- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 25, 2000

Congress has delivered a blunt message in recent days to District of Columbia leaders squabbling over control of public education in the nation's capital: Make real changes, or Congress will do it for you.

One of the District's toughest critics, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican, is weighing whether to again seek vouchers for the parents of the city's poorest school children to allow them to send the students elsewhere, aides said yesterday.

And Rep. Ernest Istook, Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the District, sent a stinging letter to the D.C. financial control board yesterday questioning whether the board was interfering with the growth of the charter school movement.

Meanwhile, D.C. Council members continued to hash out at least two proposals intended to rescue legislation the council passed preserving an elected school board. Mayor Anthony A. Williams has threatened to veto the current council bill, and a key congressman with oversight of the city said the council could invite congressional intervention.

The council is scheduled to meet today with Mr. Williams, who wants to appoint the school board members and have the superintendent report to him.

Amid the swirl of activity, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat and the city's nonvoting member of Congress, said the city still holds the ability to settle matters.

"Congress is unlikely to take action if D.C. itself makes significant changes, as is likely," she said.

But yesterday, council sources said the panel didn't have a veto-proof majority in favor of a plan to allow the mayor to declare an educational emergency and hold the reins of power temporarily.

Ironically, such an emergency could qualify parents of city school children for voucher funds, under the Academic Emergency Act, a federal bill pending in the House. Mr. Williams and most city officials oppose vouchers.

Mr. Armey introduced legislation in 1997 to provide $3,200 vouchers to parents of the financially poorest students in the city. President Clinton vetoed the measure, saying vouchers undercut the government's efforts in public schooling.

"It's pretty clear there's an academic emergency in the District," said Richard Diamond, a spokesman for Mr. Armey. "We wanted to give parents a way out, but the president's veto killed that."

Mr. Armey's Academic Emergency Act would provide similar voucher funds nationwide in school districts where the state governor has declared an educational emergency.

"He might bring up a D.C. measure again," Mr. Diamond said yesterday. "That's something worth thinking about."

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican and chairman of the House Government Reform subcommittee on the District, warned city officials last week that such measures could happen if the city didn't reform schools quickly. Mr. Davis said the city's elected school board has done a poor job over 30 years.

Council member Kevin P. Chavous, Ward 7 Democrat and chairman of the education committee, said pressure from Congress to trump the council is unfair.

"For years Congress said publicly and privately that the city needed a new mayor and council and a new spirit," Mr. Chavous said. "The reality is that we're no closer to getting autonomy and voting rights than we were before."

The council has also debated creating an educational agency that would hold ultimate responsibility for the performance of schools.

Changing school governance has become a priority in recent months. The current school board is scheduled to receive all its traditional authority back from the D.C. financial control board in June.

Appointing a school board is an especially sensitive matter in the District because it was the first measure of elective local government for city residents in 1968.

In addition to the pressure for an appointed school board from Congress, Mr. Williams is still lobbying for a referendum to allow city voters choose the educational structure.

"If we can't take the tough medicine, give it to the voters and allow me to make this case to the voters," Mr. Williams said in an interview with WRC-TV (Channel 4). "I think the voters will do the right thing."

In a letter yesterday, Mr. Istook told the control board he is considering requesting an investigation by the General Accounting Office into how "technical flaws" have masked efforts to undercut the charter school movement.

Mr. Istook was particularly displeased that the control board nullified a proposed sale of the Franklin School building to a group wanting to open a charter school called the Washington Math and Science Center.

"Questions have been raised about whether the control board is part of the solution or not," said a source familiar with Mr. Istook's letter to the control board. "A good measure of this is how they dispose of school properties."

Mr. Istook upbraided the control board for rejecting the building sale on the grounds that the group had not fully complied with partnership rules and because the public schools suddenly raised the price for the building.

The charter school group's partnership status was known throughout the process and never questioned, Mr. Istook wrote.

The original estimate for the building, $4.1 million, wasn't changed until deep into the sales process, when the school system insisted the fair market value of the building was the $14.5 million valuation determined by the city's Office of Tax and Revenue assessment.

Mr. Istook called the problems an attempt to strangle the charter school movement. Control board Executive Director Francis Smith could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Control board Chairman Alice M. Rivlin added pressure to change the school system when she testified before a House subcommittee last week that she would not support handing the system back to local control in July with its governance unsettled.

Mrs. Rivlin said she would extend control board oversight of schools until a plan is approved.

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