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Government and People
This piece originally appeared in the Northwest Current and Georgetown Current, June 14, 2000.
In January, Mayor Williams proposed eliminating the elected eleven-member School Board and replacing it with a five-member board that he would appoint. The City Council countered with a proposal to reduce the size of the elected board from eleven to nine, and passed legislation that would have given voters a choice among a nine-member elected board, a five-member Mayorally appointed board, or the current system. At that point, the Control Board intervened and prevailed upon the Mayor and the City Council to agree on one "compromise" proposal the nine-member divided Board of Education (five members elected, four appointed by the Mayor) that will be the subject of the June 27 election.
Neither the Mayor nor the Councilmembers liked the "compromise" proposal, and they still have not invented any rationale for how or why it will improve our childrens education, but they are supporting it on the basis that the voters should accept a bad idea simply because politicians couldnt agree on anything else and compromised on it.
In the history of American education, this kind of divided School Board is an untried and untested experiment, and none of its supporters has demonstrated any connection between it and improving the classrooms in DC schools. In fact, improving childrens education isnt the major aim of the Amendments advocates; they are more concerned with bringing off a power grab and with putting a big part of the DC government budget more directly under the Mayors and Councils control.
No one argues that the DC Board of Education has performed well throughout its nearly twenty-five year history. For many years, dating back to the 1970s, members of the School Board have acted in embarrassing ways and fought each other, and the conditions of DC schools -- physically and educationally -- have deteriorated. The Emergency Board of Trustees that ran our schools for the past three years, a Board that was appointed by the Control Board, has been just as contentious and ineffective, though it was in the news less often because it operated in secret.
But the proposed Charter Amendment wont make the School Board work together better; it will only make things worse. It will divide the Board into two factions, part appointed by the mayor and part elected, guaranteeing that the Board members will always be at odds with each other and unable to work together smoothly. It will eliminate ward membership on the Board, lessening the accountability of even the elected members to parents and to the voters.
And it will lessen accountability in another way. The Mayor argued that he could be held accountable for the actions of the five member appointed board that he wanted, but he certainly wont accept accountability for the actions of a divided board of which he appoints a minority of the members. And the elected members wont be accountable, because they can claim that the Mayors appointees block and frustrate their efforts. The Amendment structure is a built-in excuse system, not a plan for accountability.
The Amendment harms the schools in other ways. First, it eliminates the independence of the School Board and subordinates it to the City Council. The Home Rule Charter created the Board of Education as independent and elected in fact, it was the first and only body elected by DC citizens for several years. That is why the composition of the Board can be changed only by a Charter Amendment. But if this Charter Amendment passes, the Board of Education will no longer be independent. In the future the City Council will be able to change it in any way it pleases by simple legislation, without submitting those changes to the voters. Second, the Charter Amendment reduces the responsibilities and powers of the Board of Education, and further blurs the lines of "accountability" by reassigning some important responsibilities and powers to a vaguely described and undefined "state education agency" that will be created by the City Council.
You dont eliminate the faults of democracy by eliminating or limiting democracy, but by working harder to nominate and elect good people to office. Appointed boards arent better than elected boards, but a divided board is worse than either. The Mayors judgment isnt better than the peoples. Certainly this Mayors fumbling of his appointments to the University of the District of Columbia Board of Trustees doesnt inspire confidence in his commitment to education, and nobody can trust what any future Mayors may do, or know whom they might appoint.
We voters must vote down this Amendment, reaffirm the Districts commitment to democracy, and concentrate our efforts on finding good candidates and electing them to the Board of Education.
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