Improving a wayward urban school system is tough enough. Add oversight from Congress, competing supervisory boards, and other levels of government to the mix, and checks-and-balances become hurdles-and-haggles.
That’s what outgoing Superintendent Arlene Ackerman says she has faced in her nearly two years on the job in the District of Columbia schools. It is the main reason she has given for leaving the nation’s capital for 64,000-student San Francisco, and why many civic leaders and education experts fear that Washington may face trouble in its search for her replacement.
“It took my resignation for people to understand that this is clearly unacceptable, and unless they change it, they’re not going to get another superintendent to come into this job and be successful,” said Ms. Ackerman, who leaves the 71,000-student system July 17.
Outgoing District of Columbia Superintendent Arlene Ackerman says the system’s complex governing system was a major factor in her decision to leave.
Where the city’s public school system goes from here is, in part, up to its voters. They will decide June 27 whether to change the way the schools are governed. A ballot initiative will give them the opportunity to change from an 11-member elected school board with limited power to a nine-member board with four of its members appointed by the mayor. A reformed school board could qualify to have most of its power restored.
The idea for the referendum came in part from a study released in September 1999 by the nonprofit D.C. Appleseed Center, which consulted parents, business leaders, educators, and students on what changes they thought were needed.
Eliminating the heavy dependence on ward politics in the existing board structure may help change a board that sometimes has fought for personal agendas rather than for overall school improvements, said Joshua S. Wyner, the executive director of the Appleseed Center.
“It was somewhat difficult to do things like figuring out a schedule for fixing the bathrooms in the schools, because everyone wanted theirs to be first,” he said.
That bickering could fade if the board is changed, but the problems Ms. Ackerman and others have cited don’t end with the school board. In fact, the board has a very limited role in running the school system.
Currently, the school board only oversees discipline and facilities policies, plus some charter schools in the city.
The rest of the power belongs to the financial-control board, a panel created by Congress in 1995 to rescue the city government from mismanagement. The control board took control of the schools in 1996 after declaring them in a state of emergency, leaving the elected board with a diminished role.
The layers of oversight don’t end there. The District of Columbia Council, along with the financial-control board, has oversight of the school district budget. A congressional committee has further oversight power, recommending the city’s—and school district’s—budget to the full Congress, to be rolled into the federal budget, Mr. Wyner said.
Ms. Ackerman, the school system’s third superintendent in four years, said it is the many levels of oversight—and the intrusions at every level—that make the job maddening. As examples, she said that Congress allowed one of the city’s public junior high schools to become a charter school without consulting school leaders, and the District of Columbia Council imposed limits on summer school programs and diagnostic testing to monitor student achievement.
The system baffles the public, limits the superintendent’s effectiveness and keeps the school system mired in chaos, Ms. Ackerman said. Last year, a payroll system overseen by the city failed to pay educators promptly or accurately. “We recruited 1,100 new teachers,” she added, “and lost 200 because we couldn’t pay them on time.”
The city also controls a procurement system that has delivered textbooks to schools months past deadlines, forcing principals to search for missing supplies when they should be focusing on instruction. “It’s crazy,” Ms. Ackerman said.
Changing the System
The superintendent said a report two years ago by the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based organization of big-city districts, outlined many of the problems in governing the school system, but that few changes have been made.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams can play a major role in how the school district and city can tackle these problems, Ms. Ackerman said. “I think he really does know, especially at this point, that it will be difficult to attract a superintendent of high quality unless they have some reassurances that some of these critical issues are going to be addressed,” she said.
The mayor is hoping city voters will give him the power to appoint four of nine school board members. He propose in his upcoming budget that the city’s schools be granted control of payroll and procurement, said Peggy Armstrong, the Democratic mayor’s press secretary.
For Congress’ part, its members will do well to limit their role as well, said David Marin, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, a Virginia Republican who chairs the House Subcommittee on the District of Columbia."We believe the city to a large extent should be left to manage its own affairs,” Mr. Marin said.
Ms. Ackerman said she has few complaints with Congress. Instead, she’d like to see the school board, the financial-control board, and the District of Columbia Council begin to focus on the same goal: improving student achievement. Rising test scores are early signs, she said, that the school system is making progress.
Only with such unity of purpose can Washington’s leaders hope to drastically change the school system for the better, agreed Linda Wing, the co-director of Harvard University’s Urban Superintendents Program, from which Ms. Ackerman earned a master’s degree.
“It’s a place where everyone wanted to be in charge but no one wanted to be responsible,” Ms. Wing said. “There are no clear lines of governance.”
She suggested that the mayor would do well to create a “master plan” for school improvement with help from city residents.
Ms. Ackerman argued that future superintendents should continue the instructional changes and demands for higher student achievement she began. “We have made some progress,” she said, “and I believe we could have accelerated the progress had we had the resources and tools we needed.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 31, 2000 edition of Education Week as Governance Changes Sought For D.C. Schools