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State Superintendent Finds Limits to Power

State Superintendent of Education Deborah A. Gist reports ultimately to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, meaning criticism of a school system initiative could put her at odds with her boss, school board members say.
State Superintendent of Education Deborah A. Gist reports ultimately to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, meaning criticism of a school system initiative could put her at odds with her boss, school board members say. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
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By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 28, 2008

In February, the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education was ready with a 17-page rubric to approve or reject Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's plan overhaul 26 academically troubled schools.

But about a month later, State Superintendent of Education Deborah A. Gist had to do an about-face when she learned she did not have the power she thought she had. Her lawyers told her she could review the plan but had no authority over it.

Now, some elected State Board of Education members, who serve as advisers to Gist, are seeking to elevate her role in scrutinizing Rhee.

The debate over who has power to approve Rhee's plan reflects a larger tug of war between state and local education officials across the country over implementation of federal No Child Left Behind guidelines. In the District, the state superintendent's office and school board perform many functions of state education departments but generally have less power than their counterparts over local schools.

Board members say they have had preliminary conversations with D.C. Council members about introducing legislation that would allow Gist to sever ties with Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), having her report to the council or operate independently of both. Last week, the school board agreed to study the authority state education chiefs have over academically troubled schools.

"I think [Gist] should be more independent," school board President Robert C. Bobb said. "The whole issue of reforming education in the District is not one hand clapping; the state superintendent plays a significant role in that. In my perspective, she has to be an equal partner."

Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) agreed. "I've raised [the issue] at more than one oversight hearing. You go next door to Maryland, and their superintendent, Nancy Grasmick, exercises the type of authority Deborah never had. . . . There continues to be a concern among [council] members about whether we got it right with the state component."

Gist declined to comment on the issue of independence.

States "don't have say in a school-level plan. That's not the state's role," Rhee said. "The state's role is to only monitor the plans once they're actually created and they're being implemented."

School board members attribute the conflict to the new governance that put Fenty in charge of schools last year. Rhee reports directly to Fenty, and Gist answers to him through a deputy mayor. School board members say it is an awkward arrangement that potentially could put Gist at odds with the mayor if she criticized a school system initiative. Rhee has said repeatedly that Fenty has given her unprecedented backing, warning all agency heads that they risk being fired if they say no to her.

Traditionally, states took a hands-off role regarding schools because of local control. But that has been changing with No Child Left Behind, which requires students to achieve academic benchmarks, or adequate yearly progress, on state exams. The law does not say who has final authority over its implementation.

Under a process called restructuring, districts are required to develop comprehensive plans to improve schools that fail to meet the targets for five or more years. The law gives districts five options for improving the schools: convert them to charter schools; replace principals or teachers; hire private education management firms to run them; turn them over to the state; or devise an alternate plan.


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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