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Reformers Can’t Dodge Race Issues

Reformers Can’t Dodge Race Issues
Richard Whitmire, Huffington Post | March 8, 2011

School reformers like to talk, so they conference a lot. They like writing even more, so they dash off torrents of commentaries on improving schools.

But in all that talking and writing there is one topic that rarely gets raised, especially among white school reformers: race. Just too uncomfortable.

That aversion to raising race issues is unfortunate, because in the year I spent researching the school reforms carried out by Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C., race issues were players nearly everywhere I looked.

For starters, race played a big role in explaining how the school’s central office Rhee inherited was both bloated and poorly run. That dates back to former Mayor Marion Barry, who over the years padded the city payrolls with ever-more appointees, partly as a civil rights gesture for those who in the days of white-run Washington were frozen out of city jobs but also for political reasons. “It was the political machine’s way of hiring folks and securing votes,” one veteran school administrator told me.

Not only was the central office crowded, but many appeared to have little guidance on how to do their jobs. When Rhee arrived and began trying to fire the worst of the central office staff, her initial legal advice was: here at DCPS, we don’t fire people for incompetence.

“What do you do with them?” Rhee asked. The answer: “We send them to the schools.” And we wonder how D.C. schools got so bad?

Race also explains the sensitivities felt among black D.C. residents about firing anyone. In D.C., as in many urban areas, the black middle class was built on the stability of school jobs. Parents in affluent, white neighborhoods of Washington generally approved when central office workers were fired because they cost the city millions with bungled paperwork or a teacher was fired for harming students with bad teaching. The other side of the city heard a very different message: Not only was Rhee firing people they knew and liked, but she was disrespecting them by calling them incompetent.  (Read more)


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