- The Washington Times - Friday, February 20, 2009

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee has upset the apple cart.

She has fired teachers and principals and she has closed schools. She also wants teachers to substitute tenure for merit pay.

But if Mrs. Rhee’s efforts to reform D.C. Public Schools are to succeed, she will have to reach out to parents, supporters and critics say.

The chancellor herself said last week that “parental engagement has to be broadened” and that her plan will take a “multipronged approach.” The proposal includes school-based parental resource centers, which some schools already have, and working closely with Local School Restructuring Teams (LSRTs), which are made up of faculty, parents and other stakeholders.

“Parents are a crucial component of children’s education,” said Nathan Saunders, vice president of the Washington Teachers Union. “Across the spectrum … from Tiger Woods to Mozart, parents worked hard and sacrificed for them.”

Parents want to be involved in their school’s spending plans and engaging school restructuring teams is an important part of the budgeting process, he said.

“The chancellor and [Mayor Adrian M. Fenty] were sued [in 2008] by parents who want to be involved with their children,” Mr. Saunders said. “The parents don’t feel they’re part of the process. The chancellor’s rhetoric is all about teacher accountability when the LSRTs are one of the most underutilized components in this District. It’s in everybody’s best interest to have parents’ input regarding public dollars.”

Cherita Whiting, chairman of the Ward 4 Education Council, is both a critic and supporter of Mrs. Rhee. “I know she wants to do right by D.C. Public Schools. There was so much that was wrong. But you have to get buy-in from parents on reform,” she said.

Former D.C. schools chief Arlene Ackerman, who now serves as superintendent of Philadelphia schools, said if you “build a good school … [and] extend a hand to parents they will come.”

In an interview last week, Mrs. Ackerman cited one of her core beliefs - “parents are our partners” - and explained how she is successfully reaching out to parents on such issues as testing, strategic planning and English as a second language.

“We have made this [parental engagement] a mandate and put the resources there,” Mrs. Ackerman said. “It’s on principals’ evaluation.”

Victory in the classroom is hard to come by in the District’s public schools, which consistently rank on the lowest academic rungs.

To help turn that around, Mrs. Rhee is firing teachers and principals and has closed 23 schools. Her merit pay plan, unveiled last year, would reward teachers whose students perform better with up to $135,000 in annual pay and bonuses. But the teachers would have to give up tenure to receive the higher pay.