Amid all the good news from primary season -- the surging grassroots rejection of leviathan government being the theme -- there was one tragedy. The voters of the District of Columbia rejected Mayor Adrian Fenty, and with him the bold education reforms undertaken by schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. Democrat Adrian Fenty may have been an arrogant jerk who offended his constituents in a number of ways, but on his signature issue, education reform, he was getting results.
Before the advent of Fenty/Rhee, the District of Columbia schools had been legendary for two things: high spending and utter incompetence. For decades, city governments had surveyed the near illiteracy of many public school students in the district and cried "More funding!" And they got it.
For the United States as a whole, per-pupil expenditures roughly doubled between 1969 and 1989. In the district, expenditures more than tripled, rising from $4,000 per pupil to $13,000. By 2010, D.C. was spending $16,800 per pupil, which is more than all but two states.
Yet the district's students were consistently among the worst performers on standardized tests, ranking 45th, for example, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress for 1998. That year, 61 percent of the district's fourth-graders scored "below basic" in reading -- meaning they could barely read. Only 8 percent of students in the eighth grade were proficient in math.
On the SAT exam -- only taken by those hoping to attend college -- African-American students in the district scored an average 773 on the 1600-point combined reading and math test. The national average is 1021, and the African-American national average is 863.
Year after sorry year, politicians would call for more money, more teachers, and better facilities. They got it all, and they created a system that, as June Kronholz reported in Education Next magazine, "hasn't kept records, patched windows, met budgets, delivered books, returned phone calls, followed court orders, checked teachers' credentials, or, for years on end, opened school on schedule in the fall. ... Marc Borbely, a former teacher, filed a Freedom of Information Act request in 2004 to find out how many work orders were outstanding at the central maintenance office. The answer: 25,000."