Having spent my elementary and secondary school years under the watchful gazes of the Sisters of Mercy in Philadelphia Catholic schools, it wasn’t until I was 22 years old and in law school that I ever dared to set foot inside a public school. What an introduction! In my second year at Georgetown Law I became a Street Law teacher at Coolidge Senior High School here in D.C. The experience was, at once, delightful and deeply frustrating, energizing and vexing — some conditions in the school were so troubling, but the desire of the students to learn was so great. I was galvanized, and education in various forms became my life’s interest, a deeply satisfying focus for my legal training.
In my third year in law school, seeking to extend my learning about the D.C. Public Schools and educational issues here, I became a legislative intern in the then-new D.C. Council, and I had the extraordinary opportunity and privilege of working with one of the great civil rights icons of D.C., Julius Hobson, Sr. Mr. Hobson’s track record in a broad range of civil rights issues was great, but his legacy is known to generations of D.C. residents particularly through the case that bears his name, Hobson v. Hansen, the D.C. version of Brown v. Board of Education. I urge readers to click on the links and learn more about this case. In short, Julius Hobson sued the D.C. Public Schools (Hansen was the superintendent at that time) to force an end to student tracking, which he claimed was racially discriminatory, and to seek equality of funding for all public schools in D.C. since the then-prevalent funding pattern was neighborhood-dependent, which also led to extreme racial and economic disparities among schools.
Hobson won the case, with a famous opinion by Judge Skelley Wright, but the conditions in the D.C. Schools did not improve. Home Rule for D.C. came in 1974, and Hobson was elected to the first D.C. Council, where he chaired the Education Committee. Given his deep unhappiness with the lack of progress in improving the D.C. Schools, particularly the conditions for Black students, Mr. Hobson set about creating an Educational Accountability plan for the city.
Councilmember Hobson assigned me to the task of researching and drafting the Educational Accountability Act of 1977. Little did I know, at the outset, how incendiary this topic would be! The bill I drafted, at Mr. Hobson’s direction, would have given the D.C. Council some oversight of the outcomes of student learning in the D.C. Schools.
The minute the legislation hit the street, the D.C. Board of Education girded for war. The Board of Education is independent! How dare the D.C. Council try this power grab! The heat was so intense that my clinical supervisors (my internship was part of the Georgetown Law clinic known as Community Legal Assistance) called me in to demand what I had gotten myself into — this clinic was another arm of the same group of law school clinics that also ran Street Law in the D.C. Schools, and there was some concern that my work on this legislation was causing the School Board to question whether Georgetown should be able to run the Street Law clinic in the schools. A Georgetown dean (the late John Kramer, my hero!) intervened to rescue me from this vat of hot water, proclaiming the legislation I had crafted was pretty good. I was a mere law student hoping to graduate in a few months, and here I was with the dean, my professors, the School Board and D.C. Council all embroiled over something I had drafted for Councilmember Hobson. Yikes! Such was my introduction to power, politics and education in the District of Columbia.
You can read some accounts of the controversy in these articles from the Washington Post archives:
Shortly after the public hearings on the bill, and most unfortunately, Mr. Hobson died, in March 1977. The legislation died with him. I managed to graduate, and, not so ironically, went on to have my first “real” job as the Program Director for the Street Law Clinic at Georgetown. I spent five years working closely with students and teachers in the D.C. Schools, as well as our law students who taught the law courses.
30 years later, this whole story has come back to me as I’ve read about Mayor Fenty’s proposal to take over the D.C. Schools and the reaction to his proposals. It’s a “power grab” claim community activists, who distrust a plan that would remove publicly elected school board members from direct oversight. Public concern about destabilizing the already-precarious circumstances for the current leadership has emerged quite clearly.
Washington Post Columnist Colbert I. King has written thoughtfully on this topic. When I read “What Never Seems to Change for D.C. Schools” I thought of my old mentor Julius Hobson and his passion about education in D.C. and his profoundly just anger about the protracted racism that prevented the schools from being truly places of equal opportunity for Black and White children. I agree with Colbert King: little has changed in the 30 years since I first encountered these issues. So long as this city struggles over power and control in education, the children of the city who already suffer great disadvantages imposed by poverty, racism and violence will not have the educational opportunities they must have to succeed.
A Hobson’s Choice is a dilemma in which no choice is acceptable. Giving up some power is considered unacceptable in some quarters, but allowing children to continue to suffer in abysmal educational conditions is worse, immoral and unjust to them and their children. Julius Hobson may not have had the perfect solution, but he raised the bar on the debate to focus on learning outcomes, not just control. In all of this controversy over who controls the public schools, let’s not miss the fundamental point: what students learn and whether that learning will be the platform for their success in college, work and life beyond is all that matters. Any debate that focuses on the power of the adults instead of the results for the children is a waste of precious time for the kids who can’t keep waiting to learn.
See also March 2005 Report “Separate and Unequal” from D.C. Parents United