Editorial -- The D.C. Council's About-Face on the Schools

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

DISTRICT SCHOOLS Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee spent nearly a year developing a new disciplinary policy for students. A draft of her proposal was just published in the D.C. Register, and three hearings are scheduled so the public can comment on it. But maybe Ms. Rhee shouldn't have bothered: The D.C. Council wants to strip her of much of the power to set rules for the children in her charge.

In a Dec. 16 vote that attracted little public notice, council members passed emergency legislation giving the state superintendent of education and the reconstituted elected school board the authority to formulate standards for disciplinary policies and procedures. Included in the council's mandate are requirements for "a detailed description" of how principals are to be trained and evaluated and "detailed plans for implementation by school." To make matters worse, the council aims to include the District's public charter schools in this ill-conceived idea. How often does the council need to be reminded that much of the success of the charter schools is because of their independence from the D.C. government?

More important, the council seems to have forgotten that its wise decision to make the mayor responsible for the schools was rooted in the historical failure of elected school boards to do right by the children of this city. Don't get us wrong: We admire the job that State Superintendent of Education Deborah A. Gist and the new board have done in setting broad education policy. But the day-to-day functioning of the schools is not their business, nor was it ever the intent of the council to make it their business. And nothing is more elemental to the operation of schools than setting and enforcing rules for behavior. There's no question that the discipline policy currently in place is ill-conceived and haphazardly applied and that the council is right to demand improvement. There's probably even a role for the board in establishing broad criteria, but it is counterproductive to undercut Ms. Rhee in the middle of her reform effort.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) has yet to exercise his veto power, and the unanimous vote for this measure will no doubt give him pause. Nonetheless, this bill sets a troubling precedent and is bad public policy. Mr. Fenty should reject it, and council members who say they want Ms. Rhee to succeed in fixing the schools should let her do her job.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company