“This noise level would not be acceptable in most classrooms,” shouts Arona McNeill-Vann, a teacher at the District’s new Nongraded School. Her 4- and 5-year-old students are really making a racket. In one corner of the classroom, half-a-dozen kids play a boisterous counting game, noisily swapping red, blue, and orange plastic tiles. The other young scholars eagerly flip through a picture book. The children composed the book after a class trip to the pumpkin patch, and they beseech the teacher to come and examine their favorite drawings.
“But it is a productive kind of noise,” McNeill-Vann yells cheerfully.
“They are excited about learning, and that is what we are trying to do: Build excitement in kids when they come to school,” the teacher continues. “All kids come to school wanting to learn, but something happens along the way to kill that enthusiasm. But now Dr. Smith is trying to find ways to keep kids excited.”
Dr. Smith is Franklin Smith, the crusading and embattled superintendent of the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS). Last spring, he invited D.C.’s 6,000 teachers to found their own “charter schools,” and McNeill-Vann accepted his offer. She and three colleagues submitted an application outlining their idea for an alternative primary school. DCPS accepted the proposal and the Nongraded School opened in September with 68 students. The program—a “school within a school”—occupies four classrooms on the top floor of Truesdell Elementary in Petworth.
One of seven D.C. charter schools, the Nongraded School represents a revolutionary departure from the hidebound, bureaucratic elementary schools for which the District is infamous. A magnet program, the Nongraded School attracts 4- to 8-year-olds from throughout the city whose parents seek a less structured environment for their kids. Rather than grouping all children of the same age in the same class, the four teachers have abolished grades entirely. Two teachers lead classes of 4- and 5-year-olds; Another teacher supervises a group of 5- to 7-year-olds; and the other teacher guides 6- to 8-year-olds. The younger students, say the instructors, learn at the feet of the elder ones, while the elder kids gain responsibility by tutoring their younger classmates.
The Nongraded School also lacks the physical strictness of typical D.C. elementary schools. Students are not confined to geometrically precise rows of desks, but sit on the carpet or at tables scattered haphazardly around the classrooms. (McNeill-Vann even looks like she belongs at an experimental academy: She wears tie-dye socks, Birkenstocks, and dreadlocks.)
But it is the Nongraded School’s governance, not its appearance, that excites McNeill-Vann and her colleagues most of all. The DCPS administration, which has long dictated school policy from its 12th Street NW office in the Presidential Building, has handed the keys to the teachers: McNeill-Vann and her three co-workers control the budget, set the curriculum, handle discipline, and organize the PTA.
“My mother taught for 19 years in the D.C. Public Schools,” says McNeill-Vann, “and she says it was never like this.”
And that is exactly what Superintendent Smith is counting on. Touting the Nongraded School as one of his “shining stars,” Smith is engaged in a systemwide campaign to overhaul the woeful D.C. public-school system. Parents and school activists who support the superintendent say that after decades of false starts and Potemkin reforms, Smith is finally engineering the real transformation the D.C. schools desperately need. Since his appointment in 1991, Smith has tackled DCPS’s monstrous bureaucracy, begun to revise its archaic curriculum, and most important, encouraged local control of the District’s 165 public schools.
“He is trying to make a sea change in the system,” says Carrie Thornhill, a longtime school activist and former chair of the nonprofit Committee on Public Education (COPE). “He has a very comprehensive reform agenda….and I think he is doing an excellent job, and we need to give him time to succeed.”
But time is something that Smith may not have. An entrenched school bureaucracy, a scared corps of teachers, and a fractious, ineffective Board of Education have—by intent and by incompetence—stymied change in the past, and they now threaten to derail Smith, too. They’ve already delayed some of his reforms and blocked others. Many of Smith’s admirers fear that his ambitious—perhaps too ambitious—agenda, coupled with the coming turnover on the Board of Education, may cost him his job.
“Our school system has not been effectively educating 80 percent of its children for a very long time. That is not Smith’s fault,” says Delabian Rice-Thurston, executive director for Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools, a vocal school-advocacy group. “But I hope the Board [of Education] does not take its frustrations out on the superintendent, because we really need someone to see these reforms through.”
