Backward on School Reform
THE D.C. COUNCIL gave the mayor control of public schools because it rightly believed that vesting responsibility and accountability in one person was the only way to reverse decades of divided management and failed leadership. So it is curious that just two years into the reform efforts the council is proposing changes that would erode Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's control over the schools. The council needs to come to its senses and not retreat from a system that offers the children of this city the last, best chance for a better education.
A budget report released last week by council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) would empower the elected State Board of Education at the expense of the mayor. The board's budget would be tripled, and it would become a separate entity in the government so that it can have "enhanced autonomy and independence." Meanwhile, the office of the deputy mayor for education, Victor Reinoso, would be gutted; some functions would be delegated to the board and others to Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.
It's difficult to see the logic of the changes. Mr. Gray has derided Mr. Reinoso as ineffective, even as his fledgling operation has been cited as a model for how cities can coordinate and integrate services for youth. Ms. Rhee practically pleaded with the council not to make the shift, arguing that Mr. Reinoso's role frees her to focus on academics. Instead of having to worry about such things as getting nurses into schools, Ms. Rhee said she can stay focused on learning and teaching. Having the school ombudsman report to the elected board would politicize an office that is supposed to be a dispassionate solver of problems. And why would the District, where the state and local education systems are one and the same, need a state board with an administrative staff comparable to, say, California? Does anyone really think that it's a good idea to return to an environment where the political interests of an elected school board are more important than the needs of students?
In assuming control of the schools, Mr. Fenty staked his political reputation on his ability to improve schools that are a national disgrace. The council, having promised five years of stability to let the new system show results, now is tinkering in a way that can only be seen as a bid to undercut those efforts. If changes are needed in the structure, they should be the result of careful study and consultation between mayor and executive. None of that has happened. Instead, Mr. Gray, inflamed by the mayor's immature pettiness in other matters, seems to have put his understandable pique ahead of responsible governing.
The proposals are subject to approval by the full council. The public should take note of which council members have the courage and good sense to stay the course for school reform.