- The Washington Times - Monday, September 20, 2010

The fate of D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee dominated last week’s post-mayoral primary debate, but her position isn’t the only issue facing city and school officials as voters head back to the polls in November.

Four Board of Education races will be on the ballot, and funding for the lucrative merit-pay deal and other reforms could be in jeopardy.

School officials and activists say that funding is crucial to reform implementation, but that progress can only be sustained by engaging parents. For many, the key to that is reinstating the Office of the Ombudsman, which the Fenty administration created in 2007 but dismantled in 2009.

“We need to bring back the office of the schools ombudsman,” said Ward 5 board member Mark Jones.

School officials and education advocates heralded the measurable academic successes achieved during Miss Rhee’s tenure, but they warned that reforms will only succeed if there is buy-in from the constituency that has the most at stake — parents.

“Parents want to do more than bake cookies, raise money and chaperone,” said Ward 2 board member Mary Lord. “They want to help shape policy.”

But parents felt disengaged in recent years, she said, and the city lost a crucial voice.

“I think it’s very important to have an ombudsman,” Ms. Lord said. “There is no portal for parents and community leaders and nonprofits to raise concerns. An ombudsman is an advocate for folks who don’t know where to go or take the next step.”

But an ombudsman should not “carry the water” for politicians, she added. “It should be a neutral forum.”

Mr. Jones, who is up for re-election to the school board, agreed, saying an independent ombudsman would motivate and empower parents.

“We know a parent’s role is important to a child’s academic achievement, but meetings and forums here were largely attended by DCPS [D.C. Public Schools] staff,” he said. “I don’t call that inclusiveness.”

Cherita Whiting, who calls herself a “friend” to Miss Rhee, has long urged the chancellor to engage parents before making school policy.

The status of Miss Rhee, who drew national attention for her aggressive and innovative reforms, became a pivotal issue because she campaigned for Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. Mr. Fenty lost the Democratic primary race to D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray on Sept. 14.

Less than 24 hours later, Miss Rhee labeled the results “devastating.” On Friday, she clarified those remarks, saying they are a referendum on reform, not Mr. Gray.

The chancellor’s clarification came the same day as the resignation of the schools superintendent, former Bush education appointee Kerri Briggs, who was instrumental in securing $75 million in federal Race to the Top funding and other federal dollars.

The challenge for the next mayor is following the path laid out by Ms. Briggs in the city’s application or risk losing the federal money. Also at stake is a public-private partnership that attracted praise and criticism.

Four foundations agreed to finance a groundbreaking performance-pay plan that could see some teachers receiving bonuses as high as $25,000 a year.

The $64.5 million plan — financed by the Laura and Arnold Foundation ($10 million), Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation ($10 million), Robertson Foundation ($19.5 million) and the Walton Family Foundation ($25 million) — hinges on Miss Rhee staying on as its shepherd.

Mr. Gray said he will discuss Ms. Rhee’s employment status this week.

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

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