Mayor Adrian Fenty of Washington embraced a Herculean challenge when he convinced lawmakers to give him direct control of the city’s corrupt and dysfunctional school system. The mayor and his new schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, are working hard to reassure nervous parents and to get the schools up and running for the new year. But remaking the schools will inevitably mean dismantling a central bureaucracy that has shown a disturbing talent for subverting reform while failing the city and its children in every conceivable way.While much of the commentary about DC schools is accurate, DC is not a big city. With a population of around 600,000, it is about one tenth the size of New York City. Furthermore, despite its "home rule" the DC government must struggle with the over sight of Congress in order to do much of anything, a fact of life not present in other cities.
Washington has long been infamous for having the worst performing big-city system in the country. But The Washington Post exposed the scope of the problem earlier this summer in an eye-opening series. According to The Post, the city ranks first in terms of the budget share devoted to administration and last in spending on teachers and instruction. The imbalance is particularly disturbing, given that the District’s children fare worse at school than children in other big cities.
Still, with just 50,000 students and a school budget of $15,000 per student, it is hard to argue that the schools suck.