D.C. mayor contest must get substantive on schools, corruption

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, August 21, 2010

With about four weeks to go before D.C. primary day, candidates are continuing to participate in community forums and debates across the city. Fewer undecided voters are attending these gatherings, however, and the candidates appear to know it. Now it's a matter of their playing to supporters and not offending the rest of the crowd.

This is a less than satisfying situation. Major issues, particularly those between mayoral candidates Adrian Fenty and Vincent Gray, remain not only unresolved but also woefully unaddressed. Two that cry out for a full-throated debate but instead are getting glossed over in a sea of one-liners: public schools and public corruption.

Campaigns instead seem to be shifting attention to their ground game, namely GOTV (or get out the vote), emphasizing literature drops, door knocking and phone calling in targeted areas to identify supporters to turn out on Sept. 14. The mechanics of GOTV are getting finely tuned and ready to go.

Would that the same energy were devoted to the issues.

Fenty took over the school system in 2007 with the pledge of turning D.C. schools into America's highest performing urban school system. Has it happened? If not, how close has he come to fulfilling his commitment?

This week Post education writer Bill Turque took major steps toward answering those questions with his story on the progress of Fenty's school reform efforts. His reporting on test scores was especially important, since the Fenty administration has made scores a litmus test of success.

Turque reported that while the upward trend in test scores, started by former superintendent Clifford Janey, has continued under Fenty's handpicked chancellor Michelle Rhee, elementary pass rates in reading and math declined about 4.5 points this year.

Worse still, the achievement gap between the District's poorest children and its most affluent has, in some cases, widened. So, too, the black-white gulf.

The achievement gaps go to the heart of school reform efforts. Rhee believes -- almost as an article of faith -- that the teacher is key to student achievement, and she has turned the school system upside down trying to make that point.

There is, of course, a contrary view that the teacher, while crucial, cannot get the job done without the support of a solid principal and a home that sends a child to school ready to learn. Families must also see to it that what is taught in the classroom is nurtured and reinforced at home.

Rhee acknowledged in an interview with Turque that closing the achievement gap is "maddening and it's hard," adding: "The gap is still ridiculous."

"Ridiculous," but understandable to those who believe that conditions beyond the school building, especially economic and social disparities, can affect learning. That's not an excuse, but a call for a stronger and sharper focus on addressing the inequalities that breed failure.

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