A Boost for D.C. Schools

Sunday, February 3, 2008

THE $32 MILLION in additional federal money that President Bush will propose for D.C. public schools tomorrow is important for two reasons. On the practical side, the extra resources could be used to jump-start school reform by making possible new programs. Symbolically, the decision is a powerful vote of confidence in the District and a confirmation that the leadership finally is in place to address the sad state of public education.

The budget will include funding to help Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee launch a new teacher merit pay program, recruit and train principals, and intervene in low-performing schools. Mr. Bush's package also includes money for charter schools and resources to sustain the D.C. school voucher program. U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings called the budget proposal an "unprecedented partnership" between the White House and the city. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's decision to make education his administration's top priority and his selection of Ms. Rhee has given real standing to the District and credibility to its reform efforts.

Ms. Rhee's interest in starting a program that rewards teachers who have demonstrated excellence is particularly exciting. Pay-for-performance programs are being tried with promising results in places such as Denver and New York City. Ms. Rhee will need to work with the teachers union to fashion a program that fairly assesses teachers and doesn't discourage them from working with students most in need. School officials say that they hope to have parts of the program in place by September. That sense of urgency, fast becoming a hallmark of the Fenty-Rhee strategy, is an acknowledgment that too much time has already been wasted in trying to fix the schools. Ms. Rhee refuses to let the political demands of adults interfere with the interests of students; her insistence on closing underused schools is the latest example.

Congress will need to approve the funding proposal, and it's important that members don't let politics or ideology derail the needed reforms. We think here of the $18 million the administration is earmarking for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides vouchers to students to attend private school. Leading Democrats have made no secret of their dislike of vouchers, but this program gives low-income parents educational options and it is operating successfully for scores of children. Opponents should think twice before they try to interrupt the education of these children. Mr. Fenty is right to urge Congress to adopt the proposal in its entirety.

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