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House, Senate Panels Vote for Board To Oversee D.C. Schools

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Washington

Despite strong opposition from District of Columbia officials, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted this month to create an oversight panel that would effectively run Washington's public schools.

And a House subcommittee acted last week on a counterpart bill that would create a less powerful oversight board.

After a meeting with irate city officials, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., called off plans to bring the House bill to the floor this week, and directed key lawmakers to negotiate a compromise. But it seems clear that federal lawmakers intend to assert some control over the capital city's 80,000-student school district.

The House bill would also require local officials to contract for private management of up to one-tenth of of the city's schools.

Franklin L. Smith, the superintendent of schools, has tried repeatedly to get the local school board to approve some privatization experiments. Last week, the board voted 7-4 to allow schools to sign management contracts with nonprofit organizations.

Board members disagreed on whether the policy would allow profit-making companies, such as Education Alternatives Inc., to manage schools in the district.

"Congress was going to do it anyway. If we're not open to options, they will just do it over our heads and we will lose even more power," Ann C. Wilcox, a board member, told The Washington Post, explaining why she had changed her mind and voted for the policy.

Governance Plans

And the board would indeed lose much of its authority under the Senate's plan.

Sen. James M. Jeffords, R-Vt., the chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the District of Columbia, said his bill calls for a seven-member commission, which would include the school board president, the local superintendent of schools, the head of the local pta, and four residents of the capital appointed by the president and members of Congress.

The panel would have the authority to set policy and would control the school budget. The commissioners would also be charged with devising a school-reform plan for the city within one year.

"Due to bureaucratic and structural inefficiencies within the D.C. public school system, little of reform plans [devised in the past] have been implemented," Sen. Jeffords said in a statement. He called his plan a way to "move things forward."

The proposal was included in an appropriations bill that would set the city government's budget for fiscal 1996, which begins Oct. 1. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the bill by voice vote on Sept. 14, and it is slated for floor consideration this week.

In the companion bill it approved last week, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the District of Columbia called for a "world-class-schools panel" to recommend reforms, but the board would be dissolved after one year and would not control the school budget.

Specific legislative language has not been drafted, but the panel also agreed to include a mandate that the school district contract for private management of up to 10 percent of its schools.

Usurping Local Control

Since the city gained home rule in 1973, the District of Columbia City Council has submitted a budget for congressional approval. This year, with the city in a severe budget crunch, a federally mandated financial-control board made recommendations to Congress.

The Senate bill would set the city's budget at $5.23 billion. But the House bill would limit spending to $4.94 billion, about $100 million less than the city spent this year and $148 million less than the control board suggested.

And it would specifically mandate cuts in the local school board's staff and its members' salaries, as well as cuts in scheduled payments to the pension fund for city employees, which would affect teachers.

Both bills would contribute $712 million in federal funds to the city's budget, the same amount as in 1995.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia's nonvoting congressional representative, decried her colleagues' efforts to supersede local control of the city's public schools.

"This proposal undermines home rule and the D.C. board of education," said Donna Brazile, Ms. Norton's spokeswoman. "District officials should set policy in the District, not federal officials."

Wilma R. Harvey, the president of the city's school board, said she was outraged that congressional leaders were breaking a promise to collaborate with residents and school officials on school reform, referring to comments made by Mr. Gingrich and other lawmakers at meetings earlier this year. (See Education Week, May 24 and Sept. 6, 1995.)

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