D.C. teacher's ouster raises questions about Vincent Gray's reform steadfastness

Tuesday, July 27, 2010; A16

EXAMINING the education policy of D.C. Council Chairman and mayoral hopeful Vincent C. Gray (D), we have highlighted what we saw as contradictory actions. "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," we wrote on July 11. Not so, says D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and others who contacted us to tell us that it was Wilson students who raised the issue and that the occasion was actually one of Mr. Gray's monthly youth hearings. We would like to correct the record: Mr. Gray did not convene a hearing for the purpose of discussing the teacher's fate. We will leave it up to readers to determine if we were wrong in suggesting an element of micromanagement.

At issue is the 2008 controversy that surrounded the dismissal of biology teacher Art Siebens as part of a restructuring of Woodrow Wilson High School. Students and parents at the Ward 3 school launched an effort in support of Mr. Siebens, petitioning Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. Both backed the decision by Wilson Principal Peter Cahall in the belief that those who are responsible for school results should be given responsibility. On July 11, 2008, Mr. Gray convened a hearing billed as "Progress in Modernizing and Improving District of Columbia School Facilities" in which four students -- one of whom had previously e-mailed the chairman -- testified in support of Mr. Siebens. Mr. Gray, who opened the hearing with a statement critical of the "tenor and pace" of school reform, appeared sympathetic to the students' concerns. He said it sounded as if Mr. Siebens was exactly the kind of teacher the city needed and that it was unfortunate the council couldn't do anything about it.

The following day, Mr. Gray held one of his monthly (and commendable) youth hearings and Wilson students again testified. Again Mr. Gray was sympathetic, commenting: "I wish we had the authority to be able to hire him back, because I would in a New York minute . . . everything we've heard thus far would suggest an egregious error has been made here and that our young people are going to be deprived of a wonderful teacher, role model and somebody who loves his students."

Mr. Gray followed up with a meeting with Ms. Rhee, and a spokeswoman for his campaign stressed that he deferred to the chancellor. But as council chairman, he didn't have much choice; as mayor, he would have the power to interfere. His statements in this case might lead voters to ask whether Mr. Gray will back his frontline educators, even when they don't do the popular thing.

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