July 12, 2012

EVER SINCE RESPONSIBILITY for D.C. schools was switched to the mayor, D.C. Council members have struggled with what role they have to play. When Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) chaired the council, the tendency was to hector and second-guess then-chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. Former council chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) flitted from issue to issue, trying to distract attention from the legal troubles that eventually forced his resignation. Now comes newly named chairman Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), and it’s not a good sign that one of his first moves is to call a hearing to set educational priorities — a hearing from which Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson is excluded.

The committee of the whole, the council’s de facto education committee, will meet to “receive testimony regarding the important issues confronting public education” so as to help establish priorities. We would assume it would be important to include in that conversation the professionals charged with educational policy, but a spokeswoman for Mr. Mendelson told us the chancellor wasn’t invited because the aim was to hear the public’s complaints and comments about the school system. If past hearings are any indication, expect a gripe session in which individual problems — “My child got an unfair report card,” “I got a bad teacher evaluation” — will be trotted out.

Mr. Mendelson, selected by his colleagues to replace Mr. Brown, pending November’s special election for council chairman, has made no secret of his dissatisfaction with the schools. “I’m disappointed with the pace of reform,” he told WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi last month shortly after taking over the council’s leadership. Mr. Mendelson, who voted against the 2007 takeover of schools engineered by then-mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), said, “What we’ve seen is a lot of controversy regarding test results and still an enormous disparity between the very good schools and the rest of the school system. So I think there’s a lot more work to be done.”

We think Mr. Mendelson should give more credit to the progress that has occurred with reforms by Ms. Rhee and Ms. Henderson. But there is no denying that he is right about the poor quality of education still being received by too many students. Nor will he get any argument from Ms. Henderson, who is clearheaded about the problems; she has laid out an ambitious agenda for school improvement in a five-year strategic plan that, to our mind, should be the starting point for any discussion of education priorities.

Instead of trying to set itself up as a newly constituted school board, interested only in litigating individual complaints or looking out for parochial ward interests, the council should help establish broad priorities, ensure that money is well spent and hold school officials accountable for results.