- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2003

The battle on Capitol Hill to provide federally funded vouchers for poor D.C. students has taken a back seat to the one brewing in City Hall, where Mayor Tony Williams and D.C. lawmakers are pondering radical changes to the failed one-size-fits-all approach to education. The pace of the debate is encouraging, since we hope that the reforms will be included in next year’s budget and that as many changes as possible are implemented next school year.

The timeline calls for public engagement through February, and a look at some of the particulars explains why some key players are already shaking their heads. For instance, we cannot imagine any union agreeing to expand charter schools and streamline central administration — the No. 1 and No. 2 items in the proposal.

Other proposals certain to draw strong opposition:

1) The mayor wants to “sharply” reduce the city’s inventory of school facilities, which means some school houses will close.

2) Re-establishment of vocational education. In this instance, we hope those curriculums and programs are tailored to local industries and that instructors are not tied to the same certification process that regular teachers are.

3) Merit pay. Again, union opposition is a given, even regarding coaching staff.

The two most contentious issues, however, are certain to be school governance and zero-based budgeting. Regarding the latter, we say it is about time. Policy-makers have no idea how much it costs to effectively run D.C. Public Schools because authorities inevitably pour more money on top of the previous year’s budget. That is why the mayor and the council are working with Congress to get line-item control of the school budget.

Governance remains the touchiest of subjects, both because of historical reasons (voting rights predate home rule) and management transgressions. We think the mayor and the legislature should control the school system.

Already, there is pressure to beat back reform. D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz, a Republican and former school board member, has said city leaders aren’t doing a good job managing their current responsibilities, so she is hesitant to add schools to their to-do list. Some school board members oppose radical changes because, for them, reform means not only losing their job, but also the loss of their springboard to higher office. One member, William Lockridge, has even resorted to name-calling (“selfish and immature” is how he referred to the mayor).

Disappointingly, School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz — who supports federally funded vouchers — appears to be standing the tallest among those toeing the line for the status quo. “It’s about power,” Mrs. Cafritz said of the reform plan, “not about kids.” Actually, it’s about both — and about time.


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