- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 12, 2003

When D.C. Council member Kevin Chavous allowed the press to learn that he supported a federally funded voucher program, it came as a big surprise to many. His support is nonetheless welcome, because in the struggle to truly reform schools to benefit children and offer broader opportunities, we need all the help we can get. But, I wonder. Do parents really know what he is doing? His marks are all over the school system. As chairman of the Education Committee, he is credited with a number of legislative measures, including support for school-based management and the creation of a state education agency. When charter school parents said they needed a fair shake of the per-pupil spending pie, he listened. He has tried to reshape the system from the inside, too — like a few years back, when constant infighting tore the all-elected school board asunder. There was Kevin, as everyone refers to him, trying to get the politically ambitious board members to stop fighting long enough to hear parents’ cries for reform and school choice. They heard but didn’t listen. And because they didn’t, change came in the form of the current hybrid board of elected and appointed members. Now, none of those changes has yet to produce significant academic improvement in students who attend traditional public schools, which is the ultimate goal since D.C. Public Schools have been the laughing stock of metropolitan Washington since the 1980s. Yet, if it’s political clout Kevin Chavous is after, his embrace of two pivotal issues — vouchers and universal preschool — will certainly endear him to important constituencies. Liberals — and, unfortunately, some conservatives — love the idea of universal preschool, but not because of any guarantees that youngsters will be better-prepared first-graders. D.C. Public Schoolsoffer no guarantees (the better to maintain the status quo, after all these years). The preschool program is a magnet because it establishes a government-run babysitting service. Stay-at-home parents. Parents who work for the government and private business. Parents who work for themselves. Parents who don’t work. Parents who wouldn’t work even if you went to their homes and offered them a job. They would all partake of the free babysitting service. As for vouchers and other aspects of school choice, Kevin Chavous and other city leaders have tussled with them on and off for sometime. The voucher debate grew intense in the 1990s, when D.C. officials were forced to establish charter schools and private vouchers were offered to D.C. youths who were languishing in public schools. Federal lawmakers tried to create a public-funded voucher program in the last Congress. Then, earlier this year, voucher supporters told D.C. officials to take it or take it. That’s when Mayor Williams, Kevin Chavous and School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz concurred. (The halls of Congress, however, have yet to recover from the resounding shrills from Eleanor Holmes Norton, a longtime anti-school choicer.) The poorly run school system now has dumped another challenge in the lap of Mr. Chavous. In recent weeks, several allegations of sexual improprieties have been leveled against school employees. In one case, which was first reported by WRC-Channel 4, a high-school aide reportedly had sex with a student at least 10 times. In another case, a coach was rehired by D.C. Public Schools despite the fact that he had been convicted of a child-sex offense and after his name was put on the Maryland sex-offender registry. School employees who abuse their responsibilities toward students should be “tarred and feathered,” Superintendent Paul Vance said.(I second that motion.) By the same turn, school officials’ statements were of the typical pass-the-buck type, saying their hands were bound by hiring rules. Mr. Chavous is as incensed as any parent would be, even though his own boys don’t attend public schools. But D.C. parents and other voters don’t hold that against him. It’s his efforts at seemingly giving parents what they want that fuels his staying power. You know, like his efforts to change D.C. Public Schools instead of reforming D.C. Public Schools.

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