During his half-victory-lap last week, interim D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson simultaneously complained about the pace of education reform and acknowledged a separate oversight committee is needed. But he continued to advocate against making such a move, at least for now.
"The council has gone through three reorganizations during this council period, which is unprecedented," he said during a series of media appearances. "I think between now and [the November general election], we should work with what we've got."
Mendelson has announced he will run in November for the permanent job, left vacant when Kwame R. Brown was forced to resign after pleading guilty to bank fraud.
Prior to 2007, the council had an independent education oversight committee. Then, the legislature passed the Public Education Reform Act, which gave the mayor control of the entire public education apparatus.
Vincent Gray, then-council chairman, placed education under his Committee of the Whole, asserting every member could be part of the oversight process. Council rules already allowed any legislator to participate in any committee -- although only assigned committee members can actually vote.
Truth be told, Gray consolidated education under him because it was a powerful political platform. That's the same reason Brown retained the structure when he assumed the job 18 months ago.
Mendelson has said he first wants to "right the ship, which is quite unsteady." If the legislature is the ship, it is sinking largely because of lawmakers' unethical conduct and for failure to provide consistent, aggressive and thorough oversight of executive branch agencies.
There are myriad reasons why a separate oversight committee for education is needed now -- not in January, as Mendelson has suggested.
According to the reform act, a "comprehensive evaluation" of public education must be conducted by Sept. 15, 2012. This five-year mandatory assessment seems to be tied to reauthorization. The council must determine "whether sufficient progress in public education has been achieved to warrant continuation of the provisions and requirements of the act or whether a new law and new system should be enacted."
The evaluation is more extensive than the regular annual assessment required under the law. It must be conducted by a third party.
That mandate, coupled with Deputy Mayor for Education De'Shawn Wright and DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson's stated school closings agenda, provides more than sufficient fuel for council action.
There also is the matter of Mendelson's campaign for chairman, which could either serve to distract from rigorous oversight or unduly ensnare important education reform issues in high political drama.
A legislator not currently running for office should be tapped to serve as chairman of the new education committee. Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells, a former Board of Education member, might be a good choice. He has helped his constituents push through critical reforms in their neighborhood schools. At-large Councilman David Catania has demonstrated an ability to conduct muscular oversight, producing notable results.
Mendelson may not agree with my suggestions. But his failure to take action could doom education reform -- and his career.
Jonetta Rose Barras can be reached at email@example.com.
Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Monday and Wednesday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.