Local: Education

Jonetta Rose Barras: Curing the disease, not the symptoms

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Local,DC,Education,Jonetta Rose Barras,D.C. Council,Vincent Gray,David Grosso,David Catania

That rumbling sound coming from the John A. Wilson Building is D.C. Council members tussling over recommended changes to Mayor Vincent Gray's $12 billion 2014 budget. Committees have begun reducing expenditures or searching for additional funds to address select programs or satisfy demands of special-interest groups that could make their lives miserable during the upcoming election season.

In other words, the process doesn't simply involve assessing the cost-effectiveness of policies and programs. Politics plays a role.

Gray's budget was presented under the theme "Investing in tomorrow." But his plan lacked sufficient support for the one area that truly affects the city's future: public education.

"I came in thinking we had plenty of money," At-large Councilman David Grosso, a member of the Committee on Education and Libraries, told me last week during a wide-ranging interview. Now, after public hearings, he has decided more investment is needed. Further, echoing the sentiments of committee Chairman David Catania and many residents, Grosso said the mayor also should provide "more personal attention on this issue."

Some legislators have argued for more money to end poverty, address high unemployment, crime, drug addiction, homelessness and the ever-disintegrating family structure. Those issues are symptoms.

The District's disease is an unstable, failing public education system.

The city's myriad social and economic issues are the result of whole communities being poorly educated, left without critical skills to compete. Even now, many District children, including those attending charter schools, are receiving a mediocre education. Without radical change, they will enter that class of citizens unable to seize available opportunities during the city's continuing renaissance.

It will take Catania more time to improve the overall financial management of the city's public education system. Still, elected officials should declare an emergency, marshalling resources -- human and fiscal -- to dramatically improve schools.

Sure, sparkling facilities have been constructed. But the academic needs of the District's children, particularly those from low-income communities and low-performing schools, are far greater than chrome and glass.

Gray snatched critical revenues from DC Public Schools. The council should restore those funds. Among other things, that action would result in more than what DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson described as "exposure" to foreign languages and library "coverage."

A public education system, struggling with an average citywide reading proficiency rate below 50 percent, needs more than baby sitters for its libraries. Professionally trained, creative and engaged full-time librarians are required to help children develop an intimate relationship with books and a love of reading that could empower and propel their futures.

The Stabilization Fund advocated by Catania would minimize the negative effects of Gray's actions. Equally important, the legislature should support an "achievement gap" fund that could be tapped by charter or traditional schools to reduce the academic performance gulf between low-income students and others.

There are dozens of valuable government programs. But few have the long-term curative effect of public education. Legislators should double-down on their commitment, making reform of city schools their No. 1 public policy and financial priority.

Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

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