Michelle Rhee faces an inexplicable inquisition for helping D.C. students

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

IN ANY OTHER city, an official who manages to raise millions of dollars from credible organizations to improve public schools would get a commendation. Not so in the District of Columbia, where the reward for such effort is a suggestion of wrongdoing. Equally incredible is that officials in the city's Office of Campaign Finance are actually investigating these half-baked allegations against Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. Let's hope reality sets in before there is real harm to education reform.

Ms. Rhee has been put on notice that she is being investigated in connection with the solicitation of private foundation grants to help fund the new teacher contract. Four nonprofit groups have pledged $64.5 million to help underwrite raises and bonuses for D.C. teachers; as is standard in such donations, the donors have conditioned the money on consistency in leadership and the reform agenda. That, though, constitutes a conflict of interest to Robert Vinson Brannum, a civic activist and fierce critic of Ms. Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), who brought the June 2 complaint.

It's hard to think that anyone could conclude that Ms. Rhee sought these monies to ensure her continued employ as schools chancellor. Nonetheless, the Office of Campaign Finance concluded there may be "reasonable cause to believe that a violation has occurred," and it warned Ms. Rhee of the possible need for "subpoena, depositions, interrogatories, interviews and audits." It's enough, as the Examiner's Jonetta Rose Barras observed, to make "D.C. residents question the competence of these OCF officials," the same officials, she noted, who saw no harm in D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) using his office to solicit a donation from Comcast for the D.C. Democratic State Committee.

Our calls to the campaign office went unanswered, so we can't tell you why, if indeed there is an issue, officials didn't act weeks ago when the details of the grants were being fully aired and vetted by counsels for the school system and the city's chief financial officer. We also would like to know why officials didn't first undertake a review of the matter, rather than go full throttle into a wholesale, and likely costly, investigation. If they had, they might have discovered the contracts are actually between the nonprofits and the D.C. Public Education Fund, that the chancellor did not negotiate the terms and that she's far from alone -- either in the District or the nation -- in securing these kinds of grants for school purposes.

Administration officials expressed confidence that the allegations against Ms. Rhee will prove baseless. Still, it's disheartening to see this kind of small-minded hounding of those who seek to better reward teachers who do a good job helping children learn. There would seem to be no better way to discourage public service than to turn the District into a place where no good turn goes unquestioned.

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