Old-time Washingtonians wax nostalgic about the good ol’ days of the D.C. public schools. For most of the century, they say fondly, Dunbar High School was a black Exeter, grooming D.C.’s African-American elite for power. Sen. Edward Brooke, U.S. Army Gen. Benjamin Davis, physician Charles Drew, and dozens of city leaders all launched their stellar careers at Dunbar’s 1st and N Streets NW campus. DCPS loyalists know that Marvin Gaye practiced for the big time at Cardozo; that Gloria Steinem learned a few lessons about boys and girls at Western; that Spingarn taught former Howard University President Franklyn Jenifer the value of a good education.
But in this case, what’s past is not prologue. Today, by every conceivable measure, public education is failing District children.
D.C. schools face the same set of urban nightmares that every city public-school system does. DCPS enrollment has plummeted from more than 150,000 students to barely 80,000 in the past 25 years, and most of that drop can be attributed to middle-class flight. Before their toddlers reach kindergarten age, black and white parents who can afford to are vacating town houses in Mount Pleasant and Hillcrest and sprinting across the border to Montgomery, Fairfax, and Prince Georges Counties.
As educated, stable, taxpaying families have abandoned the city, D.C. schools have deteriorated into little more than day care for the children of the underclass. The majority of DCPS children receive free or reduced-price school lunches, and most are raised by a single parent. DCPS enrolls 7,000 special-ed students and 8,000 “language minority” students. In addition, many children live in neighborhoods overrun by violent crime; many live with unemployed or drug-addicted parents who themselves dropped out of school; and many come from homes that lack the books, computers, and other tools that inspire kids to love education. These students do not arrive in the classroom—to use the professional jargon—“ready to learn.”
Those handicaps acknowledged, the District still educates its children badly. The 1992 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), probably the most respected standardized test, concluded that D.C. students perform worse than virtually all comparable kids around the nation. NAEP, which surveyed 35 states and D.C., tested fourth graders in math and reading, and eighth graders in math. District kids scored lower than kids from any state.
District students straggled in the back of the pack—or behind it—even when NAEP controlled for socioeconomic factors. Among children living in “disadvantaged urban” communities, D.C.’s fourth graders ranked next to last in mathematics, barely edging fourth graders from Louisiana. In reading, D.C.’s “disadvantaged urban” fourth graders trailed all states except Hawaii and California. The District’s “disadvantaged urban” eighth graders fared worse, ranking dead last in mathematics.
DCPS students perform as poorly, or worse, on other tests. District children regularly fall far, far below the national norms on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS). On the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT)—which only D.C.’s best students take—the city’s public-school kids scored an average of 711 out of 1,600 points in 1993, a stunning 191 points less than the national average of 902. (At several D.C. high schools, the average SAT score barely topped 600 points.)
When DCPS alums pursue higher education, the District’s academic failings are exposed more starkly. In 1993, more than 90 percent of DCPS graduates entering the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) failed UDC’s English and math qualifying standards. Those tests measure competence at a ninth-grade level.
Test scores alone don’t begin to represent all of D.C.’s educational shortcomings. According to DCPS data, only 84 percent of high-school students bother to appear in class on a given day. (Some outside the school system call that figure inflated, and put the real attendance rate closer to 75 percent.) And many D.C. kids choose to skip school on a more permanent basis: Only 56 percent of students who start 10th grade earn a DCPS diploma, giving the city one of the highest dropout rates in the nation.
“This is the potential work force. This is the future tax base,” says at-large board member Jay Silberman. “We want to create happy, productive citizens. And we are not.”
DCPS cannot blame its lack of success on lack of funds. The school system rakes in more than $500 million annually from city tax revenues (appropriated by the D.C. Council), and grabs another $70 million from the feds. According to the federal Department of Education, DCPS spent over $7,400 per pupil in 1992-93, second only to New Orleans among the 40 largest school districts in the nation.
But DCPS, like all District government agencies, squanders its money on unnecessary workers. The schools employ about 12,000 people—more than one for every seven students—yet scarcely half teach in the classroom. In 1993, COPE, a blue-ribbon commission of civic and business leaders, revealed that DCPS employed 35 percent more noninstructional staff than school districts of comparable size, and 126 percent more support staff than comparable districts. COPE concluded that the District carried 1,000 more administrative and maintenance staffers on its payroll than similar school systems. (Blame the bloat—at least a lot of it—on the Marion Barry job machine: Between 1979 and 1991, student enrollment plummeted 30 percent and the central office staff doubled from 526 to 1,037.)
This bureaucracy robs District taxpayers, and it robs District children. The average American school district spends more than 60 percent of its budget on instruction, but the District spent only 47 percent of its funds on instruction in 1992-93, a smaller percentage than any big school district in the nation except, again, New Orleans. If the District matched the national average, DCPS could spend almost $1,000 more per year on teaching each student.
