D.C., Prince George’s Battle to Shape up Public Schools

What prompted former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin to tweet “unflippingbelieveable,” about MSNBC’s host Melissa Harris-Perry? Gun control, gay marriage, or immigration? No, it’s public education.

Nothing triggers our passions or hits us as close to home as what does or does not happen inside the schoolhouse doors where our children and grandchildren spend most of their days.

But when Harris-Perry, a Tulane University political science professor, dared, in an advertisement, to suggest more public investment in public education, she was shot down. But someone needed to stand up to conservatives and point out that education reform requires more than teaching to the test for scores, disbanding unions or disenfranchising elected school boards.

“Once it’s everybody’s responsibility and not just the households, then we start making better investments,” Harris-Perry says. As a teacher, I know students need more resources, and not just money. They need more people from all sectors to care and make education a priority; not a political slogan.

That’s why the recent school controversies in Prince George’s and D.C. are welcome chaos. If nothing else, the turmoil has re-engaged attention on the intractable problem of poor public education. While resourceful parents have been able to send their children to private or charter schools, the ones who were left behind are beginning to demand better services.

Hundreds of parents, community activists and educators turned out this month for impassioned hearings about Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker’s hastily- drafted proposal to wrest the school system’s management from the elected county school board. In the District, a grassroots activist organization, Empower DC, has taken the unprecedented step of suing the city on behalf of parents over Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s proposal to close 15 schools, disproportionately affecting poor, minority or special needs students. Translation: schools “west of Rock Creek Park” and “east of the Anacostia River.”

Meanwhile, in Prince George’s County, some say the larger issue facing county schools is being overlooked. “This is not about a power grab, it’s not about quality education, it’s about money and the allocation of school resources,” said activist Rodamays Cabrera, of Clinton, Md. “Has the board been negligent in the administration of a $2 billion public agency?”

Cabrera charged the current school board with inefficient administration, evidenced, in part, by the board hoarding huge surpluses for the past two years. When, he said, “there are 30 children in a kindergarten class and library books that are 40 years old…[s]omething is wrong with that picture.”

He also questioned school board spending for a weekend meeting at expensive National Harbor to secretly select three superintendent candidates. Cabrera said that Baker’s attempt to take over the schools “is a good thing because it’s going to engage everybody to focus on what’s needed to correct the problem and the relationship between the underserved and the underutilized resources.”

Baker, who is up for reelection, said the voters think he should be more accountable for education. He was able to get the Maryland General Assembly to vote in favor of granting him some control over the school system’s $1.7 billion budget and the choice for superintendent in a hastily crafted bill that some criticized for not having enough public input.

“Come June 1, I’ll be accountable and if [schools] does not improve, you’ll know exactly where to go,” Baker said in a televised interview. He added that “there is no more important issue in Prince George’s County than K-12 education.”

However, Theresa Dudley, vice president of the Prince George’s County Education Association told the {AFRO}, “It doesn’t say anything in this bill about how this is going to help children learn.”

Crossing into the District, attorney Johnny Barnes said that the D.C. school closures violate civil rights and access to equal education. Of the 2,700 students displaced, only two are white, according to the group. The school system officials deny any allegations of discrimination and say the closures will allow them to consolidate resources in more populated buildings. But some bristle at that suggestion, noting that the District has a $417 million budget surplus.

“This is a national issue,” said Barnes in a statement, adding that a court decision, expected before the D.C. Council’s expected May 22 hearing on the FY2014 budget “will have an impact throughout the nation.”

We’ve seen this failing lesson before when the overrated School Chancellor Michelle Rhee shuttered more than 20 D.C. schools for no visible academic achievement. As Daniel Del Pielago, education organizer for Empower DC, told the {AFRO}: “We haven’t seen a real improvement [with school closures]; we saw a loss of students and no real savings. That doesn’t lead us to believe that this round will be successful.”

So who is responsible for improving student performance? As Harris-Perry suggests, we are all responsible for all our children whether or not they live under our roofs. And, that’s not “unflippingbelieveable.”

Veteran journalist Adrienne Washington writes weekly for the Afro about relevant issues in the District, Maryland and Northern Virginia. Send correspondence to her at [email protected].

1,212 total views, 1 views today

D.C., Prince George's Battle to Shape up Public Schools