Friday, May 16, 2008

Here's What I like About Michelle Rhee

This story, alhtough a few days old, points to the exact reason why Michelle Rhee may be the right person at the right time for DC Schools. Here are two quotes that highlight exactly the "reality check" vibe that Rhee puts out, and necessarily so. Rhee was appearing at Stevens Elementary School in the heart of downtown DC, a school whose enrollment has plummeted and been targeted by Rhee's team for closure.
Standing alone at the front of the classroom at Stevens without papers or aides, she listened but made it clear that she believed the time for talk was over.

"The bottom line is we are running too many schools," she said. "The dollars we spend are not being felt by the children because they are spread out over too many buildings."
For far too long, the issues of schools has been one of the most politically charged matters in DC, in part because it is one of the few areas where DC politicos can exert some patronage actions. But Rhee doesn't come from that background and to a large extent doesn't give a damn about past politics. She is, of course, politically sensitive, but when it comes to improving the DC public schools, Mayor Adrian Fenty has essentially given her a carte blanche. Simply put, DC schools spend in excess of $15,000 per pupil and a fair chunk of that coin is in the form of physical plant costs. Eliminate the maintenance and upkeep of the schools and you reduce the school budget without really eliminating actual expenses on education.

But Stevens occupies an interesting spot geographically, in that it is a school buidling on K Street, the home of Washington's Lobbying and Legal communities. The general conspiracy theory is that school will sold and demolished to take advantage of its real estate value, thus the sole reason for closing Stevens. Rhee rejects the notion:
"These decisions [to close schools] were not made about real estate and development," Rhee said flatly to Hackett at the meeting. "You can choose to believe me or not to believe me."
But let's assume that the school building will be sold. The real estate is probably worth millions. Why not sell it and plow the money back into the school system.

This is where sentiment crosses path with reality. I understand the desire to keep a school open for sentimental reasons. If the school was fully enrolled and its performance was acceptable, I would say keep the school open. But the fact of the matter is that the neighborhood around the school is largely business oriented and populated in large part by childless, young professionals and students attending George Washington University. Without a population to support the school, why keep it open.

I would like to see DCPS hold onto the building and turn it into a charter school or a continuing educaiton center (it is metro accessible). But unlike Rhee, I don't make those decisions.

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