“Some adults view the system as an employment agency, not as the last opportunity for these kids,” says Helena Jones, principal of Ward 7’s Roper Middle School. “This is it for these kids. If we don’t prepare them, no one will, and that is the way everyone in the school system must think.”
The schools’ abysmal academic and fiscal record should come as a surprise to no one. Educators, think tanks, businesspeople, and politicians have been savaging DCPS for a decade. In the last five years alone, the D.C. auditor, the General Accounting Office (GAO), the D.C. Council, the Commission on Budget and Financial Priorities (Rivlin Commission), and half-a-dozen other groups have condemned DCPS’s shoddy accounting practices and overstaffed bureaucracy; the American Association of School Administrators has attacked DCPS’s lousy teaching, outdated curriculum, and terrible management; and COPE has published a comprehensive and devastating study of the system, as well as five follow-up reports.
But the Board of Education, the central administration, the teachers, the parents, and past superintendents responded to every new study the same way. They gasped in horror, vowed revolutionary change, and continued on their mediocre way.
In early 1991, for example, DCPS proudly announced that it had followed one of COPE’s recommendations and eliminated 75 jobs. A few weeks later, someone checked the payroll more carefully: DCPS had managed to pare 75 positions, but, oops!—it had hired 1,050 new workers at the same time.
“People become inured to these problems. They say, “Oh, this is normal,’ and they settle,” says Parents United’s Rice-Thurston. “I have had people tell me their school is pretty good—for the District. And they were willing to accept this!”
Then Franklin Smith arrived.
A native Virginian, Smith started his educational career in 1968 as a driving instructor and wrestling coach in the Petersburg public schools. He quickly climbed through the ranks, rising to the position of assistant superintendent in 1982. Three years later, Smith jumped to the same job in Dayton, Ohio. After a just few months, he was promoted to superintendent. During his six-year Dayton stint, Smith abolished corporal punishment, pushed through a new school tax, promoted business/school partnerships, and earned a modest reputation as a reformer. The D.C. Board of Education, having ousted controversial Superintendent Andrew Jenkins in late 1990, hired Smith to replace him in July 1991.
As soon as the former coach took office, he began grappling with a system that had grown fat and stupid. And unlike his predecessor, a lifelong District school bureaucrat, Smith wasn’t afraid to berate DCPS for its failures.
“People complain that I don’t jump up and down about how great the staff is in the District,” Smith says in his soft tenor. “I don’t. Because I am looking at the outcomes. That is not to say we don’t have good people in this system who are busting their buns, but you cannot say everything is great, because the outcomes are not great.”
In his own calm way, Smith began cracking heads. DCPS had solemnly promised for years to slash the bureaucracy, and a 1993 agreement between the council, the board of education, the mayor, and Smith insisted that DCPS downsize in exchange for a larger budget appropriation. Rather than following his predecessors’ model by making a few cosmetic cuts, Smith, mirabile dictu, has actually eliminated hundreds of jobs. The superintendent hasn’t fired many tenured employees—that provokes endless lawsuits. Instead, Smith has whittled the administration by offering generous early-out packages, canceling the contracts of nontenured employees, and transferring undesirable employees to jobs they didn’t like in the hope they would quit.
According to a study released last month by COPE, Smith has abolished nearly 1,000 full-time positions since 1991, almost 9 percent of the entire DCPS payroll, yet he has not significantly reduced the number of classroom teachers. Smith has actually carved 175 more jobs from central administration and noninstructional support than management studies recommended. COPE, which has blasted DCPS almost incessantly for five years, calls the cutbacks “outstanding progress.” Even D.C. councilmembers, who have grown cynical after years of paper reductions, have expressed admiration for Smith’s willingness to wield his cleaver.
Smith has addressed another long-ignored source of waste: half-empty schools. Despite parental opposition, he closed nine schools in 1993 and rerouted their students to other buildings.
But the superintendent is pursuing a more ambitious goal than just goo-goo cost-cutting: He is seeking to reinvent public education.
“I want to move authority for operating to the school level, and take it away from the bureaucracy,” Smith says. He unleashes a favorite catch phrase: “I don’t want a school system. I want a system of schools.”
Smith calls his school reform package BESST, “Bringing Educational Services to Students.” The board approved BESST this spring, and DCPS began to implement Smith’s initiatives this fall.
