Kinder, gentler reform at D.C. schools?

Friday, September 10, 2010

IN HIS BID to unseat Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray has sought to defuse school reform as an issue. Like the incumbent, Mr. Gray favored mayoral control of the schools, and he vows not to undo important changes undertaken by Mr. Fenty. What Mr. Gray says will be different is his style of governing. The question is whether that promise of a kinder and gentler kind of change can bring about the drastic improvements still needed in the city's public schools.

The difference between the approaches of Mr. Fenty and Mr. Gray is embodied in the polarizing figure of D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. Mr. Fenty is clear that he would retain Ms. Rhee and, as reflected in her ill-advised decision to campaign for him, has inextricably linked his political fate with her tenure. Mr. Gray has cagily avoided commenting on whether he would keep her, but it's widely assumed -- from how the two have criticized each other -- that Ms. Rhee would either leave or be replaced if Mr. Gray were elected.

Mr. Gray is right that reform should not be dependent upon one person. Still, a legitimate question for voters is what will happen to the schools if Ms. Rhee leaves.

There's no debate that her departure would mean new instability for a system that has seen an unhealthy turmoil in school leadership. Consider, as The Post's Bill Turque pointed out, that her successor would be the system's fourth leader in 10 years, not counting interim superintendents, and that if Ms. Rhee leaves early next year, she would still be the city's longest-serving schools head in the past 20 years. Systems that have had the most success in boosting student achievement and making other improvements have benefited from leaders who had time (witness Jerry D. Weast in Montgomery County) to formulate a plan and put in place a team to undertake hard, systemic change.

A more significant issue is whether progress would continue without Ms. Rhee's style of hard-charging leadership and Mr. Fenty's willingness to make unpopular but needed decisions. It's not easy to close schools, replace principals or fire longtime teachers, and for all Mr. Fenty's faults as a manager, it's hard to see how he could have made any of those decisions without making enemies.

In many of those battles, Mr. Gray was on the other side, second-guessing Ms. Rhee's judgments and criticizing the mayor. The American Federation of Teachers is pulling out all the stops to get Mr. Gray elected. If the union succeeds, how will Mr. Gray -- who already is questioning the fairness of the system's new, nationally recognized evaluation process -- deal with the next round of teachers who are rated ineffective? How would he handle the pioneering teachers contract when it is renegotiated in 2012?

For all the progress D.C. schools have seen in the last three years, there's much more work to be done. Too many children remain stuck in classrooms with no learning going on. A mayor can keep peace by keeping happy all the grownups who depend on a public school system. That doesn't help children who are being deprived of a future.

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