Council Pushes for School Progress Study

Council Chairman Vincent Gray wants to check Chancellor Michelle Rhee's work.
Council Chairman Vincent Gray wants to check Chancellor Michelle Rhee's work. (Courtesy Of Vincent-c. Gray)
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By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 6, 2009

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray said yesterday he will seek an independent evaluator to assess the progress of public school reform in the District under Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.

"The council believes it's important to have an independent look," Gray (D) said during his monthly news briefing at the John A. Wilson Building.

Gray said he is stepping in because Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) has not acted. Under the 2007 law establishing mayoral control of the school system, Fenty is required to submit an annual evaluation of the District of Columbia Public Schools addressing areas such as academic achievement, business practices and personnel policies. Fenty also has the option under the law to skip the annual reports and deliver a five-year independent assessment by Sept. 15, 2012.

Last May, seven months after the deadline specified in the law, Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso recommended two education scholars for the project: Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute and Kenneth Wong of Brown University. But the plan stalled when Gray raised questions about their independence.

Both are experts on mayoral takeovers of school systems. But Hess, the institute's director of education policy studies, wrote an op-ed piece for The Washington Post in 2007 praising Rhee. Wong testified in favor of the mayoral takeover.

Gray said he also had concerns about the transparency of the study's financing. Fenty proposed that the five-year, $750,000 cost be picked up by the D.C. Public Education Fund, which the mayor established to attract private-sector contributions to aid school reform. Among the fund's board members is New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein, a friend and mentor of Rhee's.

Gray, who wants the project publicly funded, said that he has received no other names of potential evaluators from Fenty. After more than 18 months of the schools under mayoral control, he said plans must be made to meet the law's requirements.

"We're at one-and-a-half years," Gray said. "If we're going to have an objective analysis, now is the time to begin."

Rhee referred an e-mailed request for comment to mayoral spokeswoman Mafara Hobson. She said the mayor intends to comply with the evaluation requirement but has not submitted new names to the council.

Gray said he expected that the D.C. auditor's office would supervise the project, which was first disclosed in Saturday's Washington Post by columnist Colbert I. King. Gray said that he did not have any specific researchers in mind but that he hoped to have the review underway by spring.

Fenty and Rhee control day-to-day operations of the school system, but the council conducts oversight hearings. On Jan. 16, Gray will hold a session on teacher quality issues, including Rhee's plan to put some teachers on probation, giving them 90 school days to improve their performance or face dismissal. Rhee initiated the effort after failing to reach agreement with the Washington Teachers' Union on a contract that would award most instructors big raises and performance bonuses in exchange for a weakening of tenure protections.

"We continue to be deeply concerned about DCPS and the Washington Teachers' Union being able to reach an agreement which would allow far more predictability in the relationship of teachers to DCPS," Gray said yesterday during an online chat with Post readers.

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