Local: Education

D.C. Council halts reappointment of charter leader who criticized multiculturalism

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Local,Education,Lisa Gartner

Updated 5:55 p.m.

The D.C. charter school board issued a statement supporting Don Soifer's reappointment: "The members of the D.C. Public Charter School Board stand firmly in support of Mayor Gray's re-nomination of Don Soifer to the Board. Don has a distinguished three-year record of tireless service to the board and to the 57 charter schools and more than 35,000 students that we serve. He has been a consistent voice on the board in support of parental choice and quality options for D.C. families, and has in both word and deed been a champion of the diversity of our charter school community. Throughout his term he has distinguished himself as one of the most active and devoted members of the Board - all of whom are volunteers - spending countless hours on the ground inside schools and in community meetings getting to know school leaders and talking with D.C. parents. We wholeheartedly support his re-nomination to the D.C. Public Charter School Board for a second term."

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The D.C. Council held up the re-appointment of a member of the charter school board Thursday, questioning whether views against multiculturalism that Don Soifer expressed in an article made him unfit to approve or deny the applications of would-be charter schools.

"There's an ideology that I don't think necessarily fits or represents the citizens of Washington," said Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells during a legislative session.

In a November 2008 report and again in a 2011 Washington Times article, among other publications, Soifer and co-author Robert Holland argued that national governments should focus more on assimilating immigrants than creating programs that foster native languages and cultures.

Soifer is the executive vice president of Lexington Institute, an Arlington think tank where Holland is a senior fellow.

"When school boards spend thousands of tax dollars to send teachers to education conferences around the country, they have a reasonable expectation that the attendees will bring back knowledge and skills that will be put to constructive use in the classroom," Soifer and Holland wrote in the 2008 paper. "That is not necessarily what the boards are receiving in return when they send teachers to conferences on multiculturalism and so-called social-justice teaching."

Soifer has served on the charter school board since 2009, and in that time the board has approved several culturally distinct charter schools including, most recently, a Hebrew language-immersion charter slated to open next year. He did not return a phone call seeking comment Thursday.

In October, a hearing on Soifer's re-appointment to the board brought only praise. But in the 11th hour, when the D.C. Council was set to gavel him in on Thursday, Ward 5 Councilman Kenyan McDuffie raised concerns about Soifer's views on multiculturalism. Specifically, McDuffie asked, do Soifer's views run counter to the District's goals and does that make him unfit to decide which charter schools the city should open?

Chairman Phil Mendelson made the case that the council should consider Soifer's record on the charter school board above any opinions he may express outside his role. But Wells and Ward 3 Councilwoman Mary Cheh chimed in to support McDuffie, and Mendelson agreed to postpone the vote.

"My sense is there is a little unease here, maybe not a lot of unease, but it would make sense to give us time to look at what he wrote," Mendelson said.

Audrey Williams, a spokeswoman for the charter school board, said she expected that the board would continue to support Soifer's re-appointment. Williams declined to comment on Soifer's perspectives on multiculturalism, saying that she was still reading the report.

lgartner@washingtonexaminer.com

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Lisa Gartner

Examiner Staff Writer - education
The Washington Examiner