Friday, March 31, 2006

Council introduces "education rights" amendment

Following in the footsteps of 48 states nine DC Council members plan to introduce legislation guaranteeing DC residents free, high-quality education.
City officials said the proposed change to the charter also would give Superintendent Clifford Janey and the D.C. Board of Education, both of whom have endorsed the proposal, more "leverage" in budget request negotiations with the city. Mayor Anthony Williams said he is very supportive of the concept, but worries that measures like this could open up "the floodgates" for lawsuits.

Only the District and two states -- Iowa and Alabama -- do not have constitutional provisions requiring a system of free, high-quality public schools. Voters would have to approve any charter amendment in November.
For me, this raises a whole bunch of questions.
  1. Is there any District resident that is currently being denied a free education? [ed: I suspect the answer is No]
  2. Is there any District resident that is currently being denied a high-quality education? [ed: you're kidding, right? Have you seen the high school SAT9 scores?]
  3. Just what is the definition of "high-quality" anyway? [ed: its like porn: hard to define, but you know it when you see it]
So what, exactly, would this legislation do if it were made law? Well, according to Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools it would allow residents the opportunity "make a statement" about what priority city officials should give to schools. D.C. Council Member Kathy Patterson says the effort will "galvanize" the community. Haven't DC's residents been making statements about the state of its public education for years now? Isn't the community already "galvanized?" How many residents are sitting in their houses thinking "you know, normally I wouldn't give a rat's behind about the District's schools, but now there's a law..." My question is where's the bit about making the school system better? How will this legislation fundamentally change how anything is done? Its not as if DCPS has willfully been sitting around with the attitude of "Hey, screw your free, high-quality education. Its not like we have to give it to you." Granted, DCPS's results are often dismal, but its not for the lack of wanting to succeed. After all, DCPS's own mission statement reads:
"To develop inspired learners who excel academically and socially in dynamic schools that instill confidence and generate enthusiasm throughout the District's many diverse communities and make DC Public Schools the first choice of parents, youth and families."
The only concrete "benefit" I can see is it will now open new legal avenues with which to sue the District for their under performing school system, and getting the judicial branch involved is a double-edged sword. It can force a system to materially improve conditions (see the special education transportation suit against the District), but, like all things legal, the process is slow, expensive, and removes the responsibility from the executive and legislative branch (see the special education transportation suit against the District).

As far as I can tell all this legislation will do, beyond its one-two punch of "empowerment" and "statement making", is remove the responsibility of the District's public schools from the District Council, Mayor and Board of Education -- who are proxies of the voting public -- and hand them over to the judiciary. If the legislation becomes law mark my words there will be lawsuits. As I snarkily pointed out before the District is going to have one hell of a time convincing a judge that they have providing anything remotely resembling a "high-quality" education. The District will probably lose and, just like special education transportation, more and more of DCPS will come under the control of a judge.

Is this a bad thing? After all, the District has failed in its ability to provide a high quality education to all of its students; maybe the courts can improve what the District's elected officials couldn't? That's entirely possible. However, it will come at a very high cost, both financially and organizationally. Costs will go up and the pace that things wind their way through the legal system will delay, if not outright quash, any innovation within the system.

A free, high-quality education, one would think, would be implicit. By laying the groundwork for turning its school system, piece by piece, over to the courts the DC council and the Mayor are admitting that they, and by extension the District as a whole, have not only failed in their efforts at providing a high-quality education to its citizens, but have absolutely no faith that they ever will in the future.

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