- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 22, 2007

There was a collective sigh of relief heard last week around City Hall following the historic vote that gives Mayor Adrian Fenty and the D.C. Council unprecedented control of public education. Now begins the arduous journey toward reform. The mayor and school officials must now convince a Democrat-led Congress that they are indeed prepared to turn around a school system that has resisted reform for nearly three decades.

Both the city’s congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and the city’s Republican friend, Rep. Tom Davis, support the freshly minted school-reform legislative. Yet it’s too early for Congress to begin inking its rubber stamp. Some hard questions need to be answered.

It’s no secret that academics have long taken a back seat in the District, but D.C. Public Schools has several other troublesome aspects — ranging from questionable management of federal funds to questionable management of capital dollars. The three key D.C. players now chiefly responsible for transitioning public schooling from the hands of the Board of Education into the hands of City Hall conceded as much, having agreed to meet this week with Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi. The mayor, School Board President Robert Bobb and Superintendent Clifford Janey must now come face-to-face with the cold-hard fiscal facts that steered Mr. Gandhi toward a clear bottom line: Mismanagement remains a serious threat.

The eventual restructuring of the school system should go a long way toward answering some questions, such as who is responsible for schools. But fixing the confounding governance structure means revisiting some inherent problems exposed by local and federal authorities. For example, the District is about to embark on a $2.3 billion school modernization project, yet the city’s own auditor raised several red flags in a 2006 report. The report concluded that renovations for McKinley Tech, the high-tech high school, rose from initial estimates of $25 million to $81 million because school employees failed to adequately monitor, review and approve contracts, and school employees failed to adequately review invoices, among other things.

While the school-reform legislation will surely change the top layers of the chain of command, many of the very people within the school system who caused the McKinley debacle will remain on the payroll. Obviously, the system does not have the in-house capacity to build and modernize dozens of schools. Are Messrs. Fenty, Bobb and Janey addressing those bureaucratic shortcomings?

Then there’s special education. As Mr. Gandhi has cited on many occasions, 18 percent of the student population receives 30 percent of the budget, while 82 percent of traditional schooling only receives 70 percent of the budget. In fact, every aspect of special education — from per-pupil spending to transportation costs to due-process proceedings — is substantially higher when the District is compared to national averages. With the costs of special education obviously driving the school budget, what will Messrs. Fenty, Bobb and Janey do to reform special education?

What’s more, in February the D.C. Inspector General testified that several years of Medicaid irregularities led the federal Department of Education to designate the D.C. school system as a “high risk” for several reasons, even posing a threat to a gift from Congress — charter schools. “The weaknesses include: (1) submission of untimely audits, (2) inadequate monitoring of federal funds, (3) inadequate documentation of salary charges, and (4) insufficient support for charter school funding,” Inspector General Charles Willoughby testified.

Only relentless pressure will raise the academic standing of D.C. students, and the political will must come from Messrs. Fenty and Bobb, who, since taking office, have reflected the necessary sense of urgency to correct longstanding wrongs. As for Capitol Hill, we agree with Mrs. Norton, who wants the 110th Congress to act “expeditiously,” and with Mr. Davis, who said “Congress should not stand in the way” of the city’s school-reform efforts. But Congress holds a constitutional mandate to oversee the capital, and that oversight includes demanding answers to some obviously tough questions.

The indisputable facts point to a school system that not only fails on the education front but also fails to efficiently and effectively manage its federal obligations.

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