Why D.C. Is Not Baghdad…Plus Optimism On DC Schools

Mike Casserly turns in an important essay on D.C. school reform in Sunday’s WaPo Outlook.   His punchline is basically that too many cooks well, you know…

Although not a surprising take from a guy who runs an organization representing urban superintendents, it has the added benefit of being true in this case.   But, there are two subtle problems with his argument.  First, Mike cites charter schools in Washington, D.C. as one example of meddling by Congress before he concludes, sensibly that:

During the last year, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and Rhee have pumped substantial and commendable energy into remaking the school district. They are generally on the right track. But, as I have seen in countless other cities, it’s in the second and third years that reform efforts can falter. The political consensus for improvement often falls apart. Signs of this happening in D.C. are already emerging. So the city’s leadership must now articulate a clearer vision for where it is taking the school system and rally people around that vision. The hardest reforms are yet to come.

But, if you’ve watched D.C. over the past decade or two it seems indisputable that the 25-going-on 30 plus percent of D.C. students in charter schools was integral to the political changes that brought Rhee on the scene and set up the issues that Casserly is talking about.   In other words, that market share caused enough political disruption that reforms previously considered off-the-table no longer were.   Casserly’s right that there has not been a competitive effect yet in terms of teaching and learning in traditional public  schools (and too many of the charters don’t measure up either) but that’s the second generation issue here.  The primary and important competitive effect so far was the disruption that led to today’s reforms.  Expecting a broken D.C. school system to by itself respond in the classroom to competition hardly seems like much of a theory of action.

Second, Casserly laments the lack of consensus and vision among various reform factions in Washington.  Yet this is not Iraq.  In fact, leaving aside the voucher folks, among the charter school community and the school district’s leadership there is fair amount of common ground and if Rhee stays on the scene long enough it looks as though D.C. could emerge as a model for the portfolio approach where different kinds of public schools operate under a common umbrella.   That might not be Casserly’s ideal consensus, but it’s a consensus nonetheless.  

And, it may well be that at the end of the day we’ll conclude that some outside influence was needed to create the circumstances for a healthier politics and more coherent vision.   Despite good work by Casserly’s organization and many others, the evidence that the D.C. schools were on the road to improvement by themselves is pretty scant.

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