A Hold on School Reform

Friday, May 11, 2007

THE PEOPLE of the District long have been accustomed to congressional interference in their affairs. Meddling, though, generally has come from legislators who are either unfamiliar with the city or hostile to its interests. So it was especially galling to learn yesterday that a neighbor and ostensible supporter of home rule, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), is the hitherto anonymous lawmaker who is holding up the all-important restructuring of the District's public schools.

Mr. Cardin acknowledged last night that he had placed an "informational hold" on the bill that would give the mayor control of the schools. His reasons have nothing to do with the merits of the bill or what's best for the 55,000 children in D.C. public schools. Rather, the senator is miffed by the continuing standoff between Maryland and the District over the fate of the Oak Hill Youth Center in Anne Arundel County. The city has announced plans to build a new facility to house children convicted of crimes; Mr. Cardin has sponsored legislation that would move the center back to the city. "I am fully prepared to support HR 2080 once the interests of the children currently located at Oak Hill are resolved," Mr. Cardin said in a statement.

We can appreciate Mr. Cardin's frustration. The Oak Hill facility has been beset with problems, including poor conditions, escapes and crowding. The District has not always been a good neighbor and has not been willing to come up with solutions. Yet it is appalling that Mr. Cardin would hold such a vital piece of local legislation hostage to serve his own parochial and political purposes.

We're heartened that Mr. Cardin and other Maryland officials have agreed to try to resolve their differences over Oak Hill by meeting with D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and members of his administration. When they do, they might be reassured by the city's plans. The new facility will serve only 60 youths, and it will incorporate juvenile justice reforms in its operation. Local officials in Maryland would love to acquire the site for a regional park and other uses; with 880 acres involved, such a use is not precluded by the District's plan.

The House, recognizing the true state of emergency at the District's schools, quickly approved the bill transferring authority to the mayor. But until the law is enacted, the schools are in a kind of limbo. Mr. Fenty is constrained in what he can do. Each day of delay forestalls the start of any improvement. Mr. Cardin says he doesn't intend to imperil congressional approval of the schools takeover. Actions, though, speak louder than words.

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