Governance And D.C.’s School System

While he was writing about mass transit policy, the issue about governance raised by Jacob Abinder applies more generally (boldface mine):

It does not accommodate the notion that a major transit agency might itself be a political actor, with goals and interests that could conflict with those of the public. In other words, politicians in our major transit-reliant cities have been able to avoid responsibility for poor transit service because current progressive ideology does not explain why a government institution might inherently lack the ability to improve its provision of a public service.

Affirming the basic value of government institutions might be a fine rhetorical strategy against Republicans at the national level (though even there its electoral record is shaky). In urban politics, however, actively questioning the competence of large bureaucracies is not conservatism in disguise; it is the essence of progressivism itself. Previous generations of progressives, in particular those who labeled their movement with a capital “P,” would not be surprised by the cupidity and incompetence that afflict not only our major transit agencies, but also housing authorities, economic development corporations, and police departments—all of which disproportionately affect the working poor and people of color. They would be dismayed, however, by the tendency on today’s left to search for tweaks, and the hesitance to acknowledge that such institutional rot can inhere within the structure of urban government itself if left unchecked.

Add to that list, D.C.’s Department of Education. A couple weeks ago in the District (not Wor-Shing-Tun, but D.C.), the D.C. Auditor and Mayor Bowser clashed over her most recent budget. While most of the coverage dwelled on the Auditor’s claim that “Next year we’ll have to sustain this rate of growth, and people will want to spend more. It just becomes untenable”, followed by one of the weirdest rebuttals I’ve ever heard:

“The comments by Council’s auditors and $2 will get you a ride on the Metrobus. But thanks to the mayor’s Fair Shot budget proposal, you can save yourself reading the Council’s auditor’s comments and ride Circulator free forever.”

Leaving aside crimes against the English language, the Auditor’s Mar. 25 testimony before the Council had this disturbing item (boldface mine):

Mr. Chairman you have spoken of the need for additional funding for our public schools. It’s a critical issue especially when you consider the byzantine way in which we fund our schools. Many neighborhood public schools will see real shrinkage in their purchasing power this year, after the same phenomenon last year. As a committee chair with shared oversight for public education, I would ask you to seek answers to straightforward questions before you entertain any increase to the $1.8 billion allocated for public schools.

We have just over 4,000 classroom teachers in the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS), 4,012 according to the DCPS website. But the budget before you would support salaries to pay 8,830 full-time equivalent employees, 420 more FTEs than funded today. Now, I know school systems need more than classroom teachers–they need chancellors and custodians and psychologists. But significantly more than the number of classroom teachers? Longtime analyst Mary Levy reports that there are now more employees in central administration than ever before. Ask the new chancellor: who are those 4,830 employees and what do they do? As a newcomer he might appreciate having to tease out an answer to that question.

This problem goes back to the days of Mayor Barry, who was D.C.’s Rascal King: he provided city jobs to a new majority* that needed jobs and which had been shut out of the boodle (“The Rascal King” refers to Boston’s Mayor Curley, who did the same thing for Irish Catholics in the 1950s). Unfortunately, the downside of making jobs more important than the functioning of the agency led to significant problems, including budgetary (it’s all the more worse now that the majority of D.C. state employees don’t reside in the District).

I’m under no illusions that Mayor Bowser will do anything about this, since she seems to view her job as being a glorified ANC commissioner and not running the executive branch (e.g., multiple federal grants have been lost due to incompetency). At some point however, someone needs to answer the question the Auditor raised–and it can’t just be the head of the Department of Education.

If D.C. ever does get statehood, the phrase “Senator Muriel Bowser” does not sound good. At all.

*Until the late 1950s, D.C. was majority white.

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