- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 6, 2003

Few issues in Washington have captured local voter attention likeeducation. Whether secondary education or higher education, there has been much to do about many things regarding schooling — and not just in City Hall.

Major think tankshave used the District’sdysfunctional school system as the perfect exampleof how not to educatechildren.The White House and Congress have tried to turnthings around, with legislation and appropriations. City policy-makers and lawmakers have tried, too, by substantially increasing school spending and by reshuffling the deck of chairs known as school governance. Alas, despite all those means, the end essentially remains the same: The longer a child stays in D.C. Public Schools, the worse his academic performance.

Parents who can afford to, and those blessed with benefactors, usually opt of the public system by the time their child reaches middle school, while others move out of the city. Some who stay enroll their children in private schools, seek privately funded vouchers or exercise choice via a charter school or magnet program. The vast majority, however, are left behind to languish.

The push to offer federally funded vouchers to only low-income D.C. students was even met with much resistance from the usual national standard-bearers of the status quo, as well as local anti-choice stalwarts. This, despite newly voiced support from Mayor Tony Williams, School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz and a key D.C. lawmaker, Kevin Chavous.

Many of those critics, particularly the city’s congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, criticized her congressional colleagues, saying they were trying to force school policy on the city. Shame on them for playing Russian roulette with children’s lives.

The essential ingredients for what could become substantial reform, however, are finally making the rounds of City Hall. The mayor, Mr. Chavous and his council colleagues appear poised to revamp the school system. Expansion of school choice, school-based governance and a streamlined bureaucracy top the list. The plan also calls for closing and consolidating schools, and there are merit pay incentives.

Like the current practices, though, some of the proposed policies put the already limited school-choice options at risk. For example, the mayor envisions traditional public schools and charter schools living in the same schoolhouse. In theory, that sounds like a logical, cost-saving measure. However, in practice it would grant oversight of autonomous charter schools to public school bureaucrats.

For the most part, charter schools and the families who utilize them are doing fine, thank you very much. If anything, it is the structure of the oversight system that remains a flop. While most of the schools chartered by the independent D.C. Public Charter School Board continue to flourish, many of those chartered by the anti-choice (and sometimes hostile) D.C. school board close up shop. With the public school system are losing thousands of students to charter schools each year, any plan to revamp that system must include discussions with school-choice proponents.

To be sure, school talk will remain at the top of the political agenda in 2004, since any reform plan will include yet another restructuring of the school board. Governance alone is a very touchy for D.C. politicians who used the board to spring to higher office, including Republican Council member Carol Schwartz. Voters changed the structure of the board just three years ago, moving from a wholly elected board to one comprised of members elected by voters and appointed by the mayor. Those provisions sunset in 2004, and the mayor and the council could eventually do what’s necessary by stripping the board and the school system of their independence.

School-choice proponents — and those of us pushing for a complete takeover — know that the governance issue is not wholly responsible for creating or sustaining the city’s failed schools.That is why none of the stakeholders is taking the issue of voting rights lightly. After all, D.C. residents were granted the right to elect a school board long before they were granted the right to vote for mayor, a legislature or even a delegate to Congress (albeit a non-voting delegate).

It is noteworthy, though, that back then, before Congress granted us limited home rule, the school system worked. Ask Eleanor Holmes Norton or William Lockridge.AskCarol Schwartz, whose three children attended D.C. Public Schools. These stakeholders cannot deny the fact that D.C. schools used to be a shining example for public education.

The education reform plan is moving in the right direction — just ask the standard- bearers, who are calling it a “takeover.”Indeed,a takeover is what must be put forward if the District is to lead this and future generations out of bondage.

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