Congress will bar the D.C. public school system from spending $13 million approved by lawmakers to complement the District's new federally funded school voucher program because school leaders failed to develop an acceptable spending plan, Sen. Mike DeWine said yesterday.
Republican and Democratic leaders of House and Senate panels overseeing the District said school officials did not describe how they would use the money to improve student achievement, recruit and retain effective teachers and principals and promote school choice within the public system, as required.
DeWine (R-Ohio), chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the District, said he intends to withhold the $13 million until a new superintendent is hired to take over the city's 64,200-student system.
"DCPS did not provide sufficient justification concerning the allocation of these funds," DeWine said in a written statement.
DeWine's aides said the senator is drafting a letter about the ban with the support of key House and Senate Appropriations subcommittee members: his House counterpart, Rep. Rodney P. Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), and the ranking Democrats, Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.) and Rep. Chaka Fattah (Pa.). The letter will be delivered to Interim Superintendent Robert C. Rice, the system's second temporary chief in six months.
In recent weeks, the D.C. Council has blocked a drive by Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) to take direct control of the nearly $1 billion-a-year system. Williams's choice for superintendent, former New York City schools chancellor Rudolph F. Crew, accepted a job Monday as head of Miami-Dade County schools.
Yesterday, Williams joined lawmakers in criticizing school leaders for failing to submit a detailed spending plan.
"We have requested more specificity from the schools. We were told to bug out," Williams said. "I support what the senator is doing. I think they need more specificity. If a new superintendent could do that, by all means, let's do it."
Rice was not immediately available for comment, said spokeswoman Lucy Young, and Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz did not respond to a phone message.
Young and school board member Carrie L. Thornhill, a mayoral appointee, said school officials were surprised because they believed that Rice and top aides had allayed congressional concerns after meeting with committee staff members last week.
"We are cooperating with them [Congress] and giving them whatever information that they need," Young said.
House and Senate aides said the school system had produced a one-page summary of its spending plan after three drafts over three months. Last week, Rice spent about five minutes in a meeting with congressional aides before leaving behind his chief of staff, Peter Parham, and three other school officials to answer questions, aides said.
The school plan consisted of spending $3.4 million to send all teachers to complete a three-hour training course on how to teach reading, $2.5 million to buy a textbook inventory system, $2.4 million to create classroom libraries and $4.7 million to purchase curriculum materials, according to a Senate aide.
"They came away feeling that the staff had been satisfied," Thornhill said.
Thornhill said that she had seen a presentation on how the money was to be spent but that she had not seen the actual plan that was submitted.
Williams, Cafritz and council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), chairman of the education panel, had demanded last year that the public school system receive the money as a condition of its support for the controversial voucher program backed by the Bush administration.
Agreeing to the terms, President Bush and Congress approved legislation in January to spend $13 million on D.C. public schools and $13 million on D.C. public charter schools, as well as $13 million on taxpayer-funded private tuition grants to assist at least 1,700 schoolchildren.
"It's astounding that it's so hard to give the school system $13 million," said Gregory M. McCarthy, Williams's deputy chief of staff and chief liaison to Capitol Hill. "After we make enormous pleas for overall support for the city and support from Congress, it really is a black eye when the schools can't get a plan up there that can pass muster."
The mayor commented hours after testifying before DeWine's Senate subcommittee on the District's $4.2 billion proposed 2005 budget. He cited the lack of accountability in the school system as the impetus for his drive to amend the District's home rule charter to create a mayorally appointed schools chancellor.
The school board, citing the need to balance its budget, this month announced plans to eliminate 557 jobs, including 285 teaching positions.
Staff writer Lori Montgomery contributed to this report.