Fenty's School Plan Marks a Turnabout

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 8, 2006

The chambers at the District government building were packed. The debate was growing emotional. The question involved a bill to dissolve the city's Board of Education and award control of the failing public schools to the mayor.

And then Adrian M. Fenty took the microphone.

"There is no direct correlation to the performance that comes out of the classrooms, when you look at who runs the school system, whether it's the mayor, an appointed board or an elected board," said Fenty, the Democratic Ward 4 D.C. Council member, in an impassioned five-minute statement.

That was in March 2004, when Fenty, opposing a school takeover by Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), said that "the problem is probably not the governance structure. The problem probably is centered around the difficulty inherent in educating children that come up in urban environments in this country."

A few weeks after Fenty made those comments at a public hearing, he joined a majority of the 13-member council in voting to block the mayor's bid.

Two and a half years later, Fenty, the mayor-elect, has changed his mind. He has said that school Superintendent Clifford B. Janey has moved too slowly to enact reform, that the school board has impeded progress with its infighting and that the mayor cannot be held responsible unless he has direct authority over the 58,000-student school system.

Over the years, the school system has experienced chronic problems related to academic achievement, facilities maintenance and financial mismanagement.

Today, Fenty will lead a group of D.C. officials -- including Janey and nine council members -- to New York City to meet with school Chancellor Joel I. Klein and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (R), who won control of that city's system in 2002. Fenty hopes the trip will convince the D.C. Council that mayoral authority over public education is imperative and help him win political support for his own school takeover bid after he takes office Jan. 2.

But even as Fenty puts on the full-court press, some elected leaders are trying to square his previous public comments with his new point of view.

"He has to reconcile those statements with what he is saying today," said council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who voted against Williams's plan in 2004.

"I don't know that I would be troubled that his opinion has changed," said incoming council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), who joined the council in 2005. "It should be for the right reasons . . . because you've learned more and believe this is the way to go."

The change does involve a learning process, Fenty said yesterday. During his campaign, he traveled to big cities, including New York, where mayors have won control, so that he could review their successes. And, Fenty said, the District's schools have not improved during the past 2 1/2 years under the hybrid school board composed of five elected members and four appointed by the mayor.

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