IT MAY COME as a surprise to more than a few District of Columbia voters, but the November ballot includes a financially unwise and disturbingly vague proposal bearing on the D.C. public school system. At a glance, it may seem a fine idea, and that's the real danger: the proposal, if approved at the polls, would establish in law that any money requests for the school system must have "the highest priority" in the city's budget considerations. For all of us who have pressed over the years for stronger financial support of city schools, there is something to be said for recognizing the primary importance of investing in education. But this isn't the way. The language of this ballot proposal would put taxpayers and their government in a fiscal straitjacket.
In effect, this measure would enforce a no-matter-what financial obligation on the government to honor any and all requests of one agency and its supporters made at public hearings and to put these requests over the requests of any other municipal agency. The proposal also would require that "particular attention" be "placed on the levels and funding provided in the past and sought for agencies such as the Department of Corrections and the Department of Human Services, which must address the problems resulting in part from an educational system that lacks sufficient resources to address fully the needs of all of its students."
What precisely does this mean? The way it reads, lawyers could have a field day suing to reallocate monies from all over the D.C. budget, claiming that any number of municipal services could be curtailed or stopped if the school system got the money instead. Who would have the word in these determinations? Why not make money for child health a priority, on the grounds that healthy children will be better prepared to benefit from public education?
To oppose this ballot proposal is not to oppose increased government attention to -- and money for -- the public schools of this city. That effort should continue as part of a fair, flexible and comprehensive assessment of the city's financial resources and the competing demands on them.