Briggs Explains Her Bush Years
Kerri L. Briggs, the former Bush administration official who is Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's choice to be the new D.C. State Superintendent of Education, had to do a little Texas two-step at her confirmation hearing today when pressed on just how much Dubya she planned to bring to her new post.
The questions were from Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), who wanted to know how she differentiated herself from an administration he called hostile to affirmative action, the GLBT community, any sex education that ventured beyond abstinence and that promoted "non-subtle efforts to inject faith" into public policy.
In short, Catania said, it was "that kind of us-and-them predisposition we cannot have in this government."
Briggs, a former assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education who was born in Midland, Bush's childhood home, said she was "a person of faith, but I realize government isn't church." She said she was drawn to Washington because of Bush's commitment to education reform as a civil rights issue.
Catania, focused on alarming rates of pregnancies and STDs in District schools, asked Briggs if she would, for example, entertain increasing student access to condoms in schools. She said she would.
No one else raised questions about Briggs' Republican pedigree at the four-hour hearing--no one being the only other Council members who showed up: Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) and Michael A. Brown (I-At Large). The full council will vote on her confirmation in the next few weeks.
Fenty and Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee have operational control of the District's traditional public schools. But the state superintendent oversees a $380 million agency that manages federal grants, compliance with the No Child Left Behind law, aspects of special education and academic standards.
Briggs replaces Deborah A. Gist, who resigned in April to become Rhode Island education commissioner. It was no secret that Gist, a holdover from the Anthony Williams era, never quite adjusted to being a state education superintendent without an actual state, and chafed at the dominance that Fenty and Rhee exerted. On the District's peculiar organizational chart, she answered to deputy mayor for education Victor Reinoso. When she attempted to assert some of her oversight authority--on plans for restructuring failing schools, for example--she was rebuffed.
It was pretty clear from Briggs' testimony that her watch will be far more go-along and get-along. Reduced to its essentials, it means drawing on her Education Department experience to keep the feds off the District's back and staying out of Rhee's way.
Gray in his questions to Briggs, said he often saw Gist "caught in difficult circumstances where she was trying to do the right thing and was forestalled." He asked Briggs what she would do if she found herself at odds with Fenty and Rhee, and whether she discussed that possibility when she interviewed for the job.
"I don't know that I asked," Briggs said.
Asked whether she thought the D.C. State School Board, which Gray described as "hamstrung" by a lack of staff support, needed more help, Briggs said the current structure "is good and fine."
Briggs, who earned a doctorate in education policy and organizational studies from USC, got high marks from those who worked with her at the Education Dept., where she began as a senior policy adviser in 2001. "A pragmatist and a listener," said Brian Jones, the department's former general counsel and now vice chairman of the D.C. Public Charter School Board.
And she got special praise from a Ward 6 neighbor, Jermel Wardlaw, who said she reached out to children in the community, helping with homework assignments, college applications and Bible study.
"Kerri Briggs is a teacher, a friend and a counselor," Wardlaw said.
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