CAN IT GET any worse for the D.C. school system? Despite the city's 25-year history of misguided and ineffectual elected school boards and the current board's sorry track record, a D.C. Council majority seems dead set on preserving an elected panel with authority to hire and fire superintendents. The scene stirs memories of the period leading up to the District's bankruptcy, when fiscally irresponsible council members ignored warnings about the destructive path they were on. Their failure to take tough political decisions ultimately cost the city a large measure of home rule and helped bring on the financial control board. What will the cost be this time?

As if preserving a discredited governance system and setting up a possible confrontation with the mayor, control board and Congress aren't worrisome enough, there are now moves afoot to unsettle the current superintendent and discourage any other first-class school administrator from coming within miles of the District. City lawmakers propose adding another bureaucratic layer over the superintendent by creating an independent "state education officer" appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council. This new officer, and no longer the superintendent, would oversee student enrollment, decide minimum requirements for instructional hours and take charge of construction funds and incoming federal money. Proponents regard the proposal as responsive to the mayor's demand for school accountability. We regard it as a further fracturing of accountability and an additional and unnecessary burden on a superintendent who already must run a troubled school system while reporting to: an elected board, a financial control board, appointed trustees, the mayor, 13 council members and at least four congressional committees.

It doesn't stop there. The most sensible--and ultimately most democratic--solution is to let the superintendent do her job, reporting to an elected mayor and city council who will be held responsible if schools don't improve. That's Mayor Williams's proposal, and he's willing to submit the idea to a voter referendum. Instead of accepting that process, or rejecting it outright, the council is trying to have things both ways, and thereby making them worse.

Council member David Catania (R-At Large), for example, would let the mayor take control of the schools, but on the council's terms--terms that make continued school failure the likeliest option. Under Mr. Catania's plan, the mayor would have to declare an emergency and submit a finding of facts to the council, which might or might not give its consent. If the council agreed, the mayor would exercise authority only until the problems causing the emergency had been corrected or until "a time certain established by the council," according to draft language in the bill. Then power would return to a smaller elected board that would still have the power to fire the superintendent without review, to set personnel policies and guidelines for hiring principals and all school employees and to control spending, including approving contracts and purchase orders exceeding $1 million. This is a guaranteed legislative prescription for problems; once again, the mayor, the school board and the council would all be able to blame each other, and no one would be in a position to demand success.

The District of Columbia has made substantial progress toward economic and political recovery, but it will never make it all the way with a failing school system. Two things must happen now. The mayor should spell out the conditions that warrant a takeover, the goals to be achieved while schools are under his control and the specific actions he will take to turn around the schools. Parents and other residents concerned about public education must weigh in, too. Let this council know where you stand. The number to call is 202-724-8000.