Washington Post, November 7, 2007: Left Out

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THE TWO WORLDS of the District of Columbia are sketched in sad detail in a recent report on the city’s economy. One world has good jobs, growing incomes and prosperous tomorrows. The other is inhabited by people who, if they have jobs, make very little money and face uncertain futures. The first is white, the other predominantly African American, and the ever-widening gulf between them is why it’s so important that Mayor Adrian M. Fenty succeed in improving the schools.

The study by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute comes at a time of economic recovery. A strong real estate market brought budget surpluses and a rebounding population. The number of jobs in the city and its median household income have increased. Yet poverty also is at its highest level in nearly a decade. One in five D.C. residents is poor — 110,000 people. The gap between rich and poor is greater than in nearly any other large U.S. city, and incomes of the city’s lowest-wage workers have stayed flat while salaries of top earners have soared.

As the number of jobs has increased, employment of African American residents and those with no more than a high school diploma has fallen. The employment rate for these groups is at a nearly 30-year low. That may reflect multiple factors: the departure of middle-class blacks from the city, the demands of a changing economy — and a school system that has abdicated its responsibilities. Students graduate with diplomas rendered meaningless by a lack of rigor and instruction, or they don’t graduate at all. Simply put, there are jobs, but too many children who went to D.C. schools can’t do them.

Mr. Fenty rightly is putting more money into job training programs, and city officials are studying better ways to deal with ex-offenders returning from prison. Those are catch-up measures, though, that only underscore the urgent need for school reform. Transferring control of the schools to the mayor and hiring a dynamic chancellor were easy compared with the tasks ahead. A case in point is the pending proposal to make it easier to dismiss low-performing central office employees. Opposition from unions that fear the threat of heightened accountability came as no surprise. D.C. Council members who wisely gave the mayor control of the schools should stiffen their spines to give Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee the tools she needs to shake up the system. Anyone who doubts the need for radical action should study the dismal findings of this report by the institute. The education establishment shouldn’t be asked to shoulder the whole burden of closing the income gap, but better schools could begin to help level the playing field.

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