Putting children first

Monday, October 26, 2009

THE 18-HOUR hearing into the recent teacher layoffs was D.C. politics at its angriest. Speakers called for Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) to be impeached, impugned the integrity of Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and denigrated, in sometimes ugly racial terms, any who dared disagree. There's plenty of blame to go around for the nasty tone of the debate -- union leaders with self-interest in fomenting unrest, a mayor obtuse to his obligation to work cooperatively, D.C. Council members intent on undermining the executive -- but, in the end, none of that really matters.

What's critical, and what hangs in the balance, is education reform. It's time the District's leaders stopped acting like children and started thinking of them.

Mr. Fenty should make the first move. We have, and continue to be, strong backers of his efforts, led by Ms. Rhee, to overhaul a system incapable of providing basic education to most of its students. They were right to clean house in the central office, to close schools, to bring in new principals and to work to get rid of ineffective teachers. Resistance to these changes was inevitable from those with a stake in the status quo, but Mr. Fenty has made too little effort to explain or build political consensus for the changes. Now some council members are openly talking about trying to wrest control of the schools back from the mayor.

That's why the council's invitation to the administration to explain its actions in laying off 388 school employees at a hearing this week is so important. We hope that Mr. Fenty shows up to personally express his regrets that relations have become so tattered -- as underlined by the developing controversy over the parks director. Thursday's session will also be an opportunity for Ms. Rhee to answer questions and address concerns about the circumstances that led to the dismissal of 229 teachers less than a month into the school year. A court ultimately will decide if she was on solid legal ground, but Ms. Rhee needs to correct misconceptions about her actions and, we hope, clear the air.

Of course, council members have to be willing to listen. It will be up to Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) to set the right tone. He didn't do so in conducting last week's marathon session or in speaking, in a show of poor judgment, at labor's protest rally. Mr. Gray is openly toying with the idea of challenging Mr. Fenty's reelection next year, and it's clear that the mayor's stewardship of the schools is emerging as the No. 1 issue. We know Mr. Gray to be a fair-minded man who, given his long service to the District, knows as well as anyone the decades of failure of the city's educational system and what that has meant in lost and ruined lives. Talk of turning back the clock just when there are glimmers of progress in student achievement and parental satisfaction is more than bad politics; it's madness.

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