- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2004

The District received a potentially huge boost to aid troubled students and the teaching corps last week, when the Senate approved legislation that provides $40 million in new federal funding for schools. One would think the extra money would please even strident opponents of vouchers, since it includes $13 million for public schools and another $13 million for charter schools. Yet, despite the generous funding, liberal federal lawmakers are plotting to undo what Congress has done, and a leadership vacuum on the D.C. Board of Education threatens to maintain the status quo.

Sen. Ted Kennedy said last week that he will work to repeal the voucher plan — which costs $14 million, is directed at poor children trapped in troubled schools and is expected to be implemented during the next school year. D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said lawyers are poring over the proposal in hopes of taking their fight to court. It is regrettable that they are considering waging such battles this year — a presidential election year and the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s profound school desegregation ruling.

Fortunately, City Hall seems braced to send such a message. Mayor Tony Williams and the D.C. Council are trying to wrest some control from the school board — whose wholesale authority eventually dismantled what used to be a model public school system.

For years, research has shown that the vast majority of D.C. public school students are on the bottom rung — measuring up to neither their regional nor national counterparts in reading and math scores. But instead of focusing on accountability and results, D.C. leaders bickered over school money and school governance — subsequently leaving tens of thousands of children behind.

The leadership vacuum is now of particular concern because of two recent events: nonpartisan efforts to recall the mayor and Council member Jim Graham, and the school board’s efforts to elevate the interim superintendent without a bona fide national search. School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz told us on Friday that the superintendent “has nothing to do with vouchers.” It is precisely that disconnect that led the mayor and some council members to push for more control.

The mayor, for example, wants to make the superintendent a Cabinet-level position — a change that would bolster scrutiny of policies and spending. That accountability, coupled with the new federal money, should pave the way for the necessary reforms. As those changes emerge, parents can exercise their right to enroll their children in charter or private schools.

One of the primary reasons that students have languished is because the board and the superintendent hired political hacks who would curtsy and bow to their every whim. What students, teachers and parents deserve is strong and proven leadership. We urge the mayor and council members to stand united against the ill winds trying to sustain the status quo.

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