Commentary

When the Mission Is Mediocrity: If the D.C. Public Schools Want to Improve, They’ll Need to Aim Higher

By Casey J. Lartigue Jr.
This article was published in the Washington Post, Outlook, November 24, 2002.
There was plenty of cold, hard data to work with earlier this year when I began a study for the Cato Institute into why the District of Columbia’s public school system is in so much trouble. But a speech at a city library taught me the most about the state of the D.C. schools today.

Schools Superintendent Paul Vance was at the Martin Luther King Public Library several weeks ago, speaking to residents about the successes and challenges of an urban school system. I was among the audience of about 30 people. What I heard was enlightening. Vance complained repeatedly that the local media had failed to cover the amazing fact that, this year, he had done his job. Not that he had done more than his job — just that he had fulfilled its basic requirements. And it struck me: When public officials extol themselves for having attained mediocrity, is it any wonder that the government agencies they run see failure as being not so very bad?

One of the major “successes” that Vance thought had not received proper media attention was the fact that the schools opened on schedule this year. In several recent years, openings were postponed because of fire and safety concerns. Could he be serious? Should that be a feat to take credit for? It seemed to me something he should do as a matter of course, without expecting praise from the media. Imagine a shopkeeper beating his chest, bragging to customers that he had opened his store at 10 a.m. again. But it turned out Vance was indeed serious: He repeated the comment several times. Not only that, but the school system’s 2001-02 “Report Card to the People” also includes this in its list of accomplishments: “Opened the school year on time.”

Next, Vance grumbled that the media hadn’t paid more attention to the fact that most of the 68,000 children in the D.C. public schools have been immunized against disease. That is certainly a good thing, but not what the superintendent should be bragging about in a talk about the “successes and challenges” of the system. What he really should be concerned about, and explaining to residents, is why so many students have been immunized against learning.

Eventually Vance did get around to discussing what he called improvements in the public school system. For example, he told us SAT scores are up in 2002. That achievement is also noted in a press release posted on the system’s Web site, which lists the city’s average score as 799 out of a possible 1,600. The national average is 1,020, so the D.C. schools’ accomplishment is nothing to write home about. What was the increase Vance referred to several times? According to the schools’ Web site, as well as “A Five Year Statistical Glance at D.C. Public Schools, School Years 1996-97 Through 2000-01,” published by the school system, the city’s average in 2001 was 798. That is an improvement of one point! At that rate, the District will crack the national average in 2223. What Vance didn’t mention, however, is that the SAT average in 2000 (the year he took over as superintendent) was 822. So over two years, the average has actually dropped by 23 points. Yet Vance counts SAT scores as another success.

If the school system is unwilling to hold itself to higher standards, who will? Apparently not the D.C. Council, which allocates a large chunk of the city’s budget to the schools every year without seeming to expect a sizable return.

A week after the Vance speech, I attended an emergency council meeting held to discuss how to close the city’s $323 million budget deficit. A main topic was how to deal with the school budget. Here are the facts: The previous year, the council had allocated $661 million for the schools. In fact, the schools overspent that amount by $80 million. For the current fiscal year, the schools had expected to receive $771 million. But to help close the deficit, that amount was changed to $741 million — about 12 percent more than the previous year’s budgeted amount. Because that was about $30 million less than what the schools had wanted, council member Adrian M. Fenty tried to persuade his colleagues that they were about to deal the school system a $30 million budget cut rather than a 12 percent increase.

To their credit, the other members of the council — in particular, Kevin P. Chavous — refused to play along, voting the measure down. But they seemed largely indulgent about the school system’s $100 million spending spree. Is there any reason to believe that the system will produce an extra $100 million worth of educational quality in return for the overspending? Is there any reason to believe that the $80 million added to the new budget will produce $80 million in academic accomplishments? Council Chairwoman Linda W. Cropp threatened to make a “major reduction in expenditures” in the future, but the threat is hollow.

The following day, I attended a roundtable discussion held by the Board of Education to give members of the public a chance to express their opinion about school spending. What were the citizens told about the budget? A handout entitled “FY 2003 Budget Fact Sheet” claimed the school budget had been “reduced” by $30.2 million, because the system had been “promised” $771 million for the fiscal year. And the parents believed it. Speaker after speaker denounced the unfair “cuts.” No one mentioned that city school spending since 1998 has increased by 41 percent.

Herbert J. Walberg of the Heartland Institute recently calculated that the average per-pupil spending here is close to $11,000 and the dropout rate is about 40 percent. All told, Walberg says, it costs $181,851 to produce a District of Columbia high school graduate — more than for any of the 50 states. If it is any consolation to D.C. taxpayers, Walberg calculates that it still costs more to produce a high school graduate in some cities: Cleveland ($297,282); Milwaukee ($243,886); and Columbus, Ohio ($197,080).

What are D.C. residents getting in return? According to the D.C. State Education Agency, 37 percent of city residents read at the third-grade level or below. Documents from the Board of Education show that high school students taking the Stanford 9 show low levels of proficiency in both reading and math. The system continues to be beset by old problems that haven’t been fixed: Some students wait weeks to receive assigned textbooks; some teachers’ paychecks arrive late while other teachers are paid more than they’re supposed to be. Sanitation remains a problem, with 15 of 52 cafeterias and food facilities failing recent inspections.

Despite the failures of the District’s schools, local elected leaders remain opposed to including any school choice options beyond charter schools. And when it comes to successes in the system, they typically avoid discussing actual education. Before the Sept. 10 primary, Mayor Anthony Williams’ campaign mailed a letter to voters noting he had spent $47 million to “rebuild ball fields, play courts and recreation centers in every part of the city.” Where was a mention of academic improvements? Unfortunately, District leaders continue to discuss inputs (money spent, buildings built) rather than discussing outputs (academic achievement).

Nor do they seem to be discussing consequences. When paychecks are chronically wrong, textbooks late and cafeterias dirty, someone in charge should be held accountable. Completing basic tasks might not get you front-page news coverage, but the message should be that failure to do those basics will get you fired.

When Mayor Williams appeared before the Washington Association of Black Journalists in early last month, I asked him to list some successes of the D.C. public school system. He listed charter schools, some new programs, a new management team — and the fact that the schools are starting on time. With standards like that, no wonder superintendent Vance believes he is doing his job.

Casey J. Lartigue Jr. is a policy analyst with the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute.