- The Washington Times - Friday, January 5, 2007

Adrian Fenty, the new mayor of the nation’s capital, threw down his gauntlet yesterday, unveiling his plan to revamp D.C. Public Schools. Vincent Gray, the new chairman of the D.C. Council, didn’t endorse the mayor’s plan, but he did promise to hold public hearings on the legislative proposal. Robert Bobb, the new president of the school board, said he isn’t keen on the idea of being relegated to a mere advisory role. As these three leaders come to grips with their respective newfound powers (and I’m writing in full appreciation of the management styles of each), don’t expect mere political oneupmanship.

Rams locking horns is more likely.

The ball is in the mayor’s court, so to speak, and he is keenly aware of what he’s up against.

The short version of his school takeover plan is that he has to convince the council to approve his proposal and then get an OK from Congress. The mayor needs D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton on his side as well. And while the mayor already has voters behind him — after winning all 142 precincts in both the primary and general election — there are no guarantees once elected.

The long version of the mayor’s proposal includes repealing and amending key sections of the D.C. Home Rule Act — the very document that charters the various responsibilities of the city’s limited self-governance. At least two sections must be rewritten. Section 452, for one, was last amended by Congress in 1995, when the city was placed under the authority of a congressionally established control board. The Fenty proposal would grant school-budget control to the council because the home-rule act restricts the powers of the mayor and the council. Specifically, the act says that “[w]ith respect to the annual budget for the Board of Education in the District of Columbia, the Mayor and the Council may establish the maximum amount of funds which will be allocated to the Board, but may not specify the purposes for which such funds may be expended or the amount of such funds which may be expended for the various programs under the jurisdiction of the Board of Education.”

Rewriting that law should be made with all deliberate speed since all three Messrs. Fenty, Gray and Bobb have all agreed that oversight and management of the school system must improve if student achievement is to do likewise.

The most divisive action will occur when the time comes to debate changes to Section 495 of the home-rule act. This is the section that states “control of the public schools in the District of Columbia is vested in a Board of Education.” Under the Fenty scenario, control of the public schools would be vested in the mayor, not the school board. The mayor wants the board to hold an advisory role, one that would oversee things like policy.

Day-to-day affairs would be in the hands of the Fenty administration. It’s all about separating state education functions from local education functions. The hard slog has just begun.

If local and federal lawmakers approve the proposal, the District will join Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and some other urban school districts that have given mayors more say in what goes on with their school systems.

With voices of dissent and reservation already on record, Mr. Fenty had better brace himself, however: A judge ruled last month that the new California law that gave the Los Angeles mayor control over the school district violated the state Constitution and the Los Angeles City Charter. The city appealed the ruling, which ordered the mayor “to refrain from enforcing or implementing” any part of the measure.

City Hall should train its legal eyes on the L.A. case because D.C. will surely face a legal challenge from upholders of the status quo who are more interested in their own hides than the academic preparedness of the city’s uneducated children and unemployable adults.

D.C. officials conjured up a way to give Major League Baseball everything it wanted before the Nationals even moved here. Surely, they can figure out a way to grasp the reins of the failing school system.

Messrs. Bobb, Fenty and Gray should also be mindful of the detractors. These are the very people (many of them parents) who always make sure they show up to testify at public hearings and who always try (and in too many cases succeed) to determine the spending authorities for D.C. schools. These people have been in “control” far too long.

With new leadership where it matters most, D.C. has the opportunity to fight the good fight and turn around the very institution that has been most disappointing and embarrassing. The battle will be uphill all the way; but the fight isn’t over who controls schools or who controls the purse strings for the schools. It’s not over personalities, either. (Although I confess, at this point, that I’ve already placed my bet on the winner.)

The fight is over educating children who, through no fault of their own, are forced to attend some of the lousiest public schools in the nation.

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