point person on education, Kevin Chavous, a Democrat who failed to win his party's bid for the 1998 mayoral nomination, is up for re-election next year. Having won the support of his council colleagues to oversee the school system in January, Mr. Chavous has already held, and has scheduled still more, hearings into practically every aspect of school governance - from the troubled special education programs to transportation and procurement.

He also helped to mediate a disturbing internal snit among the 11 members of the elected Board of Education this summer, and he has encouraged the school system and the Department of Recreation to work closely together, for the children's sake. Indeed, Mr. Chavous has been quite attentive during his first year as chairman of the Council's Committee of Education, Recreation and Libraries, and tried to keep all pertinent parties focused on significant reforms that, down the road, will make for a higher-achieving student body.

But while all that oversight is critical to reforming the city's mediocre (and that's putting it very mildly) school system, parents know the hallmark of this and the next school year is a somewhat controversial bill that would totally revamp the board. Politically there is much as stake, as the legislative changes, which most of Mr. Chavous' 12 colleagues support, would usher in the most significant locally mandated revisions since the District's Home Rule Charter took effect in 1974. (School board elections were first held in 1968.)

As things now stand, the charter outlines little more than the mechanics of electing a board: the number of seats (11) and when elections shall be held (every two years). So essentially the board is the authority regarding schools, and that means there is little opportunity for serious reform.

That's because political wannabes, "educators" and other unknowns love to win a seat on the District's school board, where they can merely play to their hearts' content with the academic lives of tens of thousands of D.C. youths and with hundreds of millions of tax dollars. And, when its members were not in a backbiting mood, they dabble in the day-to-day affairs, hirings, promotions and the minutiae of particular schools in their ward.

There is no getting around the disastrous facts: low test scores, high dropout rates, favoritism, unethical practices, political meddling, bloated management, petty infighting, lawsuits, crumbling school buildings - you name it, and it has a long-standing grip on D.C. schools.

The Chavous legislation would eliminate most of the governance problems. …