School Improvement by Decree

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

THE D.C. COUNCIL is scheduled to hold a decisive vote today on an amendment to the city's charter requiring that the District provide "high-quality" public education to all its school-age children. If the amendment is approved and then passes muster with voters in November, we can imagine three possible outcomes. None of them would be much help to the District's long-suffering pupils.

Having charged itself with defining "high quality," the D.C. Council could set the bar so low that the city's schools could easily measure up. It could leave the requirement vague in the hope that a rhetorical commitment to good public education would compel teachers, administrators and elected officials to better address the dysfunction of the school system. Or it could pass stringent mandates regarding teacher-student ratios, education funding and other measures of school quality that states such as Virginia have adopted.

The first option doesn't do anything for District schools. The second naively assumes that words can fix D.C. public education. And the third would give parents unhappy with D.C. public education just the legal language they need to sue -- and maybe even get their children placed in private schools on the District's dime.

Some supporters of the high-quality standard claim that states such as Virginia have similar requirements written into their constitutions and haven't been deluged with lawsuits. But Virginia doesn't have the problems meeting legal standards that the District does. Take federal special education requirements. The District spends 15 percent of its school budget sending 4 percent of its students to private schools because it hasn't hired the teachers and aides it needs to meet federal standards. According to the state's Department of Education, Virginia has to send only 0.2 percent of its students to private schools.

The District may well face similar difficulties meeting a tough set of homegrown legal requirements. If it fails, it faces a potentially massive legal liability. Even if it succeeds, the best it can hope for is a budget nightmare as the school system -- which doesn't reliably record where its money goes -- stretches itself to demonstrate that it can fund the educational priorities that the council laid out, probably at the expense of many others.

And if the council tries to duck these outcomes by not defining "high quality" at all? Then the schools may find themselves before judges who will offer their own definitions, with equally troublesome results.

Some advocates of the charter amendment have strongly opposed publicly funded vouchers for private school tuition. It's odd that they would champion a provision that could turn into a backdoor voucher program.

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