The top two rivals in the Democratic race for D.C. mayor are running full speed ahead on school reform as the summer heats up and the Sept. 14 primary draws nearer.
But there's barely one - never mind six - degrees of separation between their education positions, while the No. 3 candidate wants to shake up the entire establishment.
D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, who released his school platform last week, is positioning himself as the liberal who will finish the reforms begun in 2007.
Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who won control of public education in 2007 thanks in part to Mr. Gray's leadership on the council, is painting himself as the reformer who already has begun to turn around the city's troubled system.
Both candidates promise to continue changes made by Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, turn neighborhood schools into hubs of educational and recreational services, and ramp up the number of prekindergarten slots available to 3- and 4-year-olds.
Leo Alexander, the Democrat who has neither the war chests nor the high-profile endorsements that Mr. Gray and Mr. Fenty do, warns that voters mustn't be shortsighted.
"These guys are all about protecting the status quo," Mr. Alexander said in an interview Wednesday. "They are one in the same. It's like putting a mirror to one and seeing the face of the other."
He cites the debate over Ms. Rhee, whom Mr. Fenty appointed with Mr. Gray's endorsement, as an example.
Mr. Fenty vows sustainable reform and promises to keep Ms. Rhee, who orchestrated a philanthropic agreement that would pour more than $62 million into the school system for merit pay if Ms. Rhee stays on as chancellor.
Mr. Gray says he, too, wants sustainable reform and voted for Ms. Rhee's philanthropic plan, but he makes no such promise about Ms. Rhee.
"The issue is not whether or not I keep Chancellor Rhee on," Mr. Gray said July 1. "The issue is, frankly, how do we create a blueprint for sustainable school reform that doesn't rely on one or two people."
Mr. Alexander thinks both of his rivals are missing the point.
"The problems are generational illiteracy and poverty," Mr. Alexander said. "We're not tackling that."
"Half of our children are being born into poverty and one-third of children 16 and older are functionally illiterate," he said.
A long shot who had about $700 in campaign cash according to his June report, Mr. Alexander said he will focus his efforts on getting youths and adults academically prepared for today's work force and global economy by establishing effective vocational, training and licensing programs that lead families to paychecks.
"Look at the Harlem Children's Zone," he said of the program that is transforming the central part of the famed New York neighborhood. The Harlem project is a network of schools, clinics and social service programs that simultaneously address families' needs.
Mr. Alexander said just as the War on Poverty failed, the District's disjointed approach falls short.
"We need to stem the flow of dependency and increase the flow of self-sufficiency," he said. "Our young black kids need to see their uncles and fathers working. We need to address the root causes of the problems."
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