- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The D.C. Council is scheduled tomorrow to take a final vote on Mayor Adrian Fenty’s education bill, which would revise the city’s charter, place school operations under the mayor and give the council line-item control of the school budget. The unprecedented legislation, like all D.C. measures, would have to be approved by Congress, and it faces threats of legal action from various special interests. The bill falls short of two key steps toward reform, but it nonetheless represents a solid first step.

When the council gave preliminary approval with its 9-2 vote on April 3, the mayor and lawmakers united against the status quo, which, having failed to educate the masses, has now led to an unconscionable adult illiteracy rate of 36 percent. But the mayor’s legislation fails to detail how the city would lift student achievement out of the basement, remove longstanding classroom stumbling blocks, including restrictive collective bargaining rights, and rein in the astronomical costs of special education — for which transportation alone picked taxpayers’ pockets of $72 million (and bus drivers are currently demanding raises). The alternative proposed by the Board of Education, however, does address those issues. The board’s plan calls for flexibility with collective-bargaining rights and personnel rules, and revamping schools to better accommodate students with special needs.

Of course the fact that the mayor’s proposal is silent on ornery union rights makes it more attractive. And the council has long complained about how the school board spends its budget allocations, so the lure of line-item control was irresistible for lawmakers. The measure faces little resistance tomorrow.

But that doesn’t mean City Hall’s work is done. We know the mayor is keenly aware of the political and classroom obstacles perched along the road to effective school reform — and governance, which his proposal fully addresses, is but one problem. Once the council removes that problem, the “bullpen” must be prepared to move forward on the key issue articulated in recent months by School Board President Robert Bobb: How best to raise student achievement?

Indeed, after tomorrow’s vote, City Hall will be forced to answer questions that heretofore have been on the back burner. Will there be a new superintendent? Is the deputy mayor for education, Victor Reinoso, really up to the task of executing policy vs. developing policy? Will there be a moratorium on school choice to placate some lawmakers? The city’s congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, won’t stand in the way of the legislation, but who ultimately will hold sway with the Democrat-controlled Congress — which has been heavily lobbied by both sides in the reform debate?

Interestingly, Mr. Bobb became the lone voice of reason in the school-reform debate when he conceded that the school system is structurally flawed with inflexibility. Yet conceding that and devising ways to rid the system of that structural flaw isn’t Mr. Bobb’s responsibility alone. The mayor and the chairman of the council, Vince Gray, must come to terms with that reality, too, and all the while keep their focus on the bottomline. That is to say, improving the academic lives of the city’s school-age population.

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