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Letter to the President of the Senate and to the Speaker of the House Recommending Legislation To Provide for an Elected School Board in the District of Columbia

August 16, 1967

Dear Mr. President: (Dear Mr. Speaker:)

Last Friday, the long-awaited reorganization plan for the District of Columbia became effective--and the Nation's Capital began moving into the world of 20th Century government.

At that moment, we launched a search-which we are pressing now--for the best qualified chief executive, his assistant and members of the City Council.

With reorganization on the statute books, we must now pursue the great work we have begun with a further step. That step is to modernize the structure of the District's educational system by providing for the popular election of its school board.

Education is the root of our strength. Across our Nation we are engaged in a massive effort to improve its quality and with it, better the lives of all America's children. In this Capital City, which we are now liberating from ancient machinery of government, we cannot leave the school system burdened by an archaic structure.

The first schools established in this country were run by town meetings. Ever since then the American people have looked on involvement in their school systems as one of the most fundamental exercises of democracy.

The school board is the basic administrative unit for the operation of a school system. It shapes the policy for the educational program of the community's students.

Yet, in the District of Columbia--because of a law passed at the turn of the century-the school board is selected not by the people but by judges sitting on the bench of the Federal District Court. These judges have neither accountability to the community nor responsibility for the operation of the District government.

No other city in the Nation conducts the fundamental business of school board selection in a manner which so isolates the school system from the community it serves.

The judges themselves recognize the anomaly of their roles. They have recently asked to be relieved of this burden which is so far removed from the legitimate duties of the judiciary.

Washington's 150,000 school children and their parents--who now for the first time will be able to know the benefits of modern government--must also be able to exercise one of their most fundamental rights. They must have a voice which can be heard in the operation of their school system.

I believe the wisest method for the District of Columbia would be to permit the election of school board members by the citizens whom the school board serves. Direct election of school boards is the common practice in almost 70 percent of those school systems comparable in size to the District of Columbia's.

To accomplish this needed reform, I recommend legislation to: --Create an 11-member school board. Eight members will be selected by their neighbors in as many school electoral districts. Three will be elected at large.

--Set the following requirements for board membership:

• Eligibility to vote.

• District residents for at least three years.

• Residents in the school electoral district for at least one year.

--Provide for a four-year term of office for board members, with staggered elections.

The educational system of a modern city can be the gateway to the advancement and enrichment of its children--or it can hobble opportunity and curb growth.

If that system is to succeed it must be a part of community life. The problems of delinquency, crime prevention, and empty summers--and the promise of vocational training, recreation, and full opportunity-must be no less the concern of the educational system than of the community as a whole.

Education can no longer be considered a seasonal experience, when the problems of a modern city know no calendar.

To answer this challenge in our Nation's Capital, the school board I propose will have a broad charter.

--To involve itself deeply in the affairs of the community.

--To coordinate its efforts fully with other agencies of the city's government.

--And, most importantly, to work closely with the new officials of the city government. Among its functions will be to submit its budget estimates to the city's chief executive so that the city's total budget can be shaped to meet its most urgent needs and priorities.

Washington has been fortunate to have dedicated and devoted citizens serve on its school board, despite the outmoded method of their selection. They have served the city's children faithfully and well. But we must move forward.

The Congress has demonstrated its commitment to good government for the District of Columbia. Many members have submitted specific proposals for the popular election of a school board. While some may differ in detail from the proposal we will forward, all share with me a common hope for the future of the District--which belongs to all the people.



Note: This is the text of identical letters addressed to the Honorable Hubert H. Humphrey, President of the Senate, and to the Honorable John W. McCormack, Speaker of the House of Representatives.

A bill embodying the President's proposal was approved by the House of Representatives on September 25. For the President's letter of September 26 to the Chairman of the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia requesting Senate action on the measure, see Item 399.

Lyndon B. Johnson, Letter to the President of the Senate and to the Speaker of the House Recommending Legislation To Provide for an Elected School Board in the District of Columbia Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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