Friday, September 07, 2007

Michelle Rhee--Too Establishment?

Somehow I missed these editorials over the weekend, but the EduWonk didn't. In the first of the editorials Michelle Rhee talks about what she did over teh summer and what she did, in my opinion, is yeoman's work. Rhee and her team hired 425 teachers over the summer, so many that it may be the first time in my memory that the day school started in DC, the Washington Post didn't report a teacher shortage. In addition, Rhee did something that most of her predecessors had failed to do until much later:
After surveying our principals in late July, we found that more than half of all principals reported that they needed additional books, so we created an inventory of books in the central warehouse and took steps to improve the way we manage textbooks across the school district. There was some confusion in the media about the severity of the textbook delivery problem, so let me clarify. This summer, we received tens of thousands of orders for textbooks from schools across the city. Though some might not consider that a "widespread problem," I thought it was critical to get these books in the hands of students. Therefore, we delivered books through the weekend before school started and continue to do so now, because I believe that every student and teacher must have the proper resources to learn and teach. I am pleased to say that nearly all of the requested books were delivered by the first day of school.
It appears so simple a request, have books for the students. Of course, the logistics of such a task are enormous and quite frankly the DC school system has proven inept at such matters in the past. For right now, it looks like that $2 million dollar investment in salaries for Rhee and her team are worth the money.

That last little part was the lead of the second editorial, by Mark Lerner, a charter school leader.
Contrast the D.C. public school bureaucracy with the exploding charter school movement. Somehow these independently run, individually authorized establishments, now educating more than 25 percent of schoolchildren in the nation's capital, find ways to avoid the troubles that are intractable for the District's public school system. Charter schools, fighting for their lives to find facilities in the costly D.C. commercial real estate market, do not operate in buildings where the bathrooms are falling apart and water fountains do not work. You do not find paint peeling from walls and air conditioners that do not cool. And these schools are safe.

The difference between DCPS and the charters is directly tied to the structure of governance. Charters are viewed by their founders, parents, staffs and boards as if they are their children. The power of ownership provides strong incentives to invest time and money into these schools. The power of school choice results in strong incentives to provide a product better than the one down the street.
Yes charter schools are capable of reducing the administrative headaches that Michelle Rhee faces and it would be nice to change all the schools in teh district to charter schools as Lerner advocates. But let's be realistic here, Rhee lacks the power to make such a change and politically Adrian Fenty would be signing his own political death warrant if he did it, assuming he could get Congress to permit it.

Michelle Rhee is no more an "establishment" bureaucrat that Lerner is. She is an outsider, someone whose background is different and whose attitude is such that she will make sure something is done. Maybe that something turns out wrong in the end, but it cannot be said she is not active. We learn much from our failures, and for a change, someone at the top of DC Schools is looking at past failures and learning some lessons.

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