[from February 2007 issue]


Our new and lively Mayor, along with -- seemingly at least at this point in time -- a majority of the members of the City Council, appears hell-bent on eliminating the School Board and moving everything into his bailiwick. Not just management stuff, like buildings and grounds maintenance or procurement, but also educational policy and curriculum matters.

So far, the Mayor has made a number of almost convincing arguments that the apparently failed city public school system needs to be essentially scrapped. (Notwithstanding, however, there do seem to be many bright lights still shining throughout the system which may suggest that our schools are not as defunct as we are being told they are.)

But if the system to be is scrapped why should we assume that the Executive Branch bureaucracy will do a better job than what might very well come to pass under the new leadership of one of the most able administrators anywhere? We refer to the newly elected school board president Robert Boob. Back in October when we endorsed his candidacy we characterized our former City Administrator -- one of the few truly brilliant appointments made by our former mayor -- as a “proven leader and no-nonsense administrator who has the kind of drive and organizational skills to make things happen.” That and, as we wrote, his “deep knowledge of the inner workings of DC government” had convinced us that he was the person who would be most able to lead the school administration out the morass in which it was now almost moribund.

We continue to firmly believe that, given the green light, he will reform that bureaucracy which he has inherited and that he is one of the few people in government likely to be capable of bringing about true fiscal and operational reform.

The Mayor points with great enthusiasm to the New York City experience under the takeover that had been engineered by Mayor Bloomberg. But our sources in that city are less than enthusiastic; we have seen correspondence from parents with children in those schools and we have talked with parents who have actually shied away from sending their children to the public schools since the takeover took hold. A recent editorial in the New York Times would appear to bear out the very same concerns that we have heard expressed, and we share a salient paragraph from that editorial as follows:

"The Regents and State Legislature have been fretting about the cold shoulder the city has shown to parents and communities since soon after legislators gave Mr. Bloomberg full control of the public schools. That's when the city did away with the long-standing system of 32 community school districts and combined them into 10 regions. It may have saved money, but it also put more distance between the school system and families. Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has promised to rectify those problems. But the new reform, which sweeps away the 10 regions altogether, runs the risk of making the situation worse."

How ironic it is that the Times focuses on the very kind of issue that Mayor Fenty claims his plan, to be modeled on the Bloomberg plan, would solve! Frankly, as we have been reading and listening we cannot fathom how the extensive new bureaucracy that the Mayor is proposing will enhance parent involvement in the schools -- probably one of the most significant factors in achieving the goal of having fine schools; if anything, his scheme will most assuredly further isolate the parents and the other stakeholders from participating in their children’s education.

Then there is the disturbing business about how the Mayor’s plan will get the City Council intimately involved in school operational decisions. What makes the Mayor truly believe that, bright as they may be, that the Council can serve as a kind of de facto school board? After all, most politicians are not qualified to be educational administrators. We can just see the Council’s Committee of the Whole debating matters involving curriculum or pedagogical standards (we faint at the prospect). We hate to contemplate the school budgeting debates as members try to push for their pet academic or vocational programs, probably to be housed at a school in their own ward, regardless of whether what they push into a budget line item will make any sense from an educational standpoint.

And, what chaos it will be when the Council debates which school buildings to permanently shut down. It will be political mayhem. Mayor Fenty, in attempting to assure the Council when he appeared at the first of the series of hearings naively assured the members that they were too fine a lot to allow petty politics to warp their collective judgment. Wow, talk about Pollyanna! Maybe this group can and would meet the mayor’s exalted expectations, but we wouldn’t want to bet the farm that such would be true in years to come. Consider that school closings are as much dynamite at the municipal level as military base closings are at the national level. Then we need to wonder, if even the U.S. Congress and the President concluded that politically it was just too much to handle and so established a non-partisan base closing commission that neatly insulates both members of Congress and the President and that this would be the only way to do things, we must wonder why the same thinking does not prevail here locally with what is essentially the equivalent kind of bomb.

We want to make it clear that we know much needs to be fixed with the public school operational picture, but we also believe that at this point in time the Mayor’s approach may cause more harm than he intends. We would much prefer to at least give Robert Bobb and his new team the opportunity to prove they can do the job. Just because previous school boards have failed does not necessarily mean failure will continue; in all the year we have watched these matters unfold, this is the first time we have seen the kind of leadership potential that Robert Bobb is capable of bringing to the system.

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