Gray outlines his agenda for education in District

By Bill Turque and Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 2, 2010; B01

Calling the Fenty administration's approach to education reform "shortsighted, narrow and sometimes secretive," D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray unveiled a blueprint Thursday to guide education policy if he is elected mayor.

The plan promises more transparency, funding equity for public charter schools, tax credits for early-childhood programs and greater support for the city's neighborhood high schools.

Educators, students and supporters filled the library at Thurgood Marshall Academy, a public charter high school in Southeast, where Gray outlined an ambitious plan and tried to further distinguish himself from Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who has made public schools one of his priorities.

Gray, who is challenging Fenty for the Democratic nomination for mayor, said he gives "tremendous credit" to Fenty for calling attention to the need for education reform. But "what we've learned over the past three years is that it's not enough to have mayoral control. What we need, ladies and gentlemen, is mayoral leadership," he said to hearty applause.

Gray's 15-page plan reflects broad areas of agreement with the reform program led by Fenty and Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. The plan comes during a week of political one-upsmanship by Gray and Fenty, beginning Monday when the mayor canceled an appearance at a well-publicized education forum.

Fenty appeared to counter what became a cozy town hall meeting for Gray by holding a news conference Tuesday on three years of progress. And he had Rhee by his side. On Thursday, he held a news conference 1 1/2 hours after Gray's.

On Wednesday, WAMU radio and The Washington Post ran interviews with Rhee in which she all but closed the door on serving as chancellor if Gray becomes mayor. In interviews, Rhee said Gray did not share Fenty's philosophy on education reform. Gray has been noncommittal when asked about Rhee's future should he be elected.

On Thursday, Gray continued to make the case that school reform "cannot hinge on one person."

But his supporters were fired up by Rhee's involvement in the election. "I am offended by the Rhee offensive," said former council member Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6), who was among several community leaders in the school library. "My whole time in D.C. politics, I've never seen anything like this. . . . Listen, this is not about your career. This is about the children."

The audience included school board member Lisa Raymond; Virginia Williams, mother of former mayor Anthony A. Williams (D); philanthropist Judith Terra; and Jacque Patterson, president of the Ward 8 Democrats.

Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) praised Gray's plan for going beyond "teaching to the test" and being more comprehensive.

Gray reiterated his support of mayoral control of the school system, noting that Fenty had voted against a similar takeover as a council member. Gray's plan adopts ideas embedded in the District's new contract with the Washington Teachers' Union, including holding educators accountable for student performance and paying them accordingly.

The plan does not offer a cost analysis, but under questioning, Gray said he has identified areas in which the school system is overspending, including special education, in which millions of dollars are paid to transport and educate special-needs students in private schools at taxpayer expense.

"We are well north of one-quarter of a billion dollars. I have absolutely no doubt that there's opportunity for enormous savings in there," Gray said. "As we do that, we will reinvest those dollars right back into our children's education, especially early-childhood education."

According to Gray's blueprint, school reform has been damaged by a lack of respect for community input and failure to provide stakeholders with basic information about school budgets and other key matters.

"When I am mayor, I'll insist on respect for all. I will bring a collaborative approach to education reform so that all stakeholders in our educational system have a seat at the table," he said.

Along those lines, Gray's plan calls for strengthening the office of the deputy mayor for education and turning it into the lead agency for management of the city's "educational investment portfolio." Gray also wants the deputy mayor to lead a forensic audit of the traditional public and public charter school systems to establish how money is being spent.

Gray's plan describes a "holistic, birth-to-24 approach" to education, starting with increased access to infant and toddler care. Gray cited waiting lists with more than 6,000 families. He also said he would propose a local supplement to a federal tax credit for child and dependent care and seek to broaden eligibility to include more working- and middle-class families.

The plan also criticizes what it calls "the two-city tale for secondary education," referring to the gap in funding and other resources between the District's selective, application-only high schools and its regular middle and high schools. In particular, Gray's plan criticizes Rhee for proposing a new arts magnet middle school "while whole segments of the city lack a middle school at all, and the current middle schools languish." The plan calls for all middle and high schools to offer special programs and outside partnerships like those available at Ellington and Banneker high schools.

The plan also addresses concerns expressed by the charter school community about millions of dollars that flow to traditional public schools outside the uniform per-student formula. Areas such as building maintenance, crossing guards and legal services are funded at D.C. public schools at taxpayer expense, "while charter schools have been left to fend for themselves."

Gray offered no specific fixes but said as mayor he would convene a panel of national and local experts to deliver a plan within three months to establish funding equity.

Joshua Kern, co-founder and executive director of Thurgood Marshall Academy, introduced Gray to the audience Thursday and said the council chairman is one reason the school is hailed as a national model for charter schools. Kern said that the school was having problems with its lease agreement a decade ago and that he sought advice from Gray, then director of Covenant House, a shelter for homeless teens.

He said Gray told him that many times, he had seen people with good ideas come east of the Anacostia River and then leave when "they hit a roadblock."

"If you really want to help . . . you'll stick it out," Kern quoted Gray as saying. Kern added: "The rest is history. . . . We stayed."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company