In the District, Lawsuits before Learning

If your city's schools were spending more than $15,000 per student per year to produce horrendous academic results, a broken special education system and an inept facilities program, what would you do?

Resident Scholar Frederick M. Hess
Well, if you're the D.C. Council, you would embrace hollow rhetoric and invite the lawyers to sue your pants off. Just in time for the fall elections, the council is poised to amend the Home Rule Act by requiring that the city provide "free, high-quality public schools."

On June 20, the council voted 12 to 1 to adopt the language. On July 11, council members are scheduled to give the proposal final approval, then put it before the voters in November.

Mayoral candidate Adrian M. Fenty lamented: "People are voting with their feet. They're leaving the District of Columbia because we don't have high-quality schools." Having failed to do anything about this thus far, Fenty explained the strategy behind the amendment, saying, "I think we raise the standards, and then we meet the standards."

The gesture would be amusing and a little touching, if it weren't an invitation for so much mischief.

Even its supporters are uncertain how "high quality" would be defined. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp observed, "If I had everyone in this chamber write down what a high-quality education means right now, I bet we would get a hundred different answers."

Nationally, only three states promise "high-quality" schools. All three--Florida, Illinois and Virginia--have been sued based on that language.

Council member Carol Schwartz sought to prevent residents from using the new language to sue the District. Her motion was voted down 12 to 1. One could imagine local lawyers grinning as D.C. school board candidate Marc Borbely said, "Our tool has been moral persuasion," but "now, people fighting for better schools will have a legal power also."

The D.C. Council is already responsible for the District's schools. Having failed to provide even "medium-quality" schools, it's unclear what council members think this language will accomplish. If they think the school system needs more money, they already have the authority to raise taxes.

If the issue is reform and not revenue, courtrooms have proven a pretty lousy tool for "fixing" schools. In fact, experience in cities such as Baltimore and St. Louis suggests that they may do more to sidetrack than stimulate school improvement. The District's sorry experience with special education is proof enough of that.

The District needs leadership, not empty language. Let's hope council members remember that, even in an election year.

Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and director of education policy studies at AEI.

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author

 

Frederick M.
Hess
  • An educator, political scientist and author, Frederick M. Hess studies K-12 and higher education issues. His books include "Cage-Busting Leadership," "Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age," "The Same Thing Over and Over," "Education Unbound," "Common Sense School Reform," "Revolution at the Margins," and "Spinning Wheels." He is also the author of the popular Education Week blog, "Rick Hess Straight Up." Hess's work has appeared in scholarly and popular outlets such as Teachers College Record, Harvard Education Review, Social Science Quarterly, Urban Affairs Review, American Politics Quarterly, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Phi Delta Kappan, Educational Leadership, U.S. News & World Report, National Affairs, the Washington Post, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic and National Review. He has edited widely cited volumes on the Common Core, the role of for-profits in education, education philanthropy, school costs and productivity, the impact of education research, and No Child Left Behind.  Hess serves as executive editor of Education Next, as lead faculty member for the Rice Education Entrepreneurship Program, and on the review boards for the Broad Prize in Urban Education and the Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools. He also serves on the boards of directors of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and 4.0 SCHOOLS. A former high school social studies teacher, he teaches or has taught at the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, Rice University and Harvard University. He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in Government, as well as an M.Ed. in Teaching and Curriculum, from Harvard University.


    Follow AEI Education Policy on Twitter


    Follow Frederick M. Hess on Twitter.

  • Email: rhess@aei.org
  • Assistant Info

    Name: Sarah DuPre
    Phone: 202-862-7160
    Email: Sarah.DuPre@aei.org

What's new on AEI

image The money in banking: Comparing salaries of bank and bank regulatory employees
image What Obama should say about China in Japan
image A key to college success: Involved dads
image China takes the fight to space
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 21
    MON
  • 22
    TUE
  • 23
    WED
  • 24
    THU
  • 25
    FRI
Wednesday, April 23, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Graduation day: How dads’ involvement impacts higher education success

Join a diverse group of panelists — including sociologists, education experts, and students — for a discussion of how public policy and culture can help families lay a firmer foundation for their children’s educational success, and of how the effects of paternal involvement vary by socioeconomic background.

Event Registration is Closed
Thursday, April 24, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Getting it right: A better strategy to defeat al Qaeda

This event will coincide with the release of a new report by AEI’s Mary Habeck, which analyzes why current national security policy is failing to stop the advancement of al Qaeda and its affiliates and what the US can do to develop a successful strategy to defeat this enemy.

Friday, April 25, 2014 | 9:15 a.m. – 1:15 p.m.
Obamacare’s rocky start and uncertain future

During this event, experts with many different views on the ACA will offer their predictions for the future.   

No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.