D.C. Mayor Advocates School Restructuring

Published May 1, 2007

Adrian Fenty, the newly elected mayor of the District of Columbia, is the latest city leader to propose a dramatic governance overhaul of Washington’s struggling public school system.

On January 4, just two days after taking the oath of office, Fenty unveiled the District of Columbia Public Education Reform Amendment Act of 2007. At press time, the city council was scheduled to vote on the measure in April.

Seeking Authority

Fenty needs a majority of the D.C. City Council to approve the plan. If successful, he will join the ranks of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, and a handful of others nationwide who have wrested governance powers from city boards of education.

“Schools have always been a big priority for Mayor Fenty,” said Carrie Brooks, Fenty’s spokeswoman. “As a member of the city council, he helped push through legislation for schools. He’s always been concerned with both poor performance and facility disrepair. Mayor Fenty knew that if he had the chance to serve as mayor, he wanted dramatic changes, and traveling around to other cities following similar models, he saw successes.”

Shifting Governance

Fenty, who as a councilman opposed the restructuring proposed by previous mayor Anthony Williams, would shift ultimate accountability to the mayor’s office under the plan.

The main features of Fenty’s proposal include:

  • establishing an independent school construction authority that would manage building improvements, financing, and consolidation;
  • shifting the elected school board’s functions to mirror a state board of education, requiring it to focus on issues such as academic achievement and teacher policy;
  • granting the D.C. Council line-item veto authority over the school budget, which would be proposed by the mayor; and,
  • shifting oversight of D.C.’s substantial charter school community from two authorizers, one being the Board of Education, to one authorizer, the D.C. Public Charter School Board.

Brooks said student achievement is Fenty’s bottom line concern, noting D.C. often occupies the lowest rung of the test score ladder nationwide.

Targeting Achievement

According to the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 67 percent of D.C. fourth-graders scored below basic levels in reading and 55 percent below basic in math. Eighth-grade NAEP scores showed similar trends.

“In other cities [where mayors have taken control], there have been improvements in test scores, and that is what it’s all about,” Brooks said. “We are at the bottom of the testing world–the worst in the country.”

The D.C. Board of Education, composed of five elected members and four mayoral appointees, responded to Fenty’s proposal with a counter-initiative on January 29.

The Emergency Student Achievement Act of 2007 calls for creation of a procurement authority to oversee contracts, flexibility with teachers unions, a different budget process, more funding for special education, and a District of Columbia Department of Education that would function much like a state department of education.

Opposing Measure

Carol Schwartz (R), an at-large councilmember, has been vocal about her opposition to the mayor’s plan, saying D.C. finally has a capable superintendent and a fresh board of education.

“I do not believe that the mayor’s proposed plan is the answer. For starters, it is largely based on the New York model, which was set up to address a set of problems, including multiple school boards, which we do not have,” Schwartz said. “Also, I am concerned that we would be turning over an entire school system to our new mayor before he has shown us that he can improve the broken systems currently under his jurisdiction.”

Brooks said Fenty believes the feedback he received while campaigning door-to-door is mandate enough to move forward.

“He feels strongly that he has a mandate from the people. The top two things people said to him were fix the schools and create better jobs, and of course, these initiatives are interrelated,” Brooks said.

Gauging Public Opinion

While Fenty appears to have the necessary support from the D.C. Council, Brooks noted it is not being taken for granted. Fenty is meeting with the council regularly, and public hearings were held throughout February by the council to elicit public opinion.

Critics and allies alike will keep a close eye on Fenty’s progress. All agree the political risk appears formidable.

“When Mayor Bloomberg came down a few weeks ago when we first took office, a member of his team said, ‘The worst is that things stay the same, which is pretty bad,'” Brooks said. “But most likely, things will improve. Mayor Fenty is staking his entire term on this issue. And it’s pass or fail.”

Kate McGreevy ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.

For more information …

D.C. Public Education Reform Act of 2007, http://dc.gov/mayor/pdf/DC_Public_Education_Reform_Act_final.shtm