How Not to Fix D.C. Schools
IT'S THE KIND OF mom-and-apple-pie proposal that no one -- certainly no politician in an election year -- could possibly oppose. The D.C. Council voted 12 to 1 last week to enshrine the right to "free high-quality public schools" in the city's governing charter.
If this were just a feel-good platitude, you might wonder why the council is frittering away its time making proclamations instead of doing more to help actually fix the city's dysfunctional schools.
But there's every reason to think that this new right, if it survives a second vote, could cause real mischief. When council member Carol Schwartz (R-At-Large) offered an amendment that would have prevented parents from using the measure as a basis for suing the school system, the rest of the council voted her down. As a result, the legislation practically invites families to file lawsuits.
Some advocates of the legislation claim that's the point: Democratic accountability alone has not been incentive enough for the District to fix its schools. The council's lawyer says that if the council adopts clear and objective standards that the school system can meet -- such as how many students per teacher a high-quality school should have -- the District will be able to win legal challenges.
But the school system's experience with federal special education law suggests how difficult that might be and the harm that the new proposal could cause. The city pays private school tuition for 2,283 special-needs students who successfully claimed the school system was not providing them the "appropriate" education mandated in federal law. These students, 4 percent of the student body, consume 15 percent of the school budget.
District schools cannot afford another legal standard that they can't meet -- or that will consume scarce funds to prove that they have met.
Aside from potentially crippling legal costs to the city, the danger is that parents who can pay for good lawyers will be the ones most likely to file claims against the city. They may even be able to force the city to pay for their children's private schooling.
The measure is up for a second reading July 11. The council should reconsider -- and concentrate instead on helping schools provide the high-quality education that everyone agrees should be the goal.