- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 11, 2007

The D.C. Board of Education last week began holding public hearings on its education-reform proposal — a rebuttal to Mayor Adrian Fenty’s comprehensive legislative plan. The board has scheduled several other hearings, and we hope those are better attended than the first one, which was held Feb. 8 at Bell Multicultural High School and barely drew a few dozen people. Notwithstanding past or future attendance at the hearings, real school reform remains a moving target.

Politicians and activists alike are misrepresenting what lies before the board, the D.C. Council and the mayor, telling listeners and viewers that school reform is an either-or proposition — either support the mayor’s proposal or support the board’s proposal. That’s an unfair characterization. In fact, schoolchildren would be shortchanged if either proposal were pushed through — regardless of public comment — without being amended.

The differences in the two bills are stark. The Fenty proposal puts every consequential function of public schooling in the hands of the mayor and the council, and the school board would become an advisory body. The school board hardly wants to change any of the circumstances regarding the governance of public schools. In fact, it wants to retain control over all policy, budget and administrative functions, with the exception of such “state” functions as charter schools and federal grant programs. The board also proposed a 10 percent increase in the number of students who will test proficient or above.

There are one or two other inconsequential differences in the board’s measure, but we want to point out the similarities so that the debate can begin to turn toward a compromise.

m Governance: The mayor’s legislative plan, the D.C. Public Education Reform Amendment Act, would amend the D.C. Home Rule Act, specifically Section 452, which mandates budget authority as the school board’s, and Section 475, which vests control of public schools in “a” Board of Education. Congress would have to approve any charter changes (and we would encourage Congress to do so, if D.C. lawmakers approve the legislation). While the school board proposes no changes in home rule, the crux of the mayor’s education-reform effort clearly needs such amendments if the council is to assume much-needed line-item control of the school budget and if the mayor and council want to succeed at reforming the governance structure.

The Fenty bill strikes an interesting balance because it would establish a governance structure similar to those in the 50 states, where the governor (Mr. Fenty) and the state legislature (the city council) control the budget and policy-making authorities. The members of the Board of Education (and the advocates and activists in their districts) would essentially be forced to lobby the mayor and the council for additional operating and capital-improvement funds, just as localities do in the states.

m Student performance: The board proposal says, “10 percent more students will test proficient and above… [and] DCPS will outperform test increases for comparable large, urban school districts.” The board’s promissory note is a huge gamble. As we reported yesterday in an editorial, “Measuring D.C. schools,” on standardized testing in comparable large central-city (LCC) districts, “Only 22 percent of D.C. fourth-graders were ranked in the basic [reading] level and 9 percent achieved proficient status, compared to LCC averages of 29 percent and 15 percent, respectively.”

The council should work with the board to incorporate an academic component in the mayor’s plan, which fails to address what’s going on inside the classroom. As Donell Kie, a sophomore at Ballou High School testified Saturday at a council hearing, “I would hope things will change for the better. But mayors, council members, [school board] presidents come and go, and they say they’re going to fix these problems, and they never do anything. That’s why so many kids don’t care about school.” At Thursday’s hearing, School Board President Robert Bobb told his small audience that the legislature should “give our bill the same consideration” being given to the mayor’s. That’s not going to happen. Status quo ante, Mr. Bobb. If the Fenty proposal had never become legislation, the board and DCPS, in all likelihood, would never have developed their rebuttal, the Emergency Student Achievement Act.

In 1973, a Democrat-controlled Congress assigned the symbiotic relations between the school board, legislature and mayor to the Home Rule Act and ushered it to the Nixon Oval Office. Ever since, there has been a power struggle between City Hall and school headquarters — with the city’s schoolchildren caught in the middle. While the council seemingly has the votes to approve the mayor’s education-reform bill, now is a good time for cooler heads to begin talking compromise. If not, the mayor wins control of the schools, the council wins control of the budget, and the children, as Donell said, will still come up short.

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