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Mr. Gray on education

Sunday, July 11, 2010; A16

MAYORAL HOPEFUL and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray's platform on education has something to please everyone. There's funding equity for public charter schools, increased access to infant and toddler care, more guidance counselors, better middle schools, and more interesting high school programs. There's even a nod to the school reforms enacted under Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. How Mr. Gray would accomplish his agenda is another matter. So ambitious is the list that it is hard to discern what are his priorities and, more significant, how he would pay for them.

Mr. Gray, who is challenging Mr. Fenty in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary, released his education plan last week. The 12-page document incorporates many elements of the reform effort led by Mr. Fenty and Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. But unlike Mr. Fenty -- who for the past three years has focused his attentions on kindergarten through 12th grade -- Mr. Gray adopts what he calls a more "holistic" approach. He envisions a cradle-to-career pipeline of programs in which children are prepared for school by the time they reach first grade and high school graduates are helped to go to college.

Mr. Gray's advocacy for public charter schools is a welcome contrast to a disinterest sometimes displayed by Mr. Fenty. As chairman, Mr. Gray blocked cuts in charter facilities funding proposed by Mr. Fenty; he has pledged support for parity in resources for children who attend charter schools. He's also been an advocate for the University of the District of Columbia, again an area where Mr. Fenty has shown disinterest, if not outright hostility. Both Mr. Gray and Mr. Fenty have backed efforts to provide more and better pre-kindergarten programs; here their rivalry has had a beneficial effect, with each trying to outdo the other.

On the other hand, some of Mr. Gray's goals are contradicted by his actions. He proposes strengthening the office of deputy mayor for education, but he led an effort to strip the office of funding and major areas of responsibility. Likewise, even as Mr. Gray accuses the mayor of acting unilaterally, he helped engineer the questionable transfer of a shuttered school in Ward 8 without public comment or advance notice. He says that public schools should have the same autonomy and flexibility as charter schools, but when the Woodrow Wilson High School principal opted not to retain a biology teacher, Mr. Gray convened a hearing. He promises to support the actions of a strong chancellor even as he denied Ms. Rhee the backing that might have helped ease controversies such as the one that occurred over school closings.

Most disappointing is the absence of any detail on what his proposals would cost or how -- other than a vague promise of savings in special education -- he would pay for them. It's easy to promise comprehensive pre-natal-to-toddler programs for families with special-needs children, more resources for charter schools or a doubling of school guidance counselors. Coming up with money, particularly in these tough fiscal times, is an entirely different matter.

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