- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 21, 2003

The Senate is expected to begin floor debate this week on a school voucher proposal for low-income D.C. students. Mayor Tony Williams and D.C. Council Education Committee Chairman Kevin Chavous have been urging such reforms for D.C. Public Schools, but to no avail. Each school semester brings not only more mismanagement and money woes, but also more bad news about underachieving students. Accountability within the system is practically nonexistent. Determined to aid at least those students whose families cannot afford private schools, Messrs. Williams and Chavous began pushing for vouchers. Then, last week, the mayor and the council made an unprecedented request for line-item authority over the school budget. Such authority can only be granted by Congress. We strongly urge bipartisan support for this and swift action on Capitol Hill.

The request from City Hall was in response to the school board’s need to close yet another budget gap and restore money for raises for school workers. The mayor and council agreed to grant the school system an additional $21 million. However, according to a Sept. 17 letter signed by the mayor, Mr. Chavous and Council Chairman Linda Cropp, and addressed to School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz, the extra funds will be granted only if the following things happen: the board rescinds the cancellation of scheduled raises and takes other steps to cover the deficit, including the renegotiaton of labor contracts. We add that the board’s forthcoming moves should not cause further harm inside the classrooms. These are reasonable requests that simply call on the school board to do its job.

If granted, a third request would initiate fiscal and accountability reforms in a school system that has long mismanaged it finances and other resources. Allocation of the $21 million, the letter stated, is contingent upon “Congress granting the mayor and the council ongoing ‘line-item authority’ over the DCPS budget, with a requirement that the school board submit a detailed allocation of the mayor’s annual budget proposal for DCPS, so that the contingencies specified above would be fully consistent with the home rule charter.”

As things now stand, D.C. Public Schools is an independent agency, which means the mayor and council can make adjustments to the school budget, but that policy and spending authority are vested in the school board. It is precisely that status which has allowed the mismanagement and overspending to occur year after year. By pushing for vouchers and line-item authority, the mayor and the council are publicly conceding that the school system cannot reform itself. Since Congress has not yet approved the city’s fiscal 2004 budget, we urge congressional leaders to make the necessary legislative moves sooner rather than later.

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