- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 15, 2001

District of Columbia Mayor Anthony A. Williams yesterday said he wants private entrepreneurs to help improve the city's poorest-performing public schools.

"We should look into Edison [Schools Inc.]," the mayor said in an interview with reporters and editors at The Washington Times, referring to the for-profit company that manages 113 schools around the country including four largely independent charter schools in the District.

"Edison schools have huge waiting lists. School officials say, 'We've got our own approach,' and I am open to that. But why can't we do both, turning over a handful of schools to Edison?" Mr. Williams said.

"If we just sit around talking, those [public] schools will just become charter schools," he said.

Mr. Williams, who also told The Times he will seek election to a second term, has stressed the need for creativity and accountability in articulating his vision for health care services and education.

Such issues recently embroiled the mayor in controversies. Over the past month, his plan to curtail many services at D.C. General Hospital left many residents and a majority of the D.C. Council furiously opposing the initiative.

After Mr. Williams presented his $5.3 billion budget Monday, some on the D.C. Board of Education reacted angrily because he didn't go along with their request for an 11 percent spending increase. The mayor instead called for a 4.6 percent increase, to $658 million, for fiscal 2002.

But even though the mayor called education the city's top priority, he said he has to demand that the school system be held accountable for funds and justify the connection between more money and results.

"I feel like a Republican," the Democrat said jokingly. "But really, how can you justify increasing funds for a school system that is losing students?

"Last year, we fought to increase the money, and now I am being told this doesn't include a gazillion things," Mr. Williams said. "What is the point, then, of the per-pupil formula if when I fully fund it, they then tell me I haven't fully funded the schools?

"I also think the schools need to do a better job of outlining the outcomes with the resources they get."

The D.C. School Reform Act of 1995 mandates the city use the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula to determine distribution of money to public and charter schools.

The formula is based on enrollment, with consideration given to special education students and other categories. The provision is meant to ensure that resources are distributed equitably to all schoolchildren.

The mayor said he would reconsider the per-pupil funding formula after the new State Education Office finishes an analysis.

Meanwhile, school board members continue to defend their budget request, saying they need the money to turn the school system into a world-class operation.

"We may not have done enough to sell our budget," said board member Tommy Wells, District 3. "But that doesn't excuse his cutting of it. Still, this is a dispute we need to have how much does it really cost to educate the children?"

Yesterday, Mr. Williams said he wants to consider other options for the most poorly performing schools. The mayor has earmarked $750,000 to recruit principals for them. But the private sector can help too, he said.

Edison Schools Inc. already runs four of the city's publicly funded, privately operated charter schools under the name Edison-Friendly: the Collegiate Academy, and the Woodridge, Blow Pierce and Chamberlain campuses.

Each has been described as "fairly successful," though the company has been the subject of some controversy, most recently in San Francisco. Critics contend it pushes out struggling students to raise test scores. Some San Francisco school board members want Edison out of the system, run by former D.C. Schools Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman.

Some education activists here welcomed the mayor's proposal to involve Edison in reforming city schools.

"I wouldn't be opposed to it," activist Mary Levy said. "I am willing to try it. Edison has already done very well here."

Others said it is not the mayor's role to decide the fate of schools.

"This isn't something the mayor and council should impose on the school board and superintendent without their support," said D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat.

School board members agreed.

"We would say to the mayor, 'Thank you for your interest,' " Mr. Wells said. "We would have to consider this."

"Why do we have a school board and superintendent then?" activist Dorothy Brizill said. "This is outrageous."

D.C. Schools Superintendent Paul L. Vance said last Thursday he will introduce a plan to help the 30 poorest-performing schools.

"We have established criteria for reconstituting those schools," Mr. Vance said. "But we are going to administer those schools ourselves."

The mayor yesterday also continued to advocate a new "vehicle" to deliver funding to capital improvement projects. Last week, he said the pace of school modernization is not "breathtaking."

"The school system keeps saying, 'We're on the road to getting funds on the ground,' Mr. Williams said yesterday. "But even though they have obligated the funds, they haven't encumbered them.

"If they need $2 billion [for construction], they should ask for it. But then, what are they doing with the $770 million they have? It's a strange logic to wait for the full amount to begin the journey."


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