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SIMMONS: How Mendelson handles schools to test leadership

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 27, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Thanks to my colleague Tom Howell Jr. and News Channel 8's Bruce DePuyt, D.C. stakeholders have a pretty good idea of the priorities new D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson plans to focus on following summer recess.

One is campaign finance reform, which always dilates my pupils because progressives and Democrats, like Mr. Mendelson, often fail to see that their idea of reform quiets free speech and dilutes the First Amendment.

The other issue revolves around education, and as every city stakeholder knows, take your eyes off the D.C. public education landscape for one academic quarter and you will be dismayed by the meddlesome ways of city hall, where power trips often lead the power brokers down a path to nowhere.

Enter Mr. Mendelson, who voted against a passel of laws in 2007 that plopped oversight of education into the hands of lawmakers and gave the mayor responsibility for implementing them.

Has the system of educating youths and adults improved since then? Not really.

Oh, they did add the title "chancellor" to the school governance discussion, but other issues, such as charter school funding and unchecked public school spending, remain problematic.

Indeed, if it weren't for the sustained efforts in charter schools, more than 40,000 youths still would be trapped in traditional schools and heading toward the same future as their parents, many of whom are undereducated and unskilled after 12 years or more years of schooling.

That is why it's important to further broadcast some comments Mr. Mendelson made on Monday.

Mr. Howell reported in The Washington Times that day that Mr. Mendelson does not plan to reshuffle the dais chairs this legislative period, which means that in addition to serving as chairman of the Committee of the Whole, he will continue to chair the panel on public safety and the judiciary.

If Mr. Mendelson thinks he can hold down the council fort, provide effective oversight of the city's first responders and criminal justice affairs and run for office this fall, so be it.

But will he tighten screws on the mayor or take a tough law-and-order approach?

Mr. Mendelson handed out his general promissory note this way: "I promise you, we will be moving aggressively right after the recess."

While Mr. Mendelson has firmly grasped the chairman's gavel, how he handles the disparate council views on education surely will be a test of his leadership skills.

Some advocates want the council to diminish school oversight by the Committee of the Whole and restore oversight by a smaller panel, a panel on education — a proposal that would entail support from his colleagues, the mayor and Congress.

As things have stood since 2007, the council continues to be the same rubber stamp for Mayor Vincent C. Gray as it was for Adrian M. Fenty. In fact, you could say all lawmakers have done is pile their wish list on top of Mr. Gray's — and we know whom that has not benefited.

During an interview with Mr. DePuyt on Monday, Mr. Mendelson seemingly laid out his oversight argument, saying a "lousy chair" can produce lousy oversight. (No argument here.)

Then, saying he wanted to choose his words carefully, Mr. Mendelson said that "education should be the sole focus of a committee" and that he "will present my proposal in January."

Hallelujah.

This is exciting news for a few reasons.

1) The fall elections will be over.

2) If prosecutors have a hammer — even if it's a mere rubber mallet — they likely will have leveled it come January.

3) Parents and other stakeholders will have gotten a close-up look at whether Mr. Mendelson is a leader or a follower, another of those Democratic jackasses that fails to bray at failed policies and poor spending habits but instead sniffs out the trails laid before him.

Congratulations to Mr. Mendelson on his chairmanship and very own bright spotlight in city hall.

Let's see if he has something up his sleeve that the mayor and his predecessor, Kwame R. Brown, did not.

Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

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