LL had a jampacked schedule on Monday, April 5. At 9 a.m., LL planned to watch higher-ups from the University of the District of Columbia explain their budget for fiscal year 2005. Then, at 11, LL hoped to hear from the various “interim” and “acting” chiefs of D.C. Public Schools about their cash needs for the upcoming school year.
LL didn’t end up too stressed, however: Kevin P. Chavous, Ward 7 councilmember and chair of the council’s Committee on Education, Libraries, and Recreation, postponed the schools hearings for two weeks.
At 4 p.m. Monday, LL had penciled in an Education Committee markup on a school-governance bill authored by At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson.
A few hours before the quorum call, Chavous canceled that meeting, too.
LL has learned not to rearrange our plans around meetings chaired by Chavous: They almost never happen according to schedule. Take the committee’s long-awaited public roundtable on school governance, for example. After some badgering by committee members, Chavous initially scheduled this hearing for March 1. As that date moved closer, he informed colleagues that he was moving it to April 15—right in the middle of the council’s spring recess. So Chavous convened the hearing on March 29, when Mayor Anthony A. Williams testified in favor of his school-takeover plan.
What could possibly be keeping the councilmember from such critical committee business?
Is it a renewed vigor to deliver constituent services?
Not according to some of his Ward 7 neighbors, who protested outside a Chavous fundraiser at Georgia Brown’s a few months ago.
Is it his get-tough, hands-on approach to juvenile crime?
Nope: Chavous hasn’t made too much progress on his take-a-bite-out-of-crime Juvenile Justice and Parental Accountability Act of 2003, which would extend curfew hours for kids as well as fine parents and suspend their driver’s licenses as punishment for their children’s transgressions.
How about chalking it up to a tough re-election campaign this fall?
Chavous most likely faces a challenge from Vincent Gray, executive director of Covenant House Washington. The Ward 7 incumbent had raised $85,990 by March 10 to fend off Gray. Not bad numbers, but far, far less than his colleagues on the ballot in Wards 2 and 4.
So LL posits this answer: He retreated to his own Ward 7 Walden Pond to pen his new, approximately 177-page book, Serving Our Children: Charter Schools and the Reform of American Public Education. On Monday, LL received a preview copy from Sterling, Va., publisher Capital Books, which specializes in how-to guides and dabbles in policy treatises. After Chavous cleared out LL’s Monday-afternoon schedule, we had an opportunity to leaf through the galleys. (The book hasn’t made it to the printing press yet and will likely get a thorough once-over from a proofreader. LL wants copy divas to know that errors in grammar and punctuation will likely be corrected in the final version.)
LL is delighted to beat the New York Review of Books to this critical tome and to offer the following plot summary: Kevin P. Chavous, a bright African-American attorney, is elected to the District of Columbia’s city council in 1992 with great ambitions. He wants to chair an important committee and wins out over Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson to head the education panel in 1997. Frustrated after several concerted yet fruitless attempts to reform the schools bureaucracy, Chavous becomes convinced that extreme measures are warranted. So he champions the charter-school movement and private-school vouchers as educational saviors for beleaguered parents and children.
He profiles charter schools he deems successful. He hails himself as an educational visionary.
LL checked the cataloguing-in-publication page: The book is classified as nonfiction.
Memoirs, autobiographies, and public-policy how-to books all have a skewed perspective, of course: the author’s. In Serving Our Children, Chavous repeatedly assesses the problems of urban school systems with an eye to political reality: “My colleagues and I had always acknowledged that education was a ‘top priority’ but given the almost single-minded focus we had to place on other, more pressing issues, the attention to D.C. schools amounted to not much more than lip service,” he states in his introduction.
More pressing issues? Like the All-Terrain Vehicle and Dirt Bike Prohibition Amendment Act of 2003 Chavous introduced last year?
In the initial pages of the book, Chavous explains that he didn’t get into politics as an education advocate. He decided that he wanted to chair the committee after a chat with mentor and former At-Large Councilmember Bill Lightfoot, who told him that leaving the Education Committee chair to others was his biggest regret—given his view that education was at the root of many of the District’s problems.
“It was a catalytic moment for me—one that made me reconsider why I had entered public service in the first place: surely not to move defensively from day to day, from one disaster to the next,” Chavous writes.
Then Chavous must have serious misgivings about his public service: He still moves defensively, from one disaster to the next. One contemporary example is the issue that has preoccupied members of his committee, parents, advocates, and the editorial page of the Washington Post: school governance.