In the post-Cold War era, public-education experts (like everyone else) have embraced the doctrines and language of the market, and Smith is no exception. Educators have reached the not-so-startling conclusion that public-school systems are top-heavy: They must dismantle their creaky bureaucratic command economies and return power to the people or, in the jargon, “the stakeholders.” To that end, Smith this fall named 37 “enterprise schools.” This designation grants principals new control of their budgets, giving them the freedom to choose whether to spend money on computers, school trips, substitute teachers, or staff development. In 1992, Smith also established “restructuring teams” composed of parents, principals, teachers, and students to determine how each school will focus its resources.
Smith has embraced the other favorite tenet of education reform: choice. The more parents and kids “invest” in education, the better children perform. Smith has proposed a series of ventures to “empower” parents and students. He champions charter schools: If parents doubt that the Nongraded School is right for little Johnny, they can still opt for the African-centered program at Webb Elementary, the Montessori program at Merritt Elementary, or, for older students, the math/science “school within a school” at Ballou. BESST liberalizes transfer rules so that parents can easily send their children to out-of-boundary schools. The reform package also promotes “theme schools” that concentrate on math or science (or in one case, multiculturalism), and endorses the creation of more specialty high schools along the lines of Duke Ellington School for the Arts and Banneker Academic Senior High School.
Proponents of choice (a group that includes almost everyone—school choice is as popular as motherhood) hope that variety will entice parents who would otherwise flee to private schools. Parents United’s Rice-Thurston envisions not just “a system of schools,” but a smorgasbord of them.
“We need more options that compete with private schools,” she says. “Why can’t we have a military academy? Or a boys’ school? Or a girls’ school? We have got to have options that appeal to all people.”
Smith also advocates “renewing”—i.e., “demolishing and replacing”—DCPS’ 15-year-old competency-based curriculum (CBC). CBC requires children to master discrete tasks in order to ensure a minimum grasp of basic skills. Deputy Superintendent Maurice Sykes, who is overseeing the curriculum rewrite, denounces the old method as “isolated, decontextualized” teaching. Sykes is currently piloting a new “performance-based” math and science curriculum that emphasizes applied knowledge. Instead of simply how to add and subtract columns of numbers, Sykes says, students are taught to use addition and subtraction for the tasks of daily life.
The superintendent has also inaugurated the first major staff retraining in decades. Almost half the city’s teachers have been leading classes for more than 20 years, and many of them are assigning the same homework and delivering the same lectures they did in 1970. “We have to get some teachers reconnected with why they came into teaching in the first place,” Sykes says. Since Smith’s arrival, Sykes has supervised the professional redevelopment of 2,500 of the District’s 3,500 elementary-school teachers, instructing them in how to run “a responsive classroom” (another favorite buzz phrase). Grade-school instructors, Sykes says, must scrap their “walk, talk, and chalk” lecture style and instead encourage kids to work together in small groups.
But when you look at a balance sheet, reinventing education has achieved about the same result as the federal campaign to reinvent government. So far, Smith has generated lots of jargon, written reams of position papers, and held dozens of meetings. He has done very, very little to improve student performance. Test scores fell again last year. Dropout rates remain astronomical. The school closings that were supposed to save the system $10 million conserved only a few hundred thousand dollars, and Smith’s pushy tactics alienated board members and thousands of parents whose kids were forced to switch schools. This fall’s fire code fiasco, in which the opening of school was delayed three days when a Superior Court judge ordered DCPS maintenance crews to fix thousands of hazards, also provoked widespread anger against the superintendent.
And the much-trumpeted school-based management has barely dented the system. The charter schools enroll a minuscule fraction of D.C. students. The enterprise schools differ from regular schools in name only. The restructuring teams that are supposed to revolutionize local school management barely exist: As of late October, fewer than a quarter of all schools had formed complete teams.
“Some people irk me when they say we should give the superintendent an outstanding rating,” says at-large Board of Education member Valencia Mohammed, a frequent critic of Smith. “He is a nice guy. The press loves him. But do we get the services we deserve? No!”
Smith and his allies emphasize that BESST will not magically erase decades of paralysis and decay. “We cannot just retool overnight,” says Sykes. “Systemic change takes five to seven years.”
And many local activists and national experts lavish praise on Smith’s reforms, no matter how nascent they are. “I support the superintendent’s reform package wholeheartedly,” says board member Silberman. “Smith’s philosophy is right, and his vision is right.”
