Monday, January 22, 2007

Can the D.C. school system be improved without disenfranchising the already disenfranchised? That is the compromise that must be worked out in the next few months as this latest mayoral “takeover” of the school system runs at breakneck speed through the political briar patch.

If history is an example, the thorny issue of self-governance undoubtedly will take center stage as the opposition mounts against D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and the D.C. Council in their attempts to circumvent the hallowed Home Rule Charter in the name of school reform.

And, we’ve been down this road before to no avail — not once, not twice, ah, I’ve lost count of how many times.

City voting rights activists also are miffed about their elected leader’s efforts to seek voting rights and statehood for the District in Congress while at the same time nullifying their voting rights in their own legislative body.

“How on earth can you say give [D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton] a vote in Congress when you won’t give your own residents a vote in the council?” asks Greg Rhett, president of the D.C. Federation of Civic Associations.

Mr. Rhett, a Ward 7 parent with a child in a D.C. charter school, is among those seeking a delay in the historic vote the D.C. Council will cast in April. The council seems poised to pass Mr. Fenty’s 48-page legislative initiative to wrest control of the school system from the D.C. Board of Education that seeks a change in the city’s charter. If passed, the new mayor would then ask Congress to affirm the charter change without putting the legislation to voters by referendum as required.

You know longtime D.C. residents and civil rights stalwarts, who have fought outside intervention for eons, aren’t a bit happy about those disenfranchising prospects.

To add insult to injury, Mr. Rhett asks, “How can you make a change in the charter when you’ve disenfranchised a fourth of your voters?” You see, residents of Ward 7 and Ward 4 do not have representatives on the council because Mr. Fenty and Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray were elevated in the November election. Special elections to replace them on the council will not occur until May.

No one wants to get into heated and tired arguments about the state of D.C. schools. We all know the dismal statistics and recite awful anecdotes. Rarely do we point to the successes.

The merits of Mr. Fenty’s questionable takeover surely are to be discussed at great length. Initially, it appears to add more jobs and layers of bureaucracy than less, as intended. Also, it gives an inordinate amount of power to the council, which I’m certain was not intended.

If only the type of governance model were the primary problem with improving academic achievement. City activists will note that the school board has not been a fully representative body in 10 years.

But few would have guessed that a native Washingtonian, such as Mr. Fenty, would have proposed the very type of undemocratic governance model that most have rallied against.

Folks are getting worked up. In recent days, I have received a growing number of e-mails, been directed to blogging sites, answered phone calls and been sent notices of old-fashioned community meetings, indicating that some D.C. residents, including Mr. Rhett, are mobilizing their troops in an effort to save their precious votes as well as their precious students and schools.

The two objectives are not mutually exclusive, and D.C. students deserve both.

Last night, a coalition opposed to the takeover was to meet, Mr. Rhett said, to develop a single strategy to present their concerns to the public and to the council.

“There are a myriad of concerns, but primarily they come down to plain-old, everyday voting rights concerns,” Mr. Rhett says. “My hope is that we are able to organize and mobilize to get the general public to understand what’s at stake — fairness and justice of each ward having a representative at the table when the vote comes.”

Don’t even try to pin him down on the critics’ suggestion that he is putting democracy before necessary school improvement.

Mr. Rhett will not begin to deal with the pros and cons of Mr. Fenty’s plan until he has won assurances that all D.C. residents have a person representing them on the council. “I’m sure all the other ward members are hearing from their constituents on this matter. I don’t even have anyone to call,” he says.

Are these the usual activist suspects, you ask, as if to marginalize them? To be sure, some are, but that does not mean they should be ignored. Mr. Rhett says more D.C. residents are focusing on the school plan and beginning to ask questions.

Why the rush? How much reform realistically would take place in one month, if the council vote is delayed?

The ultimate success of the education initiative, on which the mayor has staked his reputation, depends on much more than the rookie Democrat winning this power struggle. First, he will need the support of voters, who must be granted ample time, respect and, above all, representation on this important legislation, which he did not mention while campaigning in the primary.

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