- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 29, 2001

D.C. Schools Superintendent Paul L. Vance yesterday said he supports charter schools as long as they are answerable to the District of Columbia's school system.

Mr. Vance said during a luncheon interview with editors and reporters at The Washington Times that he isn't surprised by the success of charter schools in the District.

"I've visited those schools, and I know why they're so attractive to families and students. Charter schools have recruited the public school district's best principals the ones who are just tired of dealing with the mess and given them freedom," he said.

Charter schools are publicly funded schools that answer to their own boards, not the school system.

But Mr. Vance said he supports such schools "as long as they are public charter schools."

His position contrasts with his predecessor, Arlene Ackerman, who opposed charter schools during her tenure in the District.

While charter schools have a role to play, Mr. Vance said, the real key to improving education in the District is reinvesting time, money and expertise in the city's traditional public schools.

Mr. Vance, who came out of retirement to take over the job last summer, said he's enjoying the challenges, despite some missteps like a recent miscommunication with the mayor over budget proposals.

Mr. Vance blamed himself for failing to communicate effectively or persuasively with Mayor Anthony A. Williams on his $717 million proposed budget. But he reiterated that city leaders and the public need to understand that fixing the schools correctly is going to cost money.

"[Mayor Anthony A. William's $658 million school] budget is a cost of living adjustment, not an increase," he said. "It is so unfair to begin to compare our system to other school systems that haven't had draconian budget cuts over the years. We are just beginning to catch up and our budget is an effort to do that."

Both Mr. Vance and School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz, who accompanied the superintendent to the interview, said school officials need to press Congress and the D.C. Council to fund the entire requested budget, an 11 percent increase over this year's budget.

Board members spent yesterday scrambling to plan how best to present their case to Congress when they testify today before the House Appropriations Committee for the District.

Both Mr. Vance and Mrs. Cafritz said they are prepared to move forward, no matter what happens with the budget.

"We are not going to say 'OK, we didn't get [the money] so now let's all go home," Mrs. Cafritz said. "We are going to continue to try until we get what we need."

Mrs. Cafritz added that she and other school officials will continue to press for a revised student funding formula.

The D.C. School Reform Act of 1995 mandates that the city use the Uniform per Student Funding Formula in determining the distribution of money to the public and charter schools. The formula is based on enrollment, with additional weight given to special-education students and other categories. The concept of the provision is to ensure that resources are distributed to all D.C. children, whether they attend public or charter schools.

The formula shortchanges D.C. students by at least $500 each, said Mrs. Cafritz.

The newly formed State Education Office is currently analyzing the formula for its effectiveness at correctly assessing how much it costs to educate children in the District. The mayor has said publicly he will wait for their analysis to be completed before supporting a change.

Mr. Vance, who signed on board with a one-year contract, has filled several top positions on his staff and said he is ready to begin implementing some significant changes in the system.

The superintendent said he and his team will put a priority on expanding bilingual education and increasing training for teachers.

Earlier this year, lines of parents waited out in the cold to enroll their children in the bilingual Oyster Elementary. Mr. Vance saw demand outstrip supply and now he wants to replicate those offerings at other schools.

Mr. Vance also plans to restructure the city's 30 poorest performing schools. He wants to "start off with a new set of experienced administrators and instructional staff" in a "complete shakedown" that would ensure money is spent prudently.

"We aim to restructure, particularly at the high school level," he said. "Restructuring means just that."

"We don't need external organizations," he added referring to the mayor's desire to employ Edison Schools Inc., a private company, to run a handful of troubled schools.

The reorganization is on the "fast track" and is expected to begin July 1. Mr. Vance says he wants to tackle low academic achievement by offering more rigorous courses to younger students while redoubling remediation efforts. For example, he plans to offer Algebra 1 in the seventh grade. He also wants to be able to hold children back earlier, in the third grade.

"We have to deal with it then," he said. "Research shows that if we hold students back in the eighth grade, dropout rates increase."

But he noted that the school system can't develop curriculum without preparing students or teachers for it.

"It's just incredible that, for whatever reason, I inherited a school system that eliminated its curriculum department," he said. "At the same time, we are held to a higher standard. I am expected to produce youngsters that can compete favorably with other school districts who have curriculum and support staff without any money to implement it."

He said his predecessor in the job, Ms. Ackerman, had done a good job of initiating the process of implementing standards-based curriculum.

"The school system has developed an excellent academic framework," he added. "I am just exploiting it."

Mr. Vance, 69, said he is excited about the possibility of leading the system back to respectability, a possibility that Mrs. Cafritz said seemed likely.

"That would depend on whether the board's evaluation of Mr. Vance was a positive one," she said. "And I know of no reason why it wouldn't be."

Mrs. Cafritz said the board restructured last summer with five elected members and four appointed members who took office in January is beginning to work together more effectively.

"The board is quite young," said Mrs. Cafritz as she sang the praises of her colleagues. "We are people learning the styles of each other and are forging ahead. Each of us will never agree on everything, but unanimity is achievable."

The board showed that in its disappointed and outraged response to the mayor's offering to the schools.

Now it is a question of whether school officials and city leaders can "come together and put all our programs on the same page," said Mrs. Cafritz.

"We have convinced mayor and council we are responsible," said Mr. Vance. "Now we just have to work together."

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