Educators and journalists love a good “war story,” and Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, did not disappoint. She spoke with reporters and writers at the annual conference of the Education Writers Association in Chicago last week.
One war story involved the all-too-common failure of the D.C. schools to put textbooks in the hands of students at the beginning of the school year. Last fall, Rhee made headlines by touring the school system’s book warehouse with D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and finding pallet after pallet of untouched textbooks waiting for delivery.
Highlighting the problem didn’t prevent some foul-ups last fall in getting books to kids, and Rhee shared one shared one little-known incident.
A parent complained by e-mail that high school textbooks had ended up at a nearby middle school. That was bad enough, of course, but making it worse was that the central office had rejected the offer of parents to load up the books in their cars and personally deliver them to where they belonged.
The reasoning of bureaucrats? District rules insist that the textbooks be delivered by the school system. So the textbooks had to sit at the middle school until district personnel picked them up. Then they’d be sent back to the warehouse, processed, and eventually delivered to the right school.
That mentality, Rhee said, revealed the dysfunction within the district bureaucracy. She told the parents “to go ahead, so that kids had their books on the first day of school.”
The 38-year-old chancellor, who had never served as a school administrator before now, also shared a war story about one of her biggest political fights—closing 23 underutilized schools.
Rhee wasn’t surprised that school closings would be controversial. Nor did she doubt that the decision was correct. With nearly one-third of the city’s school-aged children in charter schools, the D.C. system had many schools filled to only half capacity—and they were wasting vast sums in salaries, energy costs, and security and maintenance resources.
What was interesting, though, was how strongly neighborhoods identified with their schools—without regard to their academic performance, she said.
During one school visit, Rhee said, she stopped to talk to residents on the street, and they all begged her to save their school building from closure. They loved the school, she said. They thought it was a great school.
The only problem, she noted, was that it was anything but a great school. “Only 9 percent of the kids were testing proficient.” That compared to a charter school only a few blocks away—serving students from the same neighborhood—that boasted that 90 percent of its students were scoring proficient.
For all the controversy involved, closing those schools was an early success for Rhee. So much money will be saved that each city school next year will have an art teacher, a music teacher, and a physical education teacher.
That might not seem all that remarkable for educators in more affluent communities, she added, but in D.C., such staffing is “almost unheard of.”
Finally, Rhee spoke a little about the City Council granting her unprecedented authority to terminate district employees, which she promptly used to cut 100 jobs in the central office. As it turned out, it wasn’t all that difficult to decide who should stay—and who should go.
For example, she recalled, she found a staff of nine serving teen mothers at a cost of $1 million annually. But the program only served about seven students each day, and it turned out that $700,000 of the program was spent on salaries.
That just didn’t cut it in Rhee’s judgment. “How do we make sure dollars actually have an impact on kids in the classrooms?” she asked. “We have to look at every program. Even if the people are nice people, if the program is not having a dollar-for-dollar real impact on kids, it has to be seriously looked at.”
These are only a few of Rhee’s stories. But they all emphasize how the new chancellor is fighting “the good fight” on behalf of D.C. schoolchildren. Such a fight ensures that we can expect Rhee to share even more war stories to share in the years ahead.
Del Stover, Senior Editor