Run schools like an army Washington model: What the nation's capital is doing has been thought of by others.

November 21, 1996

THERE IS NO urban problem in the District of Columbia that isn't being experienced by other big cities. But the scope of Washington's woes has been exacerbated by an abhorrent mutation of what serves as local government elsewhere. Add the ineptness of Washington's mayor and city council and you get the federal appointment of a financial oversight board that has fired the school superintendent and emasculated the elected school board. In their place a retired Army general and an appointed board of trustees run Washington's public schools.

Any outcry at such a heavy-handed slap at democracy has been muted by the deplorable shape of D.C. schools. Buildings aren't just in disrepair, they are dangerous. Teachers are as afraid to walk the halls of some schools as the children. Learning, when it occurs, too often is a plus, not a given. Many parents are ready for the Joint Chiefs of Staff to take over the schools if that will lead to improvement.

Instead the task goes to retired Lt. Gen. Julius W. Becton Jr. In 1985 he took over the Federal Emergency Management Agency after it had been rocked by mismanagement and fraud scandals. From 1989 to 1994 he served as president of his alma mater, Prairie View A&M University in Texas, which had myriad financial and infrastructure problems. Mr. Becton replaces Franklin L. Smith, who acknowledged everyone had lost faith in him.

No one knows what will be the assessment of Mr. Becton four years from now, when the tenure of the new board of trustees is scheduled to end. Certainly it is expected that the general's no-nonsense military style will help cut through the established bureaucracy in Washington that has itself been a large part of the school system's problem. Other cities will be watching closely, including Baltimore, whose own poorly performing schools now face an announced management shake-up, though one here is calling for an Army rescue.

Pub Date: 11/21/96

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