June 22, 2013

MAYOR VINCENT C. GRAY’S (D) first speech dedicated to education, delivered last week, contained no dramatic proposals or revolutionary changes. That is a good thing.

Mr. Gray is right in not wanting to upset the course of school reform. What is needed now is persistence in the hard work of school improvement. We hope the D.C. Council gets the message and backs off ill-advised efforts to usurp the authority of the mayor and D.C. Chancellor Kaya Henderson in running the schools.

“I am as impatient as anyone when it comes to the pace of school reform in the District. I also realize that the kind of lasting, sustainable success we are working towards doesn’t happen overnight,” Mr. Gray said Thursday at an Anacostia school. The speech recapped major changes that have occurred in public education, including mayoral control and the growth of charter schools. The mayor proposed a few new ideas but mainly recommitted to ongoing initiatives. He said he didn’t expect to make “seismic shockwaves” or “big headlines,” noting that “headlines get you only so far.”

No doubt that was a reference to the attention D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) has attracted with his multi-part proposal that would reshape public education policy but that Ms. Henderson said she doubts will result in improved student achievement. Since becoming chairman of the council’s education committee in January, Mr. Catania, openly derisive of Mr. Gray’s efforts, has sought to assert control over the direction of school reform. The likely result would be disruption without progress.

Some of Mr. Catania’s ideas, such as strengthening the ability of the school board to shut ineffective schools and figuring out how to better weight resources toward students who need them the most, have merit. But other proposals would undermine the chancellor’s ability to set priorities and lead the system. Particularly worrisome are Mr. Catania’s efforts to give new powers to the state board of education and the Office of the State Superintendent. Surely the District doesn’t want to return to the bad old days of divided educational accountability, with different interests fighting for influence. School chiefs came and went because they couldn’t deal with the political games that prevented them from making decisions and following through.

After his speech, Mr. Gray met with Mr. Catania in what both sides characterized as a constructive session. Mr. Catania told us that there is a lot of agreement on the outlines of what needs to be done; he said he is committed to collaborating with Mr. Gray and Ms. Henderson. We hope that is true. School reform is a long, hard process. The District is finally moving in the right direction, thanks in part to Mr. Gray’s patient support of Ms. Henderson and her vision. Particularly with a mayoral election next year, it’s crucial that political ego and ambition not interfere.