When Mayor Williams announced his intentions to strip the D.C. Board of Education of its power and to hire and fire the superintendent himself last fall, Chavous publicly stated his support for the mayor’s plan. Then a majority of his colleagues expressed reluctance to support Williams, given the mayor’s haphazard record on schools. So a few months later, the Education Committee chair announced that he supported the status quo, which means keeping the hybrid school board and its president, Peggy Cooper Cafritz, who has battled, bickered with, and snarled at him over the past few years.
For a while, Chavous convened monthly meetings between the council and the school board. When LL asked several council and school-board members when those meetings occurred, they reported that they couldn’t remember because Chavous hasn’t held one in such a long time.
“I am convinced that real reform in education must be both radical and innovative,” Chavous states at one point in Serving Our Children. “And I have supported countless innovations—some successful, many less so.”
Credit Chavous with at least one breakthrough in 2004: He finally convened a public hearing on school governance. The March 29 session evaluated competing bills from the mayor and Mendelson. In other words, mayoral takeover vs. hybrid school board. Then sometime late Thursday, April 1, Chavous announced to the committee members that he had drafted his own bill, which they would consider and vote on the next day.
That took his colleagues by surprise: They had had no advance notice of the meeting and didn’t see the bill until five minutes before the 2 p.m. session. When they did get hold of it, it turned out to be this: the mayor’s bill number with most of Mendelson’s bill content.
“I don’t think it was fair to members of the committee or to the public to give very, very short notice to consideration of a bill under one title…then decide to move a totally different bill,” says Education Committee member Sharon Ambrose, who decided not to change her schedule at the last minute for the Friday hearing.
Ambrose wants to see exactly what Chavous’ book promises. “I would have liked to have seen him with more of a road map for all of us,” says Ambrose.
Note to Ambrose & Co.: Just wait for the Chavous book party, on April 26 at the City Museum. They’ll find this insight in the book: “From the perspective of a politician, education is hard work. It requires understanding on both substantive and political levels, and an aggressive thrust for change in bureaucracies that are some of the most entrenched in government….Breaking up the bureaucracy, I have found, is a full-time endeavor.”
Which means it’s tough to pull off on a part-time schedule.
For years now, Chavous’ John A. Wilson Building cohorts have snickered about the Ward 7 councilmember’s absenteeism. They point to his law practice, his teaching stint at American University, and now his book. In every conversation, LL hears some variation of this refrain: He has a lot of potential.
And so do all of the “innovative” legislative initiatives that Chavous has allowed to languish. LL will start by naming the Universal School Access Amendment Act of 2003, a pre-kindergarten-for-3-year-olds initiative that the councilmember cites in Serving Our Children as one of his goals.
The bill has never made it out of committee.
Or the District Public and Public Charter School Facilities Management Officer Establishment Act of 2004?
No hearing on that bill yet—even though many schools advocates support it.
The list goes on and on: The District of Columbia Public Schools Performance and Accountability Act of 2003. The Autonomous Schools Act of 2003. “He doesn’t intend for [them] to go anywhere,” says one elected official who works with Chavous. “It’s not setting an agenda.”
Even Chavous admits his education-reform efforts haven’t exactly wowed the populace. “I would lead with reciting what I had done in education reform, how I had helped develop charter schools in the District, how I was in the forefront of ensuring that the traditional schools received more resources,” writes Chavous in Chapter 4, “Problems in Public Education.” “Every time I mentioned these points in front of groups from my ward, I saw blank faces and little or no positive reaction from my constituents.”
“The reality hit me like a ten-ton truck,” Chavous goes on. “Why isn’t all the money we are allocating to our schools translating into a higher quality education for our children?”
Interspersed with such rhetorical flourishes, Chavous comes up with a comic moment here and there. LL couldn’t help but chuckle when we flipped to the first page of the galley, “Advanced Praise for Serving Our Children.”
The first quote?
“In his role as Chair of the Education Committee of the City Council, Kevin Chavous has exhibited a rare combination of intellectual courage and commitment to social change,” states C. Vannessa Spinner, head of the city’s State Education Office.
That’s an interesting commentary coming from Spinner. For the past two years, the Committee on Education has grilled Spinner about the underperformance of her agency, which is now the target of accountability-seeking probes by both the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Office of the Inspector General.
“Where’s Kevin been?” asks one councilmember.
Sitting silently on the dais while Education Committee colleague Mendelson rakes Spinner over the coals for her agency’s miscues in summer feeding, noncompliance with federal regulations, and questionable spending of funds.
“During each election cycle, politicians hold education aloft as their crusade du jour, promising transformation! reform! accountability!” says Chavous in his book. “Unfortunately, once they’re elected most fall short of action.” —Elissa Silverman
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