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Privatization Proposal Deleted From D.C. Agenda

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When District of Columbia school officials gathered last week for a forum on the superintendent's new reform plan, they jokingly beseeched each other not to even mention "the 'P' word.''

That word, "privatization,'' came up nonetheless--on the placards of members of the Washington Teachers Union, in the fliers distributed by local community activists, and in heckling by locally active followers of the political organizer Lyndon H. LaRouche.

After two months of seeing opposition from such varied forces to his call for privatizing the management of up to 15 schools, Superintendent Franklin L. Smith this month deleted the idea from the reform agenda he has submitted for a school board vote this week.

Noting that he could count on only five of the board's 11 members to support the proposal, Mr. Smith told local reporters that he did not want a badly split board behind him if he took the leap of contracting with a private company to run some of the system's schools. In a statement, Mr. Smith said the board had asked him to postpone consideration of privatization pending a year of further study of such efforts in other cities.

"I agreed to their request so we can show, without any doubt, that the involvement of the private sector in the public schools can be beneficial to student performance,'' Mr. Smith said.

It was evident last week, however, that opposition to the proposal likely would continue and that the superintendent appeared to have set fire to a few bridges with his handling of it the first time around.

Local business leaders, who had backed the privatization proposal, last week reacted angrily to its being shelved, and some threatened to withdraw their financial support for the public schools.

Leaders of the D.C. Coalition to Save Our Schools, a group of parents and community activists, pledged meanwhile to seek Mr. Smith's removal for proposing privatization. They objected to any of the district's predominantly black schools being entrusted to a for-profit firm with predominantly white management.

And a leader of the D.C. Federation of Civic Associations last week told school board members that they would be targeted for defeat if they voted for privatization.

Shaking Up the Status Quo

Even without the privatization proposal, the remainder of his reform agenda is "a wake-up call to all of us,'' Mr. Smith said in a statement issued this month.

The superintendent described much of his agenda as a continuation of the site-based-management plan he undertook two years ago. The new plan focuses primarily on giving individual schools more autonomy through the decentralization of the district's financial operations, personnel management, and provision of central-office services.

Through its implementation, the school district "will move the control and authority from [the] central office to the local schools and to the principals, teachers, and parents--those individuals closest to the students,'' Mr. Smith said in announcing the plan.

As part of this strategy, the superintendent called for establishing a network of "enterprise schools,'' which, having demonstrated their desire and ability, would be given broad leeway to pursue innovative programs.

The reform agenda also called for promoting school-designed charters, or "schools within schools'' organized around broad themes; expanding existing partnerships with the private sector, universities, and other organizations; and offering parents more choice among an increased number of magnet and theme schools.

Mr. Smith did not specify how he plans to finance the proposed reforms.

'Bureaucratic Manipulation'

Jay Silberman, a school board member who had favored privatization, last week said he supports the superintendent's overall plan because it would give schools access to as many tools for education reform "as they can possibly hope to choose from.''

"The direction of this reform effort is truly to get to the point of some real school-based management--beyond the rhetoric,'' he said.

But another board member, Valencia M. Mohammed, who had opposed privatization, said the superintendent's overall reform agenda "lacks clear goals and objectives.''

The Institute for Independent Education, a locally based nonprofit think tank, last week issued a report criticizing the superintendent's proposals as "consumed by form and process, rather than substance'' and taking him to task for not more directly addressing the issue of how to raise student achievement and test scores.

"On the whole, the proposed solutions have the appearance of change for the sake of change, an exercise in bureaucratic manipulation,'' the report said.

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