- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 17, 2007

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray begins today a series of hearings on the Public Education Reform Amendment Act, the Fenty administration proposal that would effectively turn over management and budgetary authority of public schools to the mayor and the council. “In holding these hearings, the central question to be addressed will be, ‘Will the academic achievement and overall well-being of the children, young and adult students of the District of Columbia improve as a result of this action.’ ” We stand with the chairman’s words.

Listening to all sides in the school-reform debate is key to giving voice to the individuals and organizations that stand with children and to exposing those that stand with the status quo. For example, some groups that have ties to City Hall — including such the DCPTA and Senior Alliance of Parents, Principals and Educators, and such organizations as the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance and Anti-Defamation League — do not support school choice. So they shouldn’t be construed as a “voice” on behalf of all children and parents. Similarly, while Parents United for D.C. Public Schools has long held sway over City Hall and the school system, that group’s “voice” is biased, too — as its very name points out. What lawmakers must do as they listen to testimony over the coming months is pay closest attention to those voices that express an open mind to “public education reform” — three words that speak volumes about what Mr. Gray rightly calls “academic reform.”

So why does the city’s education system need reforming? How best to get there? Sadly, D.C. students who receive a public education, collectively, are apparently stuck at the bottom of the academic ladder. It doesn’t matter whether the measuring stick is the SAT 9, PSAT, SAT, National Assessment of Educational Progress or another standard tool; D.C. students simply do not measure up. Far too many superintendents and school board members have promised to implement “academic reform”; our children and parents are still waiting.

As for how best to get there, it doesn’t appear any easier now than it did two decades ago, when the Committee on Public Education first exposed schooling in the District for what it truly is. Then as now the key stumbling blocks are the same: special-interest lobbies that sneer at using public money as an any-means-necessary recourse; organizations that say reform will forsake “democracy”; and advocates who say if only our school system had new facilities and fully funded programs. Lawmakers, especially those newly seated, are duty-bound to listen with an open mind. Eventually, they and the mayor must agree on how to empower themselves, how to rework personnel rules, how to bolster the State Education Office, how to strengthen school oversight and how best to utilize the school board. (On that latter point, Mr. Gray and his colleagues have already taken a significant first step by placing the school-reform bill in the hands of the Committee of the Whole.)

The debate on school reform is not about a “takeover,” voting rights or building new schools. The debate is about how best to improve the quality of teaching and learning. It’s a debate that neither begins nor ends when Mr. Gray wields the chairman’s gavel. But debate we must — so current and future generations won’t be academically stunted.

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