School & District Management

New D.C. Leader Explains School-Control Plan

By Lesli A. Maxwell — January 05, 2007 3 min read
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Newly elected Mayor Adrian M. Fenty has called for a sweeping overhaul of the District of Columbia public schools that would put him in control of a 58,000-student system in the nation’s capital that, for decades, has suffered from low academic performance, operational failures, and spiraling dropout rates.

Adrian M. Fenty was sworn in on Jan. 3 as mayor of the District of Columbia.

Under Mr. Fenty’s proposed legislation—which must be approved by the City Council and the U.S. Congress—the mayor would appoint a cabinet-level chancellor to run the schools on a daily basis.

The District of Columbia’s school board, now responsible for managing the school system’s $811 million budget, curriculum and instruction, personnel, and collective bargaining, would be stripped of all such authority under Mr. Fenty’s proposal. Instead, the board would be recast as a “state board of education” that would set policy on matters such as teacher certification, academic standards, and instructional time.

Mr. Fenty’s legislation also calls for creating an ombudsman’s office to receive and address complaints about the school system and setting up an independent authority that would report to the mayor to manage school facilities, construction, and a $200 million-a-year modernization project already under way.

The proposal would also affect the city’s charter schools, which enroll 20,000 children. Mr. Fenty called for shifting all charter schools, some of which are overseen by the local school board, to the authority of the Public Charter School Board, the entity created in 1996 when Congress passed a charter law for the District of Columbia.

Holding the mayor accountable for the success or failure of the city’s schools, Mr. Fenty said, would end “the decades of promises and decades of failures” in the District of Columbia, where the lines of authority for managing the schools have long been tangled.

Mayor Fenty, 36, who was sworn into office just two days earlier, made the unveiling of his takeover initiative the first act of his mayoralty and had already lined up support for his plan among a majority of members of the City Council.

“We have a school system, which, despite a lot of resources being spent and a lot of time and attention being placed on the issue, is still failing our children,” Mr. Fenty said during a 90-minute news conference Jan. 4.

Familiar Ring

Mr. Fenty is not the first mayor of Washington to propose seizing control of the schools.

Three years ago, then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams attempted a takeover that would have put his handpicked superintendent in charge of the school system’s budget and operations and turned the school board into a panel of advisers. But residents, school board members, and some members of the City Council, Mr. Fenty among them, resisted.

But Mr. Fenty, who ran an aggressive, grassroots campaign for mayor, said his two years of knocking on doors and talking with Washingtonians convinced him that the city’s beleaguered school system is the most pressing concern among residents.

Though support for his takeover appeared robust this week—at least seven members of the 13-member council (two seats are currently vacant) publicly pledged to back him—there are opponents. One is Robert C. Bobb, the newly elected president of the school board, who said that academic reforms put in place earlier this year by Superintendent Clifford B. Janey should be given the opportunity to work.

One urban schools expert said it’s not clear how Mr. Fenty’s radical overhaul of governance would fundamentally change the quality of instruction and what children learn inside classrooms across the city.

“Every time one of these conversations breaks out in [the District of Columbia], it quickly devolves into a debate about who has control, who gets the money, who has the power, and no one talks about how any of this would spur improved academic performance,” said Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based group that represents more than 60 of the nation’s largest urban school districts.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2007 edition of Education Week as New D.C. Leader Explains School-Control Plan

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