Christine Johnson, the director of urban initiatives for the Education Commission for the States, a Colorado-based think tank, concurs.
“I think Franklin Smith has attempted some very comprehensive steps to bring about change,” she says “It takes courage and leadership to say, “We have not performed well enough and we are going to do bold things to make sure we educate all students.’ ”
But Smith may never succeed in translating his position papers into better schools, because he has not conquered the corporate culture that ruined the schools in the first place.
Smith’s cuts may have amputated the school bureaucracy, but the superintendent has not yet cured its fundamental sickness: Even by the District’s low standards, the central administration is awful. For decades, DCPS has followed its own version of the Peter Principle: Employees are promoted to their level of incompetence. Then they get kicked upstairs again to the Presidential Building. The school bureaucracy is the dumping ground for teachers and principals who couldn’t cut it at the school level, but whose tenure guarantees them a job until they die or retire. (Former Superintendent Jenkins serves as a living example of the safety net: Fired by the Board of Education in 1990, Jenkins continued to cash a fat paycheck as a top-level administrator until he retired a few months ago.)
Jim Ford, chief staffer at the council’s Committee on Education and Libraries, says that school bureaucrats have made “clear and obvious attempts to obstruct what Smith is trying to do.”
“The biggest problem Smith faces is the entrenchment. There is a pervasive feeling [among bureaucrats] that “superintendents come and go and we will outlast them all,’ ” Ford continues. “He has run up against the fact that the commitment and the skill to make the bureaucracy work are simply not there.”
The incompetence of the Presidential Building paper pushers has embarrassed DCPS at regular intervals, both before and after Smith’s arrival. In early 1991, for example, the administration, insisting that the schools had exhausted absolutely every last source of budget savings, announced a four-day employee furlough. A few days later, red-faced school officials canceled the furlough. They had stumbled across $9.1 million that had been overlooked. (The bureaucrats’ grasp of the numbers is so shaky that if they were students, they might even flunk a DCPS math class.)
The bookkeepers haven’t improved much since 1991. Last year, then-D.C. Auditor Otis Troupe blasted DCPS for funding more than 200 jobs that were not authorized in the budget. According to Troupe, DCPS requested money for one purpose, then diverted it to pay the salaries of employees who were not supposed to be on the payroll.
This sloppy budgeting is punishing students, concludes a 1994 report by the Committee on Education and Libraries. The council says that in fiscal 1993, the school administration, in order to pay unbudgeted employees, eliminated $1.8 million it had hoped to spend on textbooks (out of a total of $2.1 million), $375,000 for early childhood education, the entire $846,000 budget for tutoring, $1.2 million in building repairs, $568,000 in computer purchases, and $11 million of other critical spending.
No wonder COPE has called the DCPS budget a “fiction.”
(Perhaps DCPS has produced a fictional budget to reflect its fictional students. In 1990, the administration admitted that because of sloppy—or, some say, deceptive—record keeping, DCPS had artificially inflated enrollment figures. Only 80,000 students, 8,000 fewer than DCPS had claimed, actually attended public schools.)
Critics also blame the central administration for the dismal physical condition of the schools. The District possesses the oldest school buildings of any major city in the nation, but for decades the system has relied on quick fixes and ignored long-term upkeep. Repeating the familiar pattern, DCPS paid salaries with funds allocated for maintenance. It then gutted the capital budget—which consists of money reserved specifically for major renovations—to fund routine repairs. Large-scale rehabilitation remained undone.
At least partially as a result of this neglect, District schools have accumulated an incredible backlog of needed repairs. According to a 1992 facilities assessment, just fixing the current physical ailments of DCPS schools would cost more than $500 million. Dozens of roofs are crumbling. Scores of buildings lack the wiring they need to power computers. Schools bake in hot weather and freeze in cold because they are without air conditioning or reliable heating. One parent tells of visiting a school library that was missing window shades. The sun shone directly onto desks, making it impossible for children to sit in the library and read. The librarian said she had requested curtains eight years before, and DCPS still hadn’t gotten around to installing them.
But the shortsightedness of the facilities’ division pales in comparison to the ingrained corruption and incompetence of the DCPS Chapter 1 program. Each year, the federal Department of Education (DOE) distributes more than $30 million in Chapter 1 grants to DCPS. The money is earmarked for the city’s most economically disadvantaged students. Approximately 100 D.C. schools receive Chapter 1 funds and spend them (ostensibly) on special counselors and tutors for poor kids.
