“Lightning Rod” Rhee takes on D.C.

THE ATLANTIC may perhaps be forgiven for abandoning Boston for D.C. after their bloggers performed so admirably this election cycle. Now it’s time to bestow further kudos for the magazine’s excellent coverage of their new home. There’s a terrific article by Clay Risen in the most recent issue that profiles D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee.

Rhee is a hard-charging reformer brought in by Mayor Adrian Fenty to overhaul the troubled D.C. school system. Risen dubs her “The Lightning Rod” because she’s absorbed most of the flak that comes from shaking up long-entrenched structures.

As the article describes, D.C. was once the epicenter of black intellectualism in America, until social shifts and the rise of Marion Barry turned the public school system into a morass of patronage and corruption:

Up to the mid-1960s, Washington had some of the country’s best black public schools, including Dunbar High School, which produced Senator Edward Brooke, the civil-rights lawyer Charles Hamilton Houston, and D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. The schools were a magnet for middle-class black families who wanted a quality education but were largely shut out of white-majority schools, either by law or by residential segregation. By 1960, Washington was a center of black intellectual and cultural life. “People talk about Harlem, but in terms of a professional class and intelligentsia, Washington was on par,” says NPR’s Juan Williams, who covered education for The Washington Post in the 1970s.

Like many urban districts, Washington thrived because it could rely on a class of educators—in this case, African Americans—who were mostly kept out of other professions. But as barriers eroded in the 1950s and 1960s, experienced black teachers began leaving for better opportunities. At the same time, rising crime and the calamitous 1968 riots reversed the flow of black middle-class families, particularly after the 1968 Fair Housing Act encouraged them to decamp to the suburbs. Combined with the white flight that had by the late 1960s largely run its course, black flight left behind a core of socially isolated, desperately poor families, who suffered as the crime and joblessness rates climbed steeply through the 1970s.

Black flight also left behind a power vacuum, which was eagerly filled by a new generation of activists fronted by the civil-rights leader Marion Barry. Though he later became the butt of late-night-TV jokes, Barry is a political genius, and in the early 1970s he was one of the first in his generation to see the school system’s political potential. Until Congress granted the city limited home rule in 1973, the D.C. school board was the only elected body in Washington, and thus one of the only paths of political ascent for the city’s black leaders. In 1971, Barry won a landslide election for a seat on the board; he was so popular that his fellow members immediately made him president, a position he held until moving to the city council in 1974 and to the mayor’s office four years later.

Barry quickly grasped that the school system could do more than just facilitate his own rise. With its thousands of well-paying jobs, it was an ideal way to rebuild the black middle class—and, not incidentally, it was a limitless source of patronage. Barry’s climb coincided with that of William Simons, the fiery head of the Washington Teachers’ Union. Simons was a sort of black equivalent to Albert Shanker, then the voluble head of New York’s United Federation of Teachers, and he led his union in two lengthy, debilitating strikes during the 1970s. Through it all, Barry played the go-between, working the city and Congress around to Simons’s position. A new political base was emerging, populated by teachers and led by Barry. “It’s no longer about educating the best and brightest of black Washington but about establishing the schools as a place where blacks can get better jobs, higher salaries, and more benefits,” Williams told me.

A generation later, the result was a system that was overstaffed, inefficient, and resistant to change, even as it got worse at its primary role of educating students. Into this mess stepped Adrian Fenty and Michelle Rhee.

The story of Rhee’s recruitment by Fenty is a backroom political moment reminiscent of The Wire.

Rhee had already been approached about the chancellor job by several people in his administration, and she had demurred each time, citing family commitments. But Fenty kept pushing, and eventually she laid out her real concern: she saw herself as a “change agent,” and Washington as a graveyard for careers like hers. The school board was too powerful and too dominated by unions and special interests to give much of a chance to someone intent on closing schools and renegotiating contracts. Then Fenty laid out his vision: he would take control of the schools, and provide whatever political cover Rhee needed to completely overhaul them. The chancellor and the mayor would make the important decisions. The District’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education would continue to manage the kinds of state-federal transactions handled by other state education departments, and would be headed by someone Fenty had already appointed. A few weeks after their meeting, she was scouting houses in Washington.

Mayor Fenty knows how to close the deal.

In the sympathetic profile, Rhee comes across as efficient, sardonic, and effective. There’s no doubt, however, that taking on the entrenched interests in the DC school system is not an easy task. Rhee is constantly glued to computers and BlackBerrys, and makes a point of answering every email she recieves. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly, telling Risen about a previous interviewer who she thought was a dolt.

This also carries over to her management tactics: she’s canned almost a thousand principals, assistant principals, teachers and staff. Rhee’s favorite anecdote compares a young, energetic popular teacher with a grizzled veteran flicking the lights on and off to get her students’ attention.

In a brilliant turn, the article concludes with a City Council showdown between Rhee and Marion Barry, now representing the poorest district in the city:

Listening to Rhee, it’s hard to disagree. But even if she speaks cavalierly about eschewing city politics, that doesn’t make city politics go away. Complaints are bubbling up to the city council. In one particularly testy exchange at an all-day meeting in April, Marion Barry, now the representative for the city’s poorest ward, lectured Rhee on the political realities of her job. “Whether or not you and the mayor want to take it out of the political arena, you cannot, because education all over America has political implications,” he told her. “Parents are also voters.”

Rhee would have none of it. “I think part of the problem of how the district has been run in the past is that decisions have been made for political reasons, and based on what was going to placate and satisfy adults instead of what was in the best interests of children.”

“Let me be succinct, because my time is running out,” Barry retorted. “Talk to other people on this, because I think you’re absolutely wrong … I know you want to do it the right way, but I think that’s causing us more problems than we need to have.”

The comment was a warning, but it was also a reflection of the very political nature of education in the American inner city, and particularly in Washington. In a city largely excluded from national politics, it makes sense that residents would feel particularly slighted by an outsider, installed without their input, who is happy to bypass the few forums left where poor and working-class parents can engage with the political system—the parent-teacher associations, the ward-level education committees, and other unofficial bodies that long wielded influence against the elected school board and suddenly find themselves powerless against a mayorally appointed chancellor. “I’m sympathetic with the need to act decisively and quickly, but at the same time, what does that do to one of our last democratic institutions?” asks Celia Oyler, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College. To a reformer, that sounds like a classic plea for putting grown-ups’ interests first.

Provincialism is a particularly nasty defense against reform: we saw this in Boston when State Senator Dianne Wilkerson fought bitterly to hang on to her seat against “outsider” candidate Sonia Chang-Diaz, who Wilkerson’s supporters rejected as being a rich person from Newton (with an astronaut father, no less) come to gentrify their community. The issue became moot when Wilkerson was caught on tape by the FBI stuffing a bribe in her bra.

Who was the real threat to the community there: the reformer who brings a fresh new vision, wherever her place of birth, or the local entrenched politico mouthing platitudes while undermining the system’s effectiveness at every turn?

Wilkerson: She ain’t busty, that’s just her bankroll.

At any rate, the entire article is well worth a read. Also check out this interview transcript with Chancellor Rhee.

About Alpine McGregor
Just like you, man. I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase. All in the game, though, right?

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