Pro-Schools Equals Votes: Mayoral Candidates Put Education First at Forums

Article excerpt

A chance to hear how candidates for D.C. mayor propose to fix the city's broken school system did not push parent Alicia Tobechi Rucker into deciding who she will vote for in the Democratic primary next Tuesday.

Mrs. Rucker, whose daughter is a 10th-grader at Woodson High School in Northwest, says each candidate's plan to reduce class size was appealing. But she doesn't think any of the plans will ever turn into action.

"This is only rhetoric," says Mrs. Rucker, who lives in Columbia Heights and also has two toddlers. "Once they get in office it will be a different story."

Few of those who attended the same mayoral forum on education issues Sept. 3 were willing to commit their vote to a candidate, even though the leading Democratic hopefuls vying for the job say reforming the public school system is the most important task facing the next mayor.

The 77,000-student system gained national notoriety for rock-bottom test scores, old, crumbling school buildings and a bloated bureaucracy.

The mayor "doesn't deal with curriculum," says Delabian Rice-Thurston, executive director of Parents United for the D.C. Schools, an advocacy group and a sponsor of the forum. "All they can do is give us enough money for making improvements."

Each major candidate outlines a plan they say will change that.

Harold Brazil, Jack Evans, Kevin P. Chavous - all of them D.C. Council members - agree with apparent Democratic front-runner Anthony A. Williams that the school administration must improve student performance and rid the system of incompetent and unmotivated teachers and administrators. (Education tops Republican Carol Schwartz's list too, but the council member is unopposed in the GOP primary for mayor.)

Still, interviews with parents and educators indicate many have not made up their minds about the candidates. And informed activists argue the mayor has little direct control over the school system, which has been supervised for two years by an emergency board of trustees appointed by the D.C. financial control board.

The next mayor could make a difference by pumping an additional $150 million to $250 million into the $545 million school budget to hire enough teachers to reduce class size, says Mary Filardo, director of 21st Century Schools Fund, a nonprofit group that studies school funding.

There is "a relationship," Mrs. Filardo says, between school officials and the mayor.

Only Mr. Chavous and Mr. Brazil have school-age children, and they all are enrolled in private schools.

While the candidates spend ample time talking about firing incompetent teachers and implementing a more rigorous curriculum - aspects of operations the mayor has no direct control over - most have not shied away from promising to boost the budget by millions to pay for their initiatives.

The exception is Mr. Evans, who says budget problems stem from poor fiscal management. He proposes raising money for much-needed capital improvements by partnering with the federal government.

"I'm the only one that understands how fragile the budget surpluses really are," says Mr. Evans, of Ward 2. "They are built on one-time revenue sources and the viability of the economy. If the other candidates deliver on half the promises they made, they will bankrupt the city."

The other three Democrats say they would find extra money for school repairs and new programs either in the city's estimated $300 million surplus (which Mr. Brazil has pushed), or by using federal funds and saving money through better management (which Mr. Chavous proposes).

Mr. Williams, until this summer the city's chief financial officer, promises to make the public schools his No. 1 budget priority. He says corporate donations could help finance a technology high school.

Mr. Brazil, an at-large council member, pledges to call for smaller classes and development of "smart schools" equipped with state-of-the-art computers and enrollment limited to 500 students. …