But according to a recent study of the program, the District’s Chapter 1 enterprise has devolved into a juicy patronage program for bureaucrats. The Committee on Chapter 1, an ad hoc group, reports that DCPS wasted its Chapter 1 funds on ghost employees who never performed their assigned duties; failed to keep required records on what work Chapter 1 employees did; paid part-time people full-time salaries; and supported two separate administrative agencies to monitor—or, in fact, fail to monitor—how Chapter 1 money was spent.
The D.C. Council estimates—it can only estimate, because DCPS keeps such skimpy records—that the District’s Chapter 1 program may devote as much as 48.5 percent of its appropriation to administration. In 1992, this included more than $60,000 for a “Summer Institute” attended by Board of Education members. The five-day “institute” was held in the Solomon Islands. While board members and bureaucrats lounged on the beach, test scores at Chapter 1 schools actually declined.
And how did DCPS officials respond to the Chapter 1 mess? According to the committee, the six highest-ranking Chapter 1 administrators all received outstanding ratings between 1989 and 1992.
When Barbara Bullock, president of the 6,000-strong Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU) describes her philosophy, she says, “Members first.” She pauses for a second, and as an afterthought, adds, “And making sure that students are given the best education possible.”
“If teachers are happy,” the union chief continues, “then children will learn.”
Bullock and her rank and file don’t oppose educational reforms per se. When asked, Bullock rattles off a long list of changes that WTU does favor. Washington pays less than most school districts in the region, and the union believes the city should raise teacher salaries. DCPS should also renovate decaying school buildings, reduce the average class size to fewer than 20 students, increase security to prevent teacher assaults, and grant teachers more control of the curriculum.
But WTU loses its enthusiasm for innovation when confronted with proposals that endanger jobs, tenure, or salaries, compel better teaching, require teachers to work longer hours, or give more power to principals or parents.
Smith discovered this two years ago when the union subverted his attempt to extend the school day. DCPS has traditionally devoted a full hour less to instruction than neighboring jurisdictions, so in 1992 Smith ordered schools to expand class time by 30 minutes. The superintendent, as well as many parents, believed that the extra half-hour might improve student performance. Besides, the schedule shift did not add to the work day: Teachers lost some of their planning time, but they still arrived at 8:30 and left at 3:30 (a full hour less work than their suburban counterparts).
WTU revolted anyway. The union, then under the leadership of Jimmie Jackson, urged its members to ignore the superintendent’s order and to protest by wearing black to the opening assembly of the school year. Today, teachers and administrators say that noncompliance has effectively canceled the class extension in many schools.
Teachers also resist any attempt to alter the current teacher appraisal process, an evaluating mechanism that protects even D.C.’s worst teachers from losing their jobs. Thanks to a contract that guarantees as many reprieves and chances for rehabilitation as the average death row appeal, it is virtually impossible to sack teachers for incompetence. Between 1988 and 1991, 90 percent of teachers were rated “outstanding” or “very good.” Approximately 10 percent received a respectable “satisfactory” rating. Less than 0.1 percent—a total of four in three years—were rated “unsatisfactory.” Teachers may be removed for incompetence only after receiving an unsatisfactory rating.
In 1989, a COPE survey of 1,200 District teachers found that instructors believed that 10 to 20 percent of their colleagues were incompetent. Under the current evaluation—or devaluation—process, these hundreds of lousy teachers remain in the system. Some are promoted to the administration, but most are transferred to schools where parents won’t complain about them.
“It’s a bad system,” says Mary Levy, an attorney at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law who has studied the D.C. public schools for 20 years. “99.5 percent are satisfactory or better, and then you look at the outcomes!”
Even board member Mohammed, one of the teachers’ strongest supporters, mourns the way the evaluation process hurts kids. “I sit here sometimes and think: “How many children have they destroyed while they allow those teachers to work?’ ”
But Bullock insists that it is the administration’s duty to remove bad teachers, no matter how difficult that may be.
“People say the union is responsible for poor teachers. That is untrue,” Bullock says. “If there are teachers who are not doing their job, the supervisors should do something about it. But they have to follow the process. We don’t condone poor instruction, but we want to protect teachers.”
Opposition from teachers may also subvert Smith’s grand schemes for school-based management. D.C.’s veteran instructors, who have seen a dozen superintendents crash and burn in three decades, have grown jaded. A 1992 survey of WTU members who had experienced previous “school-based management” attempts found that two-thirds of them believed local control did not work well or was “a disaster.” Bullock says she fears that experiments in school-based management, unless carefully monitored, could produce “Little Hitler” principals who sabotage teachers’ rights.
