SALON Daily Clicks: Newsreal

If Bill Clinton is supposed to be th "education president," then why are all the public schools in the nation's capital closed?

Published September 8, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

THWACK! That's the sweet sound President Bill Clinton loved to hear as he whacked golf balls during his extended vacation in tony Martha's Vineyard.


That's what the president would have heard if he had walked into the empty public school buildings in Washington, D.C. While bright-eyed children all across the nation began a new school year after Labor Day, here in Bill Clinton's 'hood, the capital city of the most powerful nation in the world, 78,000 public school students are barred from their schools because the buildings are unsafe.

Kids are disappointed. Parents, including myself, eat their rage and scramble to home-school their children. The pols play the blame game.

"Not my fault," said House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who fingered the city government for holding back funds that Congress had made available. Julius Becton, the retired Army general appointed to run the schools, blamed the judge who ruled that school roofs had to be fixed before students arrived. Mayor Marion Barry, our very own two-bit despot, tried to play the local hero by keeping city pools open while blaming Becton for taking so long to repair the roofs.

Barry has earned his reputation as a villain in the sickening decline of Washington, from calm capital when he arrived to murder capital with its unschooled children of today. He began his political rise as school board president in 1971, but rather than fixing schools, he started building his future political base. As mayor for 15 years, he's steered school contracts to his cronies, who then delivered lousy food and left trash piling up around schools.

But Barry can legitimately argue that he's not directly responsible for public education, since it had been under the jurisdiction of the school board rather than the mayor, and now it's controlled by presidential appointees. The villain of the piece now is Bill Clinton.

Clinton -- maybe he doesn't know this -- is responsible for running the District of Columbia's schools. Over the past two years, Congress, the courts and the White House have gradually taken control of all important city functions, from trash collection to law enforcement. Clinton appointed Dr. Andrew Brimmer to chair the federal control board that essentially governs the city, over the mayor and the city council. Brimmer ousted the elected school board and appointed retired Gen. Becton to run the schools. So the man who failed the students is Clinton's creation.

The Constitution gave Congress and the president ultimate control of the federal city. Other presidents have used that power to improve the city. John F. Kennedy put in motion a plan to renovate Pennsylvania Avenue. Lyndon Johnson gave the district its first appointed mayor and city council and put it on the path toward home rule. Richard Nixon beefed up the police force and signed the 1973 Home Rule Charter. To give Clinton his due, he did come up with a recently passed bill to take pressure off the district's budget. That same law, however, took more power from elected officials and put it in the hands of the president's handpicked appointees, like Brimmer and Becton.

Which brings us back to the president and the unschooled students. The message heard 'round the world is that Washington, which can airlift half a million soldiers and tanks and planes and missiles halfway around the globe in one week to do battle in Iraq, cannot educate its own students.

The message to the students is that they cannot depend on officials -- from Barry to the appointees to Bill Clinton -- to give them a decent education. What does that say about a president who talks big about national education standards and wiring all public schools to the Internet and building a bridge to the 21st Century when the students in his backyard need real roofs, not rhetorical bridges?

In many ways the district's public school system is a Rorschach test for urban public education across the nation. The problems here are no different than in East St. Louis or Dallas or Oakland. Except for one thing: D.C.'s school population -- at 78,000 -- is relatively small, making it easier to attack the basic problems of no-account bureaucrats, lousy teachers and crumbling school buildings.

Bill Clinton's golf game may have gotten better in the cool New England autumn; here in the vacant schools, he's failing the little kids. His big talk about being the "education president" is falling on silent walls.

By Harry Jaffe

Harry Jaffe is a leading journalist covering Washington, DC—its politics, its crime, its heroes and villains. Beyond Washington, Jaffe’s work has been published in Yahoo News, Men’s Health,Harper’s, Esquire, and newspapers from the San Francisco Examiner to the Philadelphia Inquirer. He’s appeared in documentary films, and on television and radio across the country and throughout Europe.

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