The Snow-bama Factor: Is D.C. Proving Its Flint?
So far today, the leader of the free world has not yet issued his judgment on how well Washingtonians are handling an event that even Chicagoans would have to agree qualifies as "snow."
But President Obama need not say another word about Washington's wussy attitude toward winter weather; the power of his message on a distinctly unsnowy day in January is still with us.
Witness this morning's decision by the D.C. public schools to break with every other district in the region and remain open, albeit with a two-hour delay. On neighborhood sled slopes in northwest Washington this morning, the eternal rivalry between public and private schools played out in friendly jibes: The kids from private schools, nearly all of which shut down, ragged their public school counterparts for having to go to school today, while the public school kids (who were supposed to be in class) defended their system as hardier and, well, flintier.
That's not how some D.C. school teachers saw the decision. They thought it was dumb bordering on irresponsible to force teachers, especially those who live in the suburbs, to find a way into work this morning. "Their contempt for teachers is sad but their contempt for the student population is reprehensible," said Bryon Sweeney, a special ed teacher at Shaw Middle School, arguing that slippery sidewalks made it hard for some kids to get to class.
In an open letter to Mayor Adrian Fenty and schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, Sweeney spoke for many teachers when he said that "Teachers with children cannot afford to live in the city because we are not paid enough so we must commute. So our families are home and we must risk life and limb to make it to a school that will be half full at best."
Some parents, too, seemed less than thrilled by the decision to open school. At the charter school in Shaw that his daughter attends, Ed Bruske (a former Washington Post reporter), says he found the door locked at 11 a.m. "We rang the bell and were greeted by a volunteer teacher's assistant who said only two other students had arrived. The only other people there were the janitor, two other volunteer teacher assistants--co-eds from Japan who barely speak English--and a teacher who'd 'gone off to the Rite Aid.'"
The school was so ill-prepared to be open that immediately after Bruske got home from dropping off his child, "she was already on the phone saying we need to come back and pick her up. The school was closing."
The irony here, of course, is that as Rhee and her fellow administrators sought to prove to the president or to themselves just how flinty they are, the actual targets of Obama's joshing were perfectly happy to shut their doors yet again. Sidwell Friends School, the private school on Wisconsin Avenue NW (with an elementary school in Bethesda) where the Obama children are enrolled, was shut tight today. Sidwell has made it clear that it has no intention of behaving according to Chicago weather standards. Washington wussiness suits the Quakers just fine.
At least one D.C. teacher/blogger argues that there is a legitimate reason for keeping the city's schools open when all others schools close--the large number of children who depend on school for their breakfast and lunch.
Even though I am a snow day hardliner who believes that if you aren't measuring the snowfall in feet, you ought to stay open, I buy that argument. But I'm sorry, Mr. Sweeney--just because some teachers live far away is not a good reason to close schools. Teachers in city schools ought to live in the city (an increasing number of them do), just as the big suburban counties go to great lengths to try to make it affordable for their teachers to live in those counties (the operative word there is "try;" housing prices in MoCo and Fairfax make that downright impossible for many teachers.)
Schools exist not solely to impart information and concepts. They are a key element in our social structure, and part of the compact between schools and society is that schools will be a place where kids can go while their parents are working. So on a day like today, when nearly everyone still has to go to work, it's reasonable for parents to expect that their kids' schools will be open.
But this is also a delightful snow, a welcome late punctuation mark on an otherwise grimly snowless season. Therefore, I'd like to see schools adopt something that government mastered long ago--the concept of liberal leave. Open up the schools on a day of real snow for those who want or need to be there, but let those families that choose sledding over science do so without teachers or administrators getting bent out of shape.
Meanwhile, this whole discussion is, sadly, a lesson for the new president: Unfortunately, we're such a sensitive bunch in this country that the guy can't even get off a friendly bit of joking about relative attitudes toward the weather without folks getting all serious on him. Rhee and friends may deny it, but if you don't think Obama's remarks played a role in the decision to stay open today, you haven't seen just how jittery politicians and school administrators get about any expression of the big boss's thoughts.
So, looking forward: Anyone want to bet that some area school districts concoct an excuse to stay closed Tuesday?
By Marc Fisher |
March 2, 2009; 2:04 PM ET
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