Fenty is a no-show at education debate

By Nikita Stewart and Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 29, 2010

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray said Monday night that if he definitely intended to fire schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee after becoming mayor, he "would say so."

The remark came at a campaign forum in which Democratic mayoral primary challenger Gray was to debate incumbent Adrian M. Fenty. But Fenty did not attend.

A chair that was intended for the mayor was occupied by the head of the group that had organized the session, and from that perch, she asked Gray questions.

In response to a query about Rhee, Gray said that whether she should be retained was "not the issue for me at this point. The issue for me is that this shouldn't swing on one person," he said. He said there needs to be an "embracing of education reform" by the public.

For what organizers called "the Great Education Forum," 433 people RSVP'd. When Fenty failed to appear, organizers went to a town hall-style format that allowed Gray to engage the 100 or so audience members, who appeared to be mostly educators in their 20s and 30s.

"I'm delighted to be here, not necessarily delighted to be here by myself," Gray said at the Naval Heritage Center in an apparent reference to Fenty. At the outset, Gray took a dig or two at Fenty, saying that the mayor might be in the lobby so "he can pick up a few pointers."

Word from the Fenty campaign Monday was that the mayor had never "confirmed" that he would participate but that schedulers were prepping him while trying to come up with an alternative date. Campaign sources said that Fenty was obligated to attend other "private campaign functions."

The group that organized the debate, the D.C. chapter of Young Education Professionals, told a different story about the event, which was announced June 8. The Fenty campaign did not contact the group to pull out until Sunday evening, said Kate Blosveren, the group's president.

Gray was left with the floor to himself.

As expected, he faulted Fenty and Rhee for a lack of transparency in their dealings with parents and other community stakeholders. "I'd use the word opaque to describe how some of the decisions were made," he said. "The word 'public' in public education needs to be taken seriously."

During questioning, Gray also offered a series of ideas to address problems confronting the school system. He spoke of adapting some of the best practices of public charter schools, including a longer school day and more high schools with specialized offerings that appeal to student interests. Gray also proposed establishing joint ventures between the District and private special education schools to help ease the transition of some students back into the public school system.

Gray reiterated his commitment to the development of the District's fledgling community college and to the University of the District of Columbia, which he said had been unjustly overlooked by the Fenty administration.

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