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.

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