Rhee vs. the Central-Office Hydra

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, August 18, 2007

It is a large and powerful creature. Known by many names (most of them unprintable in a family newspaper), it bears the official title "Central Office of the D.C. Public Schools."

Through the years, the central office has done terrifying deeds to public education. It has kept schools from opening on time, swallowed repair orders by the thousands, made teachers' paychecks disappear, consumed tax dollars by the millions without producing any discernible results and, ultimately, acquired a well-deserved reputation for treating schoolchildren as if they are nuisances.

But the central office's chief enemy, for whom its most hostile behavior is reserved, is the reform-minded superintendent. In the battle against change, the central office, which consists of an unknowable number of human parts, remains undefeated.

Yet there are always challengers to its reign.

The latest is Michelle Rhee, who entered the fray a few weeks ago bearing a fancy new title, public schools chancellor. Rhee, a former teacher and highly praised teacher trainer and headhunter for urban public schools, was thrown into the ring without much preparation by her handler, Mayor Adrian Fenty.

Rhee, however, makes up for her inexperience with feistiness, a gift for fancy footwork and a good head for the urban fight game, all of which should keep her standing, at least for a while.

Rhee's chief focus is the classroom. That's where she hopes to bring about needed improvements in teacher quality and student achievement.

But during lunch this week with her and former D.C. Council member Kevin Chavous, it became clear to me that after weeks of looking, listening and probing, Rhee realizes the central office could be the chief obstacle to the reforms she wants to achieve.

Rhee is right about that. The central office fervently believes that the status quo is a blessed concept to be defended against all comers.

Most likely it views Rhee, with her strict emphasis on holding people -- not offices -- accountable, with wry amusement. That hydra-headed monster thinks it has seen it all.

In a sense, it has.

The central office has outlived superintendents, elected and appointed school board members, a congressionally created financial control board, an Army general, auditors and a rotating corps of inquiring reporters. Through it all, the central office has remained an incubator for incompetence, obstruction, cronyism and corruption.

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