- The Washington Times - Monday, September 27, 2010

In a rare and blunt criticism of education in the nation’s capital, President Obama on Monday called D.C. Public Schools a “struggling” system that doesn’t measure up to the needs of first daughters Sasha and Malia.

The president’s remarks came one day after Education Secretary Arne Duncan also got publicly involved in matters related to D.C. schools, stating his latest praise for embattled D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.

However, he also implicitly backed a principal criticism of Ms. Rhee pushed by backers of D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, almost certain to be the city’s next mayor. His remarks also prompted a D.C. school board member to tell him to “butt out” of managing local schools.

During his interview Monday on NBC’s “Today” show, Mr. Obama was asked by a viewer whether his girls “would get the same high-quality, rigorous education in a D.C. public school as compared” with what they receive at Sidwell Friends, a private school in the city.

Mr. Obama replied, “The answer is ‘no’ right now. The D.C. public school systems are struggling,” though “they have made some important strides over the last several years to move in the right direction of reform.”

The Obama administration has praised Ms. Rhee and the kinds of school reforms she championed — expanding charter schools, firing underperforming teachers and acting against the interests of teachers unions.

In an interview Sunday on “Meet the Press,” Mr. Duncan touted Ms. Rhee’s reforms and the leadership of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who picked her but who lost this month’s Democratic mayoral primary in a race where Gray backers frequently attacked Mr. Fenty over her reforms and management style.

“I’m a huge fan of what [Mr. Fenty] and Michelle have done,” Mr. Duncan said. “By any measure, the public schools in D.C. are dramatically better today than when they started. I stood with Mayor Fenty multiple times. I invested $75 million in the district because of its leadership, and he can walk out with his head held high.”

Since the Sept. 14 Democratic mayoral primary in the District, Mr. Duncan has said the chancellor should be retained. And having spoken with Mr. Gray, he said he is confident that, should Mr. Gray win in November as expected in the overwhelmingly Democratic city, the road map to reform would remain in place.

School board member Mary Lord, who represents the Obamas and ten of thousands of other families who live in Ward 2, said she understands why the first family chose a private school for their girls.

But she bluntly said Mr. Duncan needs to understand that city schools are headed in the right direction and do not need the education secretary running their business and weighing in on the chancellor.

“Memo to Secretary Duncan: If you would like to move to the District of Columbia, pay taxes and vote, you’re welcome,” Ms. Lord said. “Otherwise, butt out of our local politics and certainly do not make or perpetuate the impression that ‘Race to the Top’ is all about Michelle Rhee.”

In her appearance Sunday with Mr. Duncan and former D.C. school board President Robert Bobb, the emergency financial manager of Detroit schools, Ms. Rhee repeated what she has said on numerous occasions since Mr. Fenty’s defeat — that her personal fate remains undecided, but that making “tough decisions” is what leads to progress in education.

Those gains include a teacher-evaluation policy that ties in student achievement, a groundbreaking union deal that includes merit pay, and working with the schools superintendent to win $75 million in federal Race to the Top funds. She also closed schools and fired hundreds of teachers and other school personnel who didn’t measure up.

The closings and firings, more than any of her other actions, drew criticism that played itself out at the polls with Mr. Gray’s victory. Mr. Duncan alluded to those political consequences Sunday.

Asked by “Meet the Press” moderator David Gregory how to avoid “political blowback at the polls,” Mr. Duncan said reform efforts need to be handled carefully to build up broad public support — exactly what many Gray backers said Ms. Rhee has not done.

“Well, definitely, you have to be able to communicate these issues. What you are doing has to be communicated. How you are doing it has to be communicated. And then what processes you’re going to put in place to help individuals succeed. And those who do not succeed, they have to leave the system immediately,” he said.

Mr. Gray and Mr. Duncan had a postelection phone discussion on school reform, Gray campaign strategist Mo Elleithee said Monday.

“[Mr. Gray] recognizes the need to talk with lots of people, including parents,” Mr. Elleithee said. “He’s not talking about turning back any clocks” on school reform. He wants parents and teachers in on the front end.”

Mr. Obama did not mention Ms. Rhee by name in his Monday appearance on the “Today” show, but on the 2008 campaign trail called her “a wonderful new superintendent.”

In a now-famous 2008 issue of Time magazine, the cover of which featured Ms. Rhee posing with a broom, the chancellor said she voted for Mr. Obama over Republican John McCain, though she acknowledged having to be persuaded by a close friend.

“I’m somewhat terrified of what the Democrats are going to do on education,” Ms. Rhee told Time.

Indeed, some school reformers fear that if Ms. Rhee were to leave D.C. Public Schools, her reforms would exit with her. Indeed, last week talk-show host Oprah Winfrey was pushing her to lead the widely derided public schools of Newark, N.J., speaking as if Ms. Rhee was already out the door in Washington.

But Ms. Lord rejected that contention by referring to Lawrence H. Summers’ resignation in early 2009 from the Harvard University presidency to take a post with the Obama administration.

“Did everyone say. ‘There goes Harvard?’” she asked rhetorically.

Mr. Gray and Ms. Rhee held a much-anticipated meeting last week, but her status remains up in the air.

While Mr. Elleithee did not pronounce on Ms. Rhee’s status Monday, the spokesman said that if Mr. Gray wins the general election, he “will have a strong, empowered chancellor,” which Ms. Rhee said she cherished, and maintain “systemic reform,” a goal of the Obama administration.

“His education plan takes reform to the next level by adding early-childhood, higher education, charter schools and special education,” Mr. Elleithee said.

In his “Today” interview with Matt Lauer, Mr. Obama repeated his endorsement of much of the intellectual case made by Ms. Rhee and backers of her reforms — praising charter schools, saying spending more money isn’t enough, endorsing the firing of low-performing teachers, and suggesting a longer school year.

“We can’t spend our way out of it … our per-pupil spending has gone up over the last couple of decades, even as results have gone down,” Mr. Obama said, adding that we have to “identify teachers who are subpar [and] give them the opportunity to get better. But if they don’t get better at a certain point … these teachers should not be in the classroom.”

The president, who was elected with considerable support from teachers unions and others in organized labor, even gently criticized the zeal with which teachers unions have protected their members, though he said he supported the basic right to organize and the protections it guarantees.

“Oftentimes teachers unions are designed to make sure that their membership are protected against arbitrary firings … what is also true is that sometimes that means they are resistant to change when things aren’t working,” Mr. Obama said.

Mr. Obama said that while there are good public schools in every big-city system, there aren’t enough and that this produces heart-rending scenes of lotteries doling out the few spots in high-performing schools to poorer and minority children trapped in dropout factories.

“A lot of times you’ve got to test in, or it’s a lottery pick for you to be able to get into those schools. And so those options are not available for enough children,” he said, before getting personal again.

“I’ll be very honest with you. Given my position, if I wanted to find a great public school for Malia and Sasha to be in, we could probably maneuver to do it. But the broader problem is [doing the same] for a mom or a dad who are working hard but don’t have a bunch of connections, don’t have a lot of choice in terms of where they live. … And we don’t have that yet.”

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