Monday, August 06, 2007

Snapshot of a Failed State

No, not Syria; the District of Columbia. Technically, it's not a state (see Article I, Section 8, cl. 17), but the Constitution still applies, and the local government is a hybrid of State and Municipal government.

It's a bad mix. DC's government has a long-standing and well-deserved reputation for awful, personified by the notorious Marion Barry. Under the famous former mayor's watch, the city became the nation's "murder capital". This is "despite" (liberal-speak for "because") the nation's most draconian gun laws:
The murder rate is over 55 percent higher than it was before the ban went into effect. Violent criminals continue to carry guns, and the law-abiding citizens that the District has disarmed are at their mercy.
Murders are less frequent today -- DC ranked "only" 13th last year. And the Supremes should void the gun ban next spring, albeit to the horror of the uniformly leftist government and media establishment.

Whatever the ruling on guns, DC's bad government may be perpetual:
Before any government can meet its payroll, first it must take attendance. From Texas to New York City to Montgomery County, managers typically assign one person per 504 employees to collect and check time cards.

And they make mistakes about 3 percent of the time.

Washington, by contrast, has 4,779 full-time employees who collect timecards -- one for every eight employees. And they make mistakes about 5 percent of the time.

Thus Washington spends $13 million more than similar-size cities to keep track of its work force each year -- and gets more errors for its money.

"It's irrational," said D.C. Chief Financial Officer Anthony A. Williams, who plans to turn timekeeping over to private contractors. "The point of this system is not accuracy but jobs."

Per capita, Washington spends more money and has more employees than any city in the United States.
In particular, about 10 percent of all District residents are employed by the local DC government. "Despite" the payroll, DC doesn't deliver--except for increasingly strict "Nanny State" anti-smoking laws.

Unsurprisingly, decades of chaotic and incompetent governance, and an often corrupt teachers union, destroyed D.C. public schools. It's not for lack of money--this year, the District budgeted $1.26 billion for education, which is "$15,414 in spending per pupil in average daily attendance. . . more than any state, nearly doubling the national average of $8,899." (Factoring-in truant students, D.C. spent nearly $13,000 per enrolled pupil in 2005, third highest.) Despite the money, the city is dotted with decaying school buildings where little is learned :
With 37 percent of district residents reading at the 3rd grade level or below, with SAT scores more than 200 points below the national average, with D.C. public school students performing well below the national average on just about every known academic achievement measure.
So you can't fault Presidents Carter and Clinton for sending Amy and Chelsea to private schools.

Mimicking recent trends in New York and LA (until California's liberal courts ruled it unconstitutional), DC's current mayor, Adrian Fenty, downgraded the school board and took a larger role in overseeing public schools. Fenty appointed a Michelle Rhee as school Chancellor early this year. But change won't be quick, as illustrated in Saturday's Washington Post exposé:
Rhee led Fenty on a tour of the school system's book warehouse yesterday, lamenting how something so seemingly simple as getting textbooks to students is, for yet another year, a major issue. With less than a month before schools open, they said the system for purchasing and tracking textbooks is so disorganized that they will have to wait for an audit to determine how many students will not have books.

Rhee walked through the dimly lit three-story warehouse in Northeast Washington, pointing out pallet after pallet of shrink-wrapped textbook boxes. Those materials should be at schools instead of sitting in boxes, she said.

"You see there's dust on these, so they haven't been touched in a long time," Rhee said incredulously, pointing to a stack that towered above her head. . .

The textbook department, responsible for keeping track of orders, is staffed by one person, Donald Winstead, who has no authority to enforce whether individual schools meet deadlines for ordering replacement books. . .

According to school system policy, individual principals are responsible for ordering copies of replacement books from the textbook office, which keeps a reserve inventory in its three-story warehouse. The books are supposed to arrive at schools in April or May, and school officials are to scan the bar codes on them into an electronic tracking system called Destiny.

But out of 141 schools, just 40 have designated a person to be trained and responsible for ordering textbooks, Winstead said, adding that he is not able to monitor which schools aren't following procedures.

Nathan Saunders, vice president of the Washington Teachers' Union, said there is such mistrust among employees of the central office that teachers often keep books rather than turn them in at the end of the year, which throws off the tracking process.
Other books, plus computers and desks, were lost in a school's basement. Yet, "the District spent $964 per student for two layers of administrators who were supposed to make sure the books arrived on time. Only two states, New Jersey ($1,049) and Vermont ($1,045) spent more."

James Forman is livid:
Some things are hard (e.g., finding high quality teachers willing to teach in schools serving low-income kids, providing training and mentoring for those teachers, etc). Getting books out of the warehouse and into the classrooms is not.
True--but DC's problem is that such failures are frequent. As Mark Lerner suggests, firing Donald Winstead, who's been books boss since 1989, would be a good start. But how do you change half a century of bad habits? Some times, the easy problems are harder to solve.

As many as one third of District residents may be illiterate. Embarrassed, Congress and President Clinton legalized charter schools in 1996, defeating a Republican proposal for tax-funded private school vouchers. President Bush and the Republican Congress passed an experimental voucher program in 2004, to the applause of DC parents but over the objections of Congressional Democrats and public school teachers.

Some say Mayor Barry left a "lost generation" of unschooled kids. If so, Barry's legacy includes an ironic coda: the country's most vibrant and innovative set of charter schools and a vanguard laboratory for vouchers. The best hope for DC schools is more privatization via vouchers. But, given the implacable opposition of liberals and labor, this easy answer is one of those "complicated things."


Assistant Village Idiot said...

I started four separate comments on this, but erased them all in despair.

For encouragement, read up on Daviess County, KY and its Graduation 2010 program, already successful before the experiment is even complete. The lead class, entering 10th grade this fall, has gone from statewide 60th percentile on entering kindergarten to over 80th percentile last year.

@nooil4pacifists said...


I admit I know little about the issue, but I've always been skeptical of claims that early childhood development programs can increase literacy, and reduce unemployment and anti-social behavior. Programs like "Head Start" enjoy especial favor with the left, especially Hillary Clinton. But evidence of that program's effectiveness is thin--some benefits in early years, but insignificant long-term improvement over non-Head Start children. Such findings aren't new, as a 1992 CATO paper recounts:

A 1985 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services analysis of Head Start studies to date showed that ambitious claims for Head Start's long-term effects were exaggerated. "Children enrolled in Head Start enjoy significant immediate gains in cognitive test scores, socio-emotional test scores, and health status," the HHS report noted. "In the long run, cognitive and socioemotional test scores of former Head Start students do not remain superior to those of disadvantaged children who did not attend Head Start." More recent research confirms that conclusion. Short-term gains in intelligence scores and learning skills disappear for most Head Start students after two years at school, and copious evidence that Head Start has a long-term effect on graduation rates, teen pregnancy, crime, or unemployment simply doesn't exist.

Yet, Head Start persists--costing taxpayers billions.

I admit to not carefully reviewing the Daviess County scheme. No one disputes that better teachers and lessons produce better educated citizens. But the results in Daviess can't easily be transplanted to a city like DC--and I doubt "cognitive development . . . enhanced at an early age" is anything like a "Silver Bullet" answer.