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D.C. officials say shutdown threatens students at charter schools

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 9, 2013

D.C. officials warned Wednesday that they will have to close charter schools, turning away 35,000 students, unless President Obama and Senate Democrats relent and pass a bill carving the city out of the government shutdown.

Rallying outside the Senate, city leaders asked more than 100 residents to go to senators' offices and personally lobby them to take up a bill that would let D.C. spend its own tax revenue to keep open during the shutdown. The leaders also asked President Obama to lift his threat to veto the bill.

"Now, the situation grows desperate," said Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city's nonvoting member of Congress who said D.C. should stop being "treated like hapless collateral damage."

People affected by the shutdown congregated on Capitol Hill, holding signs that read "Free D.C. From Shutdown" and "I am the face of D.C. Medicaid." They erupted into applause several times during the officials' remarks, especially Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican.

"I can't help but notice the [D.C.] license plates say 'Taxation Without Representation,'" he said. "Perhaps they should say 'Federal government, don't tread on me' instead."

For now, the city is running on contingency funds. But a spokesman for Mayor Vincent C. Gray said that money will run out in about two weeks, leaving operations and paychecks in peril.

The schools situation is even more immediate.

The city's charter schools are expecting a quarterly paycheck Oct. 15, which will not come if the government is still shut down, said Donald Hense, the CEO of the Friendship Public Charter School.

As one of the largest in the city with 4,000 students, Mr. Hense's school has some reserves, though he said they won't last long. Less-fortunate, smaller schools will be forced to lock their doors immediately.

"Some schools that are very small have no reserves and they are actually depending on the money to come that day. Without it, they will close their doors. This is outrageous," he told reporters Wednesday afternoon.

Nearly half of all D.C. public school students, including many from low-income families, attend charter schools. In addition to taking away education opportunities and preparation for college, a school closing will take away school lunch, the only meal some students will get all day, Mr. Hense said.

The House passed the bill to let D.C. fund itself by voice vote last week, but neither the Republicans nor the Democrats in the Senate have tried to raise the bill in the upper chamber.

City officials conducted their event without the benefit of a microphone, with Mrs. Norton saying one wasn't available because of the shutdown. Less than 50 yards away, however, Senate Democrats were conducting their own rally, complete with a microphone.

Despite that audio advantage, at one point the D.C. rally threatened to drown out the Senate Democrats with chants of "Free D.C."

Mrs. Norton told the crowd that drowning out the Democrats may cause resentment from the people the city needs on its side. To be more effective, she suggested the crowd disperse to the Senate office buildings to talk with senators and make their voices heard.

At one point during Democrats' news conference, cameras caught Mr. Gray, who had crashed the senators' meeting, standing next to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

"I spoke to the extent that I could to the majority leader. That obviously was a press conference that they had planned. They didn't even know that we would be here and vice versa," Mr. Gray told reporters after the exchange.

The cameras' sound equipment caught Mr. Reid telling Mr. Gray, "I'm on your side. Don't screw it up," in response to his pleas to reopen the District's government.

Mr. Reid's office did not return a request for comment.

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