- The Washington Times - Friday, December 13, 2002

The education legislation that President Bush signed into law earlier this year is both a help and a hindrance to school reform. While the No Child Left Behind initiative mandates greater accountability and, in some ways, strengthens local control, it also presents a conundrum for some school districts.
In the nation's capital, for instance, there is a burgeoning charter-school movement. Currently, about 11,500 students attend charter schools, compared to the ever-decreasing 67,000 who attend traditional public. So, it would seem that local authorities would reward charter-school students and teachers with access to local resources and federal funds equal to their public school peers. Unfortuntely, the opposite is happening.
Charter-school students rarely have access to playground and athletic facilities, and charter-school teachers are often denied the opportunity to participate in taxpayer-funded programs for professional development. These and other longstanding tactics are quietly smothering the charter- school movement.
More profound problems exist regarding funding. Current D.C. and federal laws rest authority regarding funding and most state responsibilities for public education in the hands of the D.C. Board of Education. While the District established a State Education Office (SEO) a couple of years ago, disbursement of federally mandated funds including title funds in the No Child Left Behind initiative and Medicaid reimbursements rests with the public school system, not the SEO. That means students and teachers are being left behind.
There is hope if politics do not get in the way.
One of the coalitions supporting charter schools, the Center for Student Support Services, is urging legislation to level the playing field for charter-school students and teachers. In a recent letter to D.C. Council member Kevin Chavous, who is chairman of the education, libraries and recreation panel, the center urges the council to strengthen the State Education Office so that school officials are no longer biased against charter schools particularly in light of the No Child Left Behind initiative.
"There is no 'disinterested party' [within DCPS] to make sure that there is no special preferences for use of federal funds, nor equal opportunities for city resource allocation," the center said in its letter. "As a consequence, charter schools fail to receive fair shares of funds and decision-making in numerous areas."
More specifically, the absolute control vested in DCPS shuts out charter schools in several key federally funded areas:
DCPS, not the SEO, submitted the state plan for federal funds under No Child Left Behind, without any involvement from charter schools.
Charter schools were omitted from seeking federal grants.
DCPS ignores charters when it comes to Title II and Title IV funding for teacher training and safe schools.
Charter schools and other components of the school-choice movement were deliberately designed to create competition on behalf of children. Unfortunately, there are members of both the school board and among the higher ranks of DCPS who care not about the students; their interests lie solely in pouring more money into a system that has failed most of its students.
Of course, this is not to say that all DCPS schools are failures. There are success stories, such as Moten Elementary, which I wrote about last week. At Moten, test scores rocketed after the principal estabIished single-sex classes. There are successful magnet schools as well, such as Jefferson Junior High and Wilson High, where prominent Washingtonians send their children because of the rigorous curriculums and high-quality teaching corps.
But for every Moten, Jefferson and Wilson, there are many more troubled schools, and, with parents increasingly opting for charter schools each year, competition is bound to rise in more ways than one for students. So, it is incumbent upon the council to act.
In fact, the council must act sooner than it thinks.
Currently, No Child Left Behind mandates that parents with children trapped in violent and failing schools must be given explicit options, including transportation, to better-performing schools. As things now stand, that, ahem, discretion and authority rest with the superintendent whose policies and budget target traditional schools, not charter, or private or parochial schools. The conflict of interest, then, is fairly obvious.
For sure, the last thing school districts needed was more federal mandates regarding state public-education efforts. Yet, here we are, tussling with a system biased against choice and ignoring a D.C. State Education Office that does not yet have the capacity to operate as it should.
In the name of equal rights under the law, though, that agency must be strengthened with all deliberate speed.

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