Smith, who is definitely not the teachers’ pet, does not assuage his staff’s anxiety.
“Anytime you talk about change, people get fearful for their jobs. It is the first law of human nature: self-preservation,” the superintendent says. “When you introduce change, people don’t know what is going to happen to them, especially when you start talking about creating a system that allows so much responsibility in the field. And I cannot tell them what is going to happen to them.”
Meanwhile, the D.C. Board of Education, the 11-member elected body that ought to guide Smith and pioneer the revitalization of the schools, has been…well, no one is quite sure what it has been doing.
The board did stop bickering long enough to hire Smith, but almost everyone—including board members themselves—agrees that the body has abdicated its responsibility to guide educational policy.
“We have not been able to communicate our vision or put together a long-term plan,” says Mohammed.
The board, which passed the BESST initiative by a single vote, will not give the superintendent a mandate, leaving him to push reform all by himself. And while members regularly interfere where they should not—in day-to-day school operations—they flub their statutory responsibilities, especially their duty to monitor the school budget. In 1993, Auditor Troupe blamed the board for ignoring DCPS’s pervasive corruption and misallocation of money. “It is apparent that the Board of Education has no credible financial controls or information checks and balances in place to oversee the planning and spending of education funds,” he wrote.
“The politics of the school board are very odd. It is as though student progress does not have anything to do with it,” says Parents United’s Rice-Thurston. “You’d think that our total focus would be, “How do we fix this?’ But it isn’t. Other things always seem to come in.”
And those “other things” tend to embarrass the board and discredit the school system. Earlier this year, for example, the board sought candidates to fill its executive secretary position, a $70,000-per-year job running its day-to-day operations. Nate Bush, the Ward 7 board rep, applied for the job, and instead of recusing himself from the debate, proceeded to lobby colleagues forcefully on his own behalf. At an August board meeting, Bush cast the deciding vote approving his own contract.
“It’s astonishing. It’s unbelievable!” says board member Silberman. “As far as I can determine, it violated District and federal laws regarding conflict of interest.” (Silberman and Ward 6 Member Bernard Gray sued to protest the board’s action, and on Nov. 4, a Superior Court judge removed Bush from the executive secretary’s position, finding that the board’s appointment of him “resounds of impropriety.”)
Having humiliated itself once in the summer, the board did so again in October. Board reps earn $29,307 per year for their part-time work, more than any other school board members in the nation. The city’s recent fiscal crisis is squeezing millions from the schools’ budget. So you might think that, a month before an election, these politicians would possess the good sense (and good taste) not to raise their own salaries.
But this is the District government. Last month, Ward 8 rep and Board President Linda Moody learned that D.C. had failed to pay the board its cost-of-living raises for the past three years. Each member was therefore entitled to a $32,733 annual salary and back pay totaling $6,043. At first, board members insisted that the law required them to take the pay hike, but after a few critical stories in the media and howls of protest from parents, the board voted to refuse the raise. (That did not end the controversy. Mohammed has said that she needs the extra cash and will take the raise anyway.)
The board members certainly possess enough resources to address weightier issues. In 1989, the body employed 36 staffers, more than any school board in the nation. In 1990, the Rivlin Commission recommended that the board halve the size of its payroll. It did not follow that advice. Today, it employs 41 people and gobbles more than $1.7 million per year in city tax revenue.
The board’s ineffectuality now endangers its very existence. At-Large Councilmember Bill Lightfoot, who serves on the Committee on Education and Libraries, has proposed amending the home rule charter to strip the board of most of its power. Under Lightfoot’s measure, which he is sponsoring as a voter initiative, the council would seize line-item control of DCPS’s budget. The board would retain only the authority to set broad educational policy.
“The board has shown misplaced priorities,” says Lightfoot. “I think the school system has served as a political operation providing patronage for people on the school board.”
In January, Smith received a painful lesson in how the lack of broad-based support from bureaucrats, teachers, and board members might doom his reform package, and also get him fired.
