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Posted at 4:44 PM ET, 10/ 2/2009

What's Going On In D.C.?

By Valerie Strauss

It sounds like a great plot to a movie for kids: A security company that provides guards to public schools goes bankrupt overnight. Anxiety and confusion rule the day when kids go to school and discover that about 300 guards aren’t there. Some kids even get sent home because nobody can monitor the entrances! What fun!

But, as we know, this did just happen in Washington D.C.-- here’s the Post story. And once again we find ourselves asking: Who in the city could or should have foreseen this and why didn’t they?

This line of questioning gets tiresome.

Earlier this week, for example, The Sheet was wondering who should have monitored a company that had won a multi-million dollar contract to provide an important data system to the D.C. school system--before things got so bad that the firm was essentially fired.

Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee can’t really fix the system without good data. It isn’t sexy, but it’s true. The contract was supposed to be under the eye of the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, which had a leadership turnover this year. But that was six months ago.

We recently wondered why Rhee was suddenly announcing that she had to lay off teachers right after school started because of city budget cuts, when everyone knew about the cuts last summer--a time when principals were hiring teachers!

There are two themes in Washington D.C. that keep repeating.

One is safety.

There should be nothing more important to a city government than the safety of its young people.

Yet recently, the administration of Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) decided that it was eliminating mandatory auto safety inspections--to save $400,000. As annoying as they are to get (I know; I live in the District), inspections were mandated for a good reason--safety. I, for one, don’t like the idea of driving on the same roads as cars with faulty brakes. A city official’s claim that the inspections had no effect sounds strained, at best.

Now we learn that officials in the school system and the Police Department knew that the security company, Hawk One, was having problems. But, somehow, nobody knew the company's collapse was imminent. Indeed, the contract was expected to expire in December. Schools spokeswoman Jennifer Calloway said the school system is implementing a new security plan--but she wasn’t initially forthcoming about the details.

The second theme involves Rhee and the evolution of her job.

She came to the district a little more than two years ago with the highest hopes for reform and was promoted as someone very different from past superintendents.

She was hailed for a different vision, one that involved bringing in a super-committed teaching corps and sweeping out the incompetent. Unlike earlier school system leaders, she was given unprecedented power to change things.

But over time the same forces that presented obstacles to past leaders are bedeviling her as well, including a lack of solid data systems and an inability to significantly reduce the costs of special education.

Rhee still complains about a central administration bureaucracy that is not as responsive to teachers needs as she wants it to be.

And her wrangling with the Washington Teacher Union has led her, some believe, to use the layoffs as a way of eliminating teachers she doesn’t want anymore.

Certainly Rhee should be able to rid the system of unproductive teachers, but doing it without admitting it hardly fits the image of a straight-talking reformer.

In fact, 388 school system employees were told today that they were being let go--229 of them teachers--all with the same prepared script that ordered them out at the end of the day. They were told to leave behind grade books and that they would be paid for one more month.

At least the layoffs sound like they were efficiently carried out, even down to the script that principals were supposed to use, my colleage Bill Turque reported.

Some of the district’s issues are, to be sure, so complex that they will take years to unravel--assuming that there is dedication toward fixing them in a realistic and systemic way. Nobody can properly blame Rhee for not performing miracles.

But it is also fair to observe that under Rhee’s leadership, the system is adopting some of the same old responses to problems.

For example, the system may ask a federal judge to dismiss a 2006 court order that requires it to give timely assistance to a backlog of families seeking special education services from public schools. The latest District figures place its timeliness rate at 60 percent for the one-year period that ended June 30.

The District--which has failed to get out from under the court order before--is citing improvement.

But last I looked, 60 percent was still an F.

It remains to be seen how different the Rhee chancellorship will really look from past administrations. The previous two superintendents--Arlene Ackerman and Clifford B. Janey (the city's sixth in 10 years) --were each there for about three years and, they, too, tried to fix the troubled school system.

Time will tell.

By Valerie Strauss  | October 2, 2009; 4:44 PM ET
Categories:  D.C. Schools  | Tags:  D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, D.C. Schools Chanceller Michelle Rhee, D.C. schools  
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Thank you for writing about such an important subject. It is a welcome reprieve from the media fixation on David Letterman, John Edwards, and the like.

Posted by: bethesda3 | October 2, 2009 11:06 PM | Report abuse

There is another theme that keeps repeating: Start the year from Square One all over again and do this every time there is a new education adminsitration.

Posted by: ericpollock | October 3, 2009 6:18 AM | Report abuse

The question isn't just the chancellor, the question is also how all of us in the District fall into the same old game of blame, race-baiting and self-service. What is still evident, is that the District does not know how to manage contracts. What is still evident is that the reality of the shrucken DC school system has not hit the teacher's union. What is still evident is that many would rather see Rhee fail than look honestly at a system that is failing. Getting to a better system is going to be hard and a lot of people are going to find that they are more part of the problem than the solution, that is how reform happens. As far as I can tell, the Rhee administration needs to still clean house.

Posted by: Brooklander | October 3, 2009 6:56 AM | Report abuse

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