G.O.P. Lawmakers Weighing Intervention in D.C. Schools
While Republican lawmakers have argued repeatedly in recent months for a reduced federal role in education, G.O.P. leaders are apparently ready to make an exception for the District of Columbia.
Two days after the House Budget Committee approved a spending plan that calls for abolishing the federal Education Department, another House panel held a hearing on the state of the capital city's troubled public schools--and on how Congress might be able to help.
"We're here to learn and listen," said Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., the chairman of the House Economic and Educational Opportunities Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
Still, it was clear that more is at stake. Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Wis., was a focal point at the hearing because Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., has asked him for recommendations on the issue.
In particular, the Speaker asked him to study how private school vouchers, charter schools, and private management would work in the city system, said Mr. Gun~derson's press secretary, Kevin Kennedy.
Mr. Kennedy said that targeting the schools here for Congressional action does not clash with G.O.P. rhetoric that denounces federal meddling in local schools, because the city has a unique relationship with the federal government.
"There is precedent for state involvement in local affairs," he said. "The situation is analogous in that Congress is the body that would deal with the District [of Columbia] at the local level."
A Policy Laboratory?
But some Democrats denounced the effort as an attempt to use a local school system as the captive subject of conservative policy experiments, and Republicans tried to allay those fears.
"I come with nothing more than an open mind," Mr. Gunderson said at the hearing. "Congress will not impose anything without community support."
"The role of Congress should be to help current reform efforts and not supersede local reform," said Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the chairman of the full educational-opportunities committee.
City officials remain wary, however. They told the House panelists that while input on reform efforts is welcome, they adamantly oppose Congressional mandates.
"If one thing has happened today, they learned they have to be more concerned about not having Congress force things on us," Franklin L. Smith, the city's superintendent of schools, said after the hearing.
The assistance he has in mind is financial. Aid in fixing a long list of infrastructure problems would be a "major, major help," Mr. Smith told the panel. For example, 60 school buses need new engines, he said, while ongoing repairs for some 8,000 fire-code violations in city schools--which delayed the opening of school last fall--are short-term at best, he said.
"It's like going upstream with a canoe," Mr. Smith lamented. "I need a motor on that boat."
The school system has launched some reform initiatives, such as curriculum revisions, staff-development programs, and school-based management, Mr. Smith said, but technology and other resources are needed to make the plans work.
Some parents testifying at the hearing were less wary of federal involvement.
One of them, Karen Walker-Ellis, said of her son: "I have to know he's in good hands from 8:30 in the morning until 2:30 in the afternoon. This is why I chose to put my son in a private school."
The boy received a $3,500 need-based scholarship from a local organization to help pay his tuition.
Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla., asked Ms. Walker-Ellis how a broader voucher program would be viewed.
"It would be very important for our black males to take advantage of something like that," she replied.
After the hearing, Superintendent Smith--who has fought with the local school board over other controversial reforms he advocated, such as experimenting with private management--said he would not oppose a voucher program as long as its funding did not reduce the public school budget.
But the board approved a resolution at its meeting last week opposing private school vouchers and noting that city voters soundly rejected a tuition tax-credit proposal in a 1981 election.
One local education advocate asked for evenhanded guidance from lawmakers.
"I'd like for you to be our state. Discuss and show us what would work," said Delabian L. Rice-Thurston, the executive director of Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools. "Show us what part of the city budget should go to education."
The hearing itself was a source of conflict. The city has the legal authority to address its own problems, and any legislative action should be handled by the District of Columbia Subcommittee of the Government Reform and Oversight Committee, Rep. William L. Clay, D-Mo., the ranking Democrat on the opportunities panel, said in a letter to Chairman. Goodling.
In a written response, Mr. Goodling said his committee's purview includes oversight of education programs "in the jurisdiction of other committees."
It was unclear last week how legislation affecting the capital's schools might be introduced. Republican aides said it would likely be linked to the appropriations bill that delivers federal aid to the city, possibly bypassing the District of Columbia Subcommittee.