In late 1993, Smith asked the Board of Education to hire a private, for-profit company—probably Minneapolis’ Educational Alternatives Inc. (EAI)—to operate 15 of the District’s worst elementary schools. (Smith incorporated the proposal into the first draft of his BESST initiative). Under such a contract, the superintendent said, the private company would repair and repaint the schools, outfit them with tens of thousands of dollars in computer equipment, and place a college-educated teacher’s aide in every classroom. EAI would supervise teachers and principals and introduce its own teaching methods, but the District would maintain control over curriculum, set student performance guidelines, and reserve the right to cancel the contract. Teachers and principals who didn’t want to work for the firm could transfer to other schools in the system.
EAI, which is paid a per-student fee, claims it makes back its initial capital investment by cutting long-term administrative costs. The firm has been managing a dozen public schools in Baltimore since 1992, and this year, the city of Hartford, Conn., hired EAI to run its entire 32-school system.
After an enthusiastic tour of EAI schools in Baltimore, Smith, some board members, and school activists were convinced that the District and its children might benefit enormously from the private management deal. Supporters of the plan contended that the city had already failed its most troubled schools, so very little harm, and a lot of good, could be done by letting a private firm try to turn them around. At the very least, the schools would receive desperately needed paint, carpets, and computers, none of which DCPS could afford on its own.
“I went and looked at one of the Baltimore schools,” says Rice-Thurston. “It was everything you would want to see in any public school. It was clean, and user-friendly. The parents said it was better.
“Why not try it and see what happens?” she asks. “It would have been 15 schools, the worst schools, and there would be 150 schools left.”
But the visit to the Baltimore schools did not persuade everyone. The private management proposal sparked a ferocious backlash from teachers, parents, and several Board of Education members. They denounced the plan as a corruption of the founding principles of public education. WTU, whose members suspected that privatization would jeopardize their jobs, condemned the scheme for “seek[ing] profits on the backs of children.” The Council of School Officers, which represents administrators and principals, joined in the teachers’ censure. Three school board members rallied popular opposition. Anti-private management activists founded an organization called “Save Our Schools” (SOS) and began leading vocal (and in one case, physical) protests at board and community meetings.
In this charged atmosphere, the debate over Smith’s proposal quickly veered from substantive issues—does private management improve test scores? does it undermine teachers’ independence?—to a conflict of race and local control. Opponents charged that outsiders—white outsiders—shouldn’t be permitted to supervise the schooling of D.C.’s black children. At one meeting, an SOS member called EAI Chairman John Golle a “rich white boy” from “the big house in Minnesota.” And despite Smith’s assertion that only 15 schools would be affected, his anti-privatization foes suggested that the superintendent was scheming to give the entire system to white businesses.
“It was an uninformed, knee-jerk response,” says Silberman, who favors the private management plan. “This business of being insular is stupid. We have to look elsewhere for ideas.”
In January 1994, rather than risk losing his entire reform initiative, Smith excised the private management section from BESST, but not before he and his allies made a lot of enemies.
Smith needs time to for his bold reforms to take root, but thanks to the wrangling over private management, his days may be numbered. In this week’s school board election, anti-privatization candidates mounted strong challenges for all five contested seats. The three incumbents who sought re-election—School Board President and Ward 8 rep Moody, at-large member Silberman, and Ward 4 member Sandra Butler-Truesdale—managed to win re-election despite favoring private management. But only a tenuous 6-5 majority endorsed Smith’s reforms last spring, and the victory of Ann Wilcox in Ward 2 could tip the board against the superintendent. Wilcox, who opposes the private management plan, replaces retiring David Hall, who favored the proposal. (Terry Hairston, a law student who did not make privatization a central campaign issue, won the Ward 7 board seat vacated by Nate Bush.) While the re-election of the three incumbents should prevent too much erosion in Smith’s support on the board, some school observers fear that the slight shift in the balance of power might still place the superintendent in jeopardy.
And even the possibility that Smith could lose his job, says council staffer Ford, should terrify parents and school activists. “If he gets fired, that would be an indictment of the entire system of education in the District,” he says. “It would tell the city’s parents and kids that schools and school reform just don’t matter.”
Smith, who would easily find another, and probably better, superintendency, won’t retreat from his agenda to save his job. Though he risks infuriating board members and teachers again, he says he plans to reintroduce the private management venture (though he won’t say when he will do it).
“You have to do what you think is right,” Smith says. “When I made up my mind to come to the District of Columbia, the last thing I had to worry about was job security. I had to come and do what I had to do for as long as they allowed me to do it.
“My job is to work for whomever is elected by the people of this city,” the superintendent continues, “and if those people believe Franklin Smith is not appropriate for the job, I would be disappointed because I would not be able to complete a task I believe should be completed.”
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.