When the League of Women Voters put together its voters guide for the District's Nov. 3 election, the page concerning the Public School Support Initiative presented a problem: The league couldn't find anyone who opposed it.
You'd think supporters of Initiative 25 would be confident of victory thanks to nearly unanimous acclaim for their proposal, which simply states, "This measure establishes, as a matter of public policy, that funding for public schools in the District of Columbia be of the highest priority . . . . "
But the pro-initiative campaign, made up primarily of members of the activist group Parents United, is nonetheless worried about the fate of the ballot question it has been pushing for more than a year.
In addition to declaring public support for school funding, the initiative would require the mayor to hold school budget hearings similar to those already held by the D.C. Council and the school board. And the school board's hearings would be conducted earlier in the budget deliberations process.
"Every organization you can possibly hope for has lined up behind the initiative," said Rod Boggs, counsel to Parents United and primary author of the proposal. "But school elections in this town traditionally have very low turnouts and we have two big problems."
The first is the campaign against the other initiative on the ballot, the so-called bottle bill. The beverage industry's advertising blitz against the proposal to put deposits on drink containers is likely to bring out thousands of "no" voters, Boggs said, and because many voters don't know about the school issue, they might turn against both initiatives.
Second, The Washington Post editorial board came out against the school measure in August. While the impact historically of newspaper endorsements is debatable, initiative boosters are concerned because "the kind of people who generally vote in school elections are those who listen to The Post," Boggs said.
The Post editorial called the initiative "financially unwise and disturbingly vague," arguing that the measure would require the D.C. government to favor the schools over any other city agency in budget planning.
In response, the pro-initiative group this week released letters from the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics and the law firm of Hogan & Hartson, which helped write the initiative, saying that the measure cannot be read to require any specific level of funding for the school system.
In the letter, elections board Chairman Edward W. Norton said the school measure does not violate the law that prohibits initiatives from requiring the appropriation of additional funds.
"All we're saying is that education spending should be of the highest priority, not that it has to be any particular dollar amount," Boggs said.
"The initiative speaks only to process, saying that the community has to be involved in the entire process," said council member Hilda H.M. Mason (Statehood-At Large), who heads the council's Education Committee.
Mason, Mayor Marion Barry and most council and school board members support the initiative. No public official has announced opposition to the proposal. The initiative comes before the voters after a petition drive in which 16,306 signatures were collected, about 3,000 more than necessary to win a place on the ballot.
Boggs said the extra level of public hearings is necessary because the school budget, which is $426 million this year, often becomes a political battle between the school board and the council.
"The parents have found themselves in the middle," he said. "When we voice our opinions, the council gets the impression that they are exclusively absorbing the wrath of the parents. With the initiative, the mayor and the board will also have our input."
But if the initiative makes only general statements about the value of public education, is it merely a feel-good proposal?
"No," said Iris Toyer, a parent and sponsor of the initiative. "The hearings will ensure that a council or school board or mayor couldn't make decisions contrary to the needs of children."
In an effort to show how the new budget process would work, Parents United and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights will hold a mock hearing Wednesday evening at Francis Junior High School, 24th and N streets NW.