A Rough Week for Public Schools and Teacher Unions in the Nation’s Capital

Published November 1, 2003

After getting through Hurricane Isabel relatively unscathed, the nation’s capital did not fare well at the beginning of October, at least as far as its schools were concerned.

On October 1, Senate leaders withdrew President George W. Bush’s plan to create a new school voucher program for children in the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). The move–expected to be only temporary–came with Members facing a heavy workload that included the President’s request for Iraqi aid. The postponement acknowledged that leadership lacked the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster threatened by Senate Democrats opposed to the bill.

Most observers viewed the development as only a passing setback, however. Some supporters of the voucher plan noted that, since it had already passed the House and enjoyed strong Bush administration support, roadblocks on the Senate floor could be overcome by maneuvering in conference committee.

“Without a Senate version of the scholarship bill,” observed Representative Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), who authored the original DC voucher bill earlier this year, “the conference on the D.C. Appropriations bill has the potential to yield a much better bill with fewer compromises to render the legislation less effective. Clearly, President Bush feels strongly about this issue, and I’m quite confident that we can make D.C. school choice a reality.”

District Drops Ball on Millions of Dollars

Meanwhile, during the same week, two new developments underscored problems with the management of education funds by government units in the District of Columbia.

On September 30, the Washington Times reported the District was at risk of losing $23.8 million in federal education grants it had already been awarded. D.C. officials had failed to spend the money before the September 30 close of the fiscal year. In an interview with the newspaper, DCPS Chief Academic Officer Robert Rice seemed unaware of the situation or that the funds had even been made available. Most of grants were for professional development.

While city council and board of education officials squabbled publicly over who was at fault, U.S. Department of Education officials clarified they would permit the funds to carry into the following year.

Stealing $2.5 million

During the first week of October, the ongoing scandal involving more than $2.5 million in missing Washington Teachers Union (WTU) dues deepened, with charges being filed against a D.C. Department of Health official for conspiracy to embezzle union dues. The District official, who had been given check-writing authority for the union, allegedly used a fictitious company and bank account to launder the funds.

Meanwhile, former WTU president Barbara Bullock and two other union staff members pleaded guilty to conspiracy, theft, and mail fraud charges. The offenses could result in Bullock serving 10 years in a federal prison. Her offenses included falsely inflating teacher dues by $144 apiece and stealing the increased revenues, according to prosecutors. The American Federation of Teachers has since taken over management of its local affiliate.

Congressman Urges Union Accountability

Although not directly prompted by the DC teacher union problems, the House Employer-Employee Relations Subcommittee on October 2 approved three bills sponsored by its chairman, Representative Sam Johnson (R-Texas), that would raise the bar significantly on union accountability.

One measure would give the Department of Labor substantial new authority to enforce its union accountability regulations. Johnson pointed out that Labor Department data from 2002 indicated more than 40 percent of unions either filed their required disclosure forms late or did not file them at all.

Another measure approved by the subcommittee would empower the Secretary of Labor to bring civil suits on behalf of union members for failure to meet disclosure requirements, while protecting the identity of the members. A third proposal would require unions to disclose to their members information about their rights–including membership dues and membership rights–within 90 days of their joining the union.

The bills enjoyed bipartisan support in the Senate and are expected to proceed to the House floor in coming weeks.

Education Freedom Caucus

Representative Pete Hoekstra (R-Michigan), a longtime Congressional champion of school reform, in October announced the formation of a new Education Freedom Caucus. The caucus “is dedicated to a worthy and just goal–to allow parents to choose the best education settings for their children,” according to Hoesktra.

Charter members include Representatives Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina), Trent Franks (R-Arizona), Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colorado), Mark Souder (R-Indiana), Tom Feeney (R-Florida), Jack Kingston (R-Georgia), and John Shadegg (R-Arizona). School vouchers, tuition tax credits, and charter schools were cited as important caucus priorities.

“The strongest and surest inducement to educational excellence,” said Franks, “is to give parents the ability to choose what kind of educational substance and environment is best for their child”–ideals the new caucus hopes to champion in the coming months and years.

Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute. His email address is [email protected].