Fenty Cuts Funding for Independent Evaluator to Assess Public School Reform

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty has eliminated funding for an independent evaluator assigned to assess the progress of public school reform under Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, according to the revised 2010 budget he submitted to the D.C. Council late Friday.

Fenty (D) also reversed a series of other budget measures, approved by the council in May, that sought to divert some of the mayor's control of education to other agencies. They include the shift of staff and funds from Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso to the D.C. State Board of Education, which would be established as an independent agency. The board would house the office of the ombudsman for public education, which is responsible for investigating complaints and answering questions from parents.

The proposed moves reflect the council's discontent with what some members see as a lack of transparency and accountability in the mayor's efforts to transform the District's struggling public school system. The ombudsman's office, for example, is supposed to file monthly reports but has not done so since March. The ombudsman, Tonya Vidal Kinlow, resigned in December and has yet to be permanently replaced.

Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) and the council are free to restore the funding cut when they vote on the revised budget July 31. But speaking to the council Monday at a hearing on Fenty's plan to close a two-year, $666 million revenue shortfall, city administrator Neil Albert urged that the governance structure established in 2007 remain intact.

"Our education reform efforts are demonstrating real results," Albert said, "and we strongly believe that, rather than changing course with the established structure, we should maintain momentum forward."

Albert did not directly address the school evaluation, which Fenty is required to submit annually under the law that established mayoral control. He also has the option to skip the yearly reports and deliver a five-year independent assessment by September 2012.

In May 2008, Reinoso recommended two prominent 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. Hess wrote an op-ed piece for The Washington Post in 2007 praising Rhee. Wong testified in favor of the mayoral takeover.

When Reinoso didn't offer other candidates, Gray decided to move on his own. This past May, he included $325,000 to hire the National Research Council, one of four nonprofit organizations that operate under the National Academies umbrella, to conduct the evaluation. The money would cover about 20 percent of the total cost, with the NRC raising the rest from private sources.

Fenty spokeswoman Mafara Hobson said Monday that the mayor was still committed to an independent evaluation but did not elaborate.

The council also has attempted to bolster the power of the state board, which does not run school operations but formulates standards for academic programs and teacher qualifications and oversees the school system's standardized tests. Although state board members are elected, the panel is under the control of the state superintendent, who reports to Reinoso.

"We don't believe a set of elected officials should report to a set of appointed officials," Gray said Monday.

When Fenty's original budget cut the board's $1 million in funding in half this spring, the council restored the money and added money for two staff members who would answer directly to the panel.

D.C. State Board President Lisa Raymond said the group is simply trying to do its job.

"We understand this is a very tough time for the entire city, and if we have to reduce our budget to help the city, we are willing to do that," she said. "Cutting it in half is not acceptable. It wasn't acceptable three months ago, and it's not acceptable now."

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