- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 12, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

A couple of months back, the D.C. Council passed legislation that granted the mayor the authority to fire certain school employees without cause. On Friday, Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee exercised that authority for the first time, terminating scores of workers. Reaction has been swift, but we suspect most of it is unwarranted.

Ninety-eight central-office employees were let go, touching every aspect of central administration from food services to budget operations. But most of the employees worked in information technology services, and school officials said some of the work ordinarily carried out by the school system’s IT workers will be handled by the city’s IT department. While that sounds like a reasonable policy decision, lawmakers want to intervene.

On the one hand, some lawmakers worry that bureaucracy is the ornery elephant in the room regarding education reform; on the other, some lawmakers are trying to use education reform as the scapegoat to maintain the status quo. For example, D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz is concerned that Superintendent Deborah Gist, whose office oversees state education affairs, has become a “huge bureaucracy.” Meanwhile, Council Chairman Vincent Gray is worried because Mrs. Rhee is trimming bureaucratic fat. Mr. Gray and some other lawmakers want to know who was fired, why they were fired and other details.

These concerns follow the 10-3 council vote in January that handed Mrs. Rhee the legal authority to terminate certain employees. We supported that effort then and we support it now, because, without the authority to hire and fire as a superintendent or chancellor sees fit stymies any and all efforts to reform the system from the inside. When the council and so-called school advocates have disrupted a schools chief’s reform efforts — and that’s been the case with every school chief since 1988 — reform begins to move in fits and starts. And when that happens, teaching and learning moves in fits and starts.

This council is getting a little too close for comfort.

We encourage Mr. Gray, Mrs. Schwartz and other lawmakers to conduct vigorous oversight hearings on anything and everything that has to do with education. However, that vigorous oversight shouldn’t so much entail process as results. See, that’s where lawmakers have long shirked their responsibilities. Instead of zeroing in on the how-to’s of better academic results, the lawmakers zero in on the minutiae of process. Process is what kept computers, textbooks, athletic equipment, etc. in the hands of the bureaucracy and out of the hands of students and teachers. Lawmakers should take a few steps back so they can get a sharper look at the big picture.

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