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House Republicans Outline Plan To Reshape D.C. Schools

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Republican members of Congress have laid out an ambitious plan to rebuild the troubled District of Columbia school system that calls for broad cooperation among federal officials, local government, and the private sector.

The plan to renovate crumbling schools, overhaul operations, and straighten out the system's finances forms part of ongoing efforts by Congress to help save the city's government from a severe financial crunch.

Drafted by Rep. Steve Gunderson at the request of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the plan seeks greater involvement from parents.

It urges Congress to authorize the city to require parents on welfare to attend parent-teacher conferences. And, in a move widely perceived as opening the door to school vouchers, it would create a scholarship fund for low-income families "to enhance their educational choices."

The plan by Rep. Gunderson, a Wisconsin Republican, was released last month at an unusual town meeting convened by GOP leaders and local officials, including Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr.

Speaker Gingrich, who was both cheered and jeered during the two-hour meeting, told the crowd of about 1,000 that his goal was to transform Washington into "the best capital city of the world."

The House is expected to take up legislation on the school-reform plan early this fall.

Marshaling Federal Forces

Congress began its recent intervention in the District of Columbia's affairs last spring.

It placed the near-bankrupt city government, which provides funds for the schools, under the temporary oversight of an appointed financial-control board. (See Education Week, April 19, 1995.)

Rep. Gunderson said he spent months working on his education proposals, during which he sought input from local officials and residents.

His plan says Congress should work with the school system to create "a world-class curriculum" and new assessments. It urges establishment of a professional-development system set up with the help of the American Federation of Teachers and the union's Washington affiliate.

The plan also calls for Congress, the federal General Services Administration, military engineering units, and the private sector to help repair the system's aging school buildings. It asks the city government to set up a separate school-facilities authority to oversee such work.

Other elements of the Republican plan include:

  • Asking Congress to pay for an expanded Even Start parent-education program in the schools.
  • Authorizing Congress's General Accounting Office, with help from private companies, to overhaul the school system's personnel-management and budgeting systems.
  • Asking District of Columbia officials to rewrite the system's personnel laws and policies to ensure the district has a performance-oriented workforce.
  • Recruiting local and national business leaders to work with the National Alliance of Business to provide computers, training, and technical assistance that will better prepare students for work in the next century.

A 'Floating Coalition'

Many local officials hailed the Republican plan, noting that it mirrors the school system's own reform agenda.

"The sense that I have is that Congress is going to be looking to be helpful and looking for significant reform along the way," said Jay E. Silberman, an at-large member of the local school board.

The plan also won praise from Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia's delegate to Congress and a Democrat who often has clashed with the Republican Speaker.

"The House is a place of floating coalitions," Ms. Norton said after the town meeting last month at a high school near the U.S. Capitol. In a display of bipartisanship at the meeting, she had thanked Mr. Gingrich and his Republican colleagues for seeking to help the city and respecting the wishes of its residents.

"The citizens of this city have to deal with the reality of everyday life, and those of us who visit it do not have the knowledge and do not have the right to micromanage the daily lives of the people of the city," Mr. Gingrich told the audience.

Conspicuously absent from the Republican plan was any direct reference to one of the most controversial ideas being floated in the school system: hiring private companies to manage some of its schools.

Several school board members have reported being targets of death threats and incidents of vandalism since Superintendent Franklin L. Smith revived a proposal to allow a private company to run some schools.

Mr. Smith has proposed hiring Education Alternatives Inc. to provide management services for up to 11 of the city's schools. The board is deeply divided over the proposal and had not acted on it as of last week.

Several residents at the town meeting booed Mr. Smith and demanded that he be fired.

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