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D.C. Council and School Reform: First, Do No Harm

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Can Councilmember David Catania succeed in his effort to enact legislation on the DC Schools?

When I read about his legislative proposals earlier this month, I harkened back to my law student days. In 1977, in my third year at Georgetown Law Center, I was a legal intern to the great Julius Hobson, Sr., then the at-large member of the brand new Council of the District of Columbia. This icon of civil rights activism drove the integration movement in this southern city that resisted equal opportunity in so many ways. "I sleep mad," was one of Hobson's famous quotations, underscoring his relentless focus on achieving equal justice and educational opportunity for African Americans in the nation's capital.

By the time Councilmember Hobson gave me the task of researching and drafting "Educational Accountability" legislation for the D.C. Schools as part of my clinical assignment that year, he was already famous for lending his name to the landmark case Hobson v. Hansen that challenged the practice of ability group tracking in the D.C. Public Schools as racially discriminatory.

Hobson's Educational Accountability Act of 1977 wanted to require the D.C. School Board, then the governing authority for the D.C. Public Schools, to report annual plans to the D.C. Council and make annual reports on academic outcomes in relation to those plans. Such a simple goal; and 36 years later, we're still fighting about authority and accountability for educational outcomes in D.C. In 1977, the D.C. School Board refused to go along with the Council's proposals, and much the same fight is shaping up in 2013, but this time between the Council and the mayorally-controlled schools.

In introducing his legislation earlier this month, Councilmember David Catania told a Washington Post reporter,

"So long as our school system fails, and it disproportionately fails poor people and people of color, it permits a culture of division," said Catania, who in January became chair of the council's newly reconstituted education committee. "If we don't tackle this issue of the achievement gap, if we continue to relegate this city to a city of haves and have-nots that fall very hard across race lines, we're never going to be the city we need to be."

Julius Hobson said very much the same thing more than three decades ago. His legislative proposal arose from his longstanding passion for achieving racial equality in education. He believed that failing to hold the schools accountable perpetuated invidious discrimination. Those who say that improving education is the "civil rights issue of our time" might have found common cause with Julius Hobson.

But the power struggle of 2013 over who may make policy for the D.C. Schools echoes the power struggle of 1977.

Responding to Councilmember Catania's legislation, D.C. schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson asked, "What is the role of the legislature?" Her predecessor in leading the schools, the great Vincent Reed, might have posed exactly the same question to Julius Hobson. Writing with sensitivity to Superintendent Reed's position, Washington Post Columnist the late Bill Raspberry had this to say of Hobson's legislative gambit:

"Hobson, when pressed, says he is willing to drop the section of his bill that requires the [school] board to report to the council. "I don't mind taking out the part about the mayor and council and let them report directly to the public," he said. "All I am trying to do is get them to set up standards. As to the mechanics of who they report to and so forth, I couldn't care less. Let them report directly to the citizens. But there ought to be some standards and some accountability. Children coming out of the schools ought to be able to read a bus route map, or fill out a job application, or do grocery store arithmetic."

"There's no one who will disagree with that. In fact, it would be enormously helpful if Supt. Vincent Reed, who already has made some major moves to improve the educational system here, would join the board to do precisely what Hobson is talking about: state measurable goals, at each grade level and for each school, and then tell us at the end of the year how close they've come to the target.

"But it ought to be done by the school authorities, not the council. After all, the same citizens who elected members of the city council to look after the city generally also elected members of a Board of Education to run the schools." (William Raspberry, The D.C. Schools: Accountable to Whom? The Washington Post, March 23, 1977, p. A11)

Raspberry wrote of the elected Board of Education, which was effectively gutted in 2007 when Mayor Adrian Fenty took control of the schools. Mayoral control of schools is part and parcel of the national school reform movement, with mixed results in cities across the nation.

Sadly, Julius Hobson died shortly after the public hearings on his legislation --- the school board refused to participate, and his death effectively ended the controversy at that time. But reform of the D.C. Public Schools has remained an acutely important topic through generations of superintendents, chancellors, school boards and power struggles. Despite all of the rhetoric and struggles, student achievement remains miserably deficient, so it's no surprise that the debate over reform continues.

Councilmember Catania's legislative initiatives have worthy elements, and we can hope that public hearings will illuminate his ideas. However, the spectre of even more power struggles over the authority to run the schools is deeply disheartening. Arguments about authority and control do nothing to ensure that the children of the District of Columbia will receive a better education.

Trinity in Washington educates more graduates of the D.C. Public Schools than any other private university in the nation. We wish that the D.C. students who enroll here were better prepared for collegiate work --- and we wish the same thing for students from other major public school systems in the region. We have a very strong interest in working with all leaders in D.C. --- Mayor Gray, Chancellor Henderson, Councilmember Catania and others who are interested in school reform --- to help our students to become better prepared for college, for the professional and technical careers that will require even better educational results than in the past.

We all can agree that the status quo is unacceptable. But we also need to agree that continuing destabilization of school leadership, and ongoing power struggles over the authority to control and direct the schools, only distracts from academic improvement and threatens further delay in real reform. Chancellor Kaya Henderson is doing all the right things to achieve long-term results; let her do her job without further political follies which only take time away from serious educational reform.

Sure, let's take the best of any and all proposals for school improvement. Let's keep a robust debate going, since that's how we learn to improve. And let's be sure that in our earnest efforts to make educational change more swiftly and effectively, we don't do further damage to a city that has already suffered entirely too much educational failure. When it comes to fixing sick schools, first, do no further harm.