- The Washington Times - Friday, January 28, 2000

No one should be surprised that the school governance debate in the District has morphed into a bad rendition of Abbott and Costello. No one knows who's on first in this game. Everyone is making a mad dash for the exit, declaring victory in the third inning, with no hits and mucho errors.
D.C. Council member Kevin Chavous made the first mistake by proposing legislation that fell short of his announced goal of radically reforming the District's consistently inept board of education. The Ward 7 representative deserves some commendation for taking up the issue, but he squandered the opportunity. Proposals by council members Sharon Ambrose and Vincent Orange also fell short.
Ward 3's Kathy Patterson proposed a five-member school board appointed by the mayor, and Mayor Anthony Williams pushed for the authority to hire and fire the superintendent. Both hit the mark, but in the end, council members voted for the status quo: an elected school board, with seven instead of 11 members.
Now there is sheer pandemonium: Mr. Williams threatens a veto, and some congressional representatives promise to intervene. And the control board's Alice Rivlin told the current elected school group they won't get their power back.
At-large council member David Catania called on the mayor to declare a "state of emergency" in District schools; then the executive would get authority to usurp the elected school board the one Mr. Catania and his team didn't want to dissolve.
For a man who prides himself on being a student of history, the Republican lawmaker hasn't been paying attention: The schools are already operating under a state of emergency. It was declared more than three years ago, in 1996, when the financial control board snatched powers from then-superintendent Franklin Smith and the elected schools panel. Back then, the control board pointed to Chicago as its model for the "hostile" schools takeover. Except, instead of turning over responsibility to the mayor as the Illinois legislature did when Chicago's schools went from bad to nightmarish, the control board set up its own trustees and hand-picked a chief operating officer none of whom had any real expertise in secondary school policy-making or management.
If Mr. Catania and his colleagues are willing to give the mayor temporary authority over the school system, they don't need new legislation. The control board simply could amend its initial order, dissolving its emergency trustees and giving similar powers to the executive branch. The mayor could then appoint his own advisory panel or he could choose to engage the elected board as a policy-making, advisory group. The emergency transfer of powers to Mr. Williams by the control board could sunset whenever officials think it appropriate.
Control board executive director Francis Smith said the emergency transfer of power to the mayor is technically possible but "there hasn't been a recommendation or discussion with regard to such an option." (Perhaps Mr. Catania is dialing the number right now.)
The mayor's assumption of emergency powers doesn't need to end the debate surrounding a more permanent school governance structure. That could continue at a more deliberative pace, allowing for substantial citizen input, with a charter referendum vote in the November 2000 general election, rather than the May primary when, historically, so few citizens come out to vote.
While the school governance debate is critical it cannot continue ad nauseam. For years former council members William Lightfoot and John Ray among others argued for a change in the way the District addressed the needs of children, including the role schools played in the stabilization of neighborhoods, the strengthening of families, and the overall economic development of a community. Those two lawmakers argued until they were blue in the face for a comprehensive approach. They left without ever getting their colleagues and the city's chief executive to fully commit resources and personnel to that methodology. Once again, the topic is in play.
Mr. Williams last year introduced his Safe Passages legislation aimed at improving the overall climate for children in the District. He requested in his fiscal year 2000 budget $30 million to fund various children and family-centered programs; the council cut that to $15 million. He requested money to fund health insurance for poor children and their families; the council reduced that dramatically, permitting a meager 2,500 people in the program. Still, the mayor has offered a broad outline of the kind of comprehensive approach for which Messrs. Lightfoot and Ray fought. The missing link within the mayor's plan is schools.
If council members really want to win, if they want children in the city to be well-served, they ought to reconsider the issue. They can request that the control board give the mayor emergency authority over the schools. Then, they can begin to engage the public fully in a rigorous debate over the best governance structure for the District, which, quiet as it's kept, never got the chance back in the 1960s to choose for itself.

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