June 24, 2011

These days, D.C. Council members may be feeling pretty defensive about tricked-out SUVs and allegations of bribery and campaign shenanigans. But when it comes to D.C. schools, they believe they are on a roll.

Finally, they have a schools chancellor, Kaya Henderson, who doesn’t go out of her way to embarrass them (unlike her predecessor, Michelle A. Rhee, who deliberately didn’t inform them before announcing she was closing schools). After years of decline, enrollment in District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) is rising. And most important, according to a recent Post poll, the public is feeling pretty good about where schools are headed.

Given the lack of probing questions asked during Henderson’s confirmation hearing, the council appears to feel a victory lap is in order. “This council is going to confirm Ms. Henderson,” Marion Barry said before the vote was taken.

Nobody, including Barry, dared to ask Henderson a tough question. That was a mistake. Instead of celebrating the diminished post-Rhee controversy about D.C. schools, the council should have been pushing Henderson to become more controversial.

Before Rhee, council members never asked why low-income black students in Washington were as much as two years behind similar students in other urban districts — despite per-pupil spending levels that are among the highest in the nation. They rarely asked why the District maintained as many school buildings as districts three times its size. And they mostly looked beyond the incredible scandal of why the District was forced to pay exorbitant fees to send so many students to out-of-district special-education settings.

The answer to all those questions: low expectations, a tendency to blame poverty for all shortcomings . . . and incompetence.

But now, while council members have a highly competent chancellor in Henderson, they continue to duck the real questions. Here’s a sample of what they should have asked during the confirmation hearing:

l Why don’t we see more high-performing charter schools tapped to apply their success within DCPS? Washington has a lot of charter schools not worth mentioning. In fact, some of them should be shuttered. But the District also has some charters that rival the best in the nation, and other great charter operators are willing to give D.C. a try.

Rhee’s move to have a Philadelphia charter operator take over Stanton Elementary is just a taste of what’s possible. Why are you not insisting that DCPS expand partnerships with great charters to give parents in failing schools a real choice?

l What’s the situation with new teacher hires? Under Rhee, applications from best-of-the-best teaching candidates surged. They wanted to prove themselves under the national spotlight. How many applicants of what quality are still applying? How many have been extended offers to ensure we’re getting the best?

l Where do we stand with (possibly) firing minimally effective teachers? Not all schools made progress under Rhee, but the schools that did surge ahead had one thing in common: To some extent, they swapped in teachers with higher expectations and sharper teaching skills. So what’s the status of the several hundred teachers already identified as having low expectations and low teaching skills? Will you fire those who didn’t improve?

l Where does DCPS stand on under-enrolled schools? Doesn’t the school system still have excess capacity that sucks money from classrooms? Has the mayor blocked any closures for political reasons?

That’s just a starter list. It’s not that Henderson is resisting reform. She knows what needs to be done. But she lacks the tailwind that Rhee had under then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.

Surely, no one on the council believes that further dramatic improvements aren’t needed. Take Cardozo High School, for example: Only about 20 percent of the students were proficient in math and reading in 2010. Eastern High School: 15 and 8 percent.

Rhee scraped the District’s schools off the nation’s worst-of-the-worst list. But should we be satisfied with the status quo? Maybe the council should provide the tailwind to Henderson that Fenty gave to Rhee.

Richard Whitmire is the author of “The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation’s Worst School District.”