- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 10, 2012

In the days leading up to Kwame R. Brown’s resignation and guilty pleas in a most embarrassing set of criminal circumstances, the former D.C. Council chairman loosened his grip on economic development and housing, turned over jobs and workforce development to a newcomer and added the city’s real estate portfolio to Adrian M. Fenty supporter Muriel Bowser.

While those moves are newsworthy, Jeff Smith, a longtime council observer and education advocate, said lawmakers now have a golden opportunity to do what Mr. Brown should have done - take education out of the council’s Committee of the Whole.

The council used to have a separate education panel, but dismantled it when education governance was restructured to grant the mayor unprecedented control with the Public Education Reform Amendment Act of 2007. Since then, said Mr. Smith, the voices of parents and the community at large have been further stifled.

He also cited another reason parents and the community are not heard in the education-policy discussion. Even the city’s pre-home-rule school panel, the Board of Education, quieted the public’s voice.

“We’re seeing fewer and fewer opportunities for parent engagement,” Mr. Smith said. “The mayor and council eliminated that [independent school board] body, and that exacerbates the problem. We removed not one, but two sources of accountability. Looking at minutes from [council] hearings, you’re likely to see no more than two council members when the chancellor is testifying.”

In addition to re-creating an education panel on the council, Mr. Smith also wants to see tougher oversight of public charter schools, which parents continue to favor as their neighborhood options for traditional schools continue to shrink.

“We need leadership on the conversation in [the] city about how many schools we have,” said Mr. Smith. “The charter [authority] board is opening five and six schools a year [but D.C. Public Schools] is closing schools. DCPS has no monopoly on mediocrity.”

The council has ample opportunity during the summer months to ponder the overall school-governance question. As it does, members should ask themselves, Mayor Vincent C. Gray and the public at large this burning question: Does it still make sense to have an elected school board operating under the political thumb of the mayor?

The school board was one of the first vestiges of D.C. democracy (granted by President Kennedy and Congress) and the primary elected body where parents and other residents went to have their voices heard.

With Mr. Brown out the door and his predecessor as chairman, Mr. Gray, facing his own storm clouds, the issue is timely and worth serious public deliberation.

Pro tempore

This is a pivotal week for the council, which has the opportunity to begin righting the not-quite-bulletproof ship of affairs at city hall.

The council is expected to vote Wednesday on who will become chairman - until a citywide election is held - and who will become chairman pro tempore, the No. 2 legislative position.

At-large Democrat Phil Mendelson is a safe bet for the former, and at-large member Michael A. Brown, an independent, is the likeliest choice regarding the latter.

The council’s current affairs are being run through council member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat.

Lawmakers must get this right, because if prosecutors sink another lawmaker’s - or the mayor’s - ship in rocky waters, the council chairman has to step in and the shuffling begins anew.

Deborah Simmons can be reached dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

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