State Superintendent Finds Limits to Power
Some on D.C. School Board Push to Broaden Office's Authority to Scrutinize Rhee

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.

"Legislatures gave more authority to state superintendents or state school boards to be able to intervene in local schools" in need of restructuring, said Kathy Christie, chief of staff of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, which follows school policies across the country. Since the advent of No Child Left Behind, "that type of activity certainly has grown across the states."

The state superintendent's office carries out the role of a state education department. It was expanded and renamed under the legislation that put Fenty in charge of the schools.

That law also redubbed the Board of Education a state panel overseeing such issues as setting academic standards and high school graduation requirements. Unlike most state boards, the D.C. panel has no authority and merely advises the state superintendent.

In her 17-page formula, Gist said she was prepared to grade Rhee and four charter schools in restructuring on such factors as involving the community in their plans and including 10 measurements of student achievement and analyses of the schools' curricula and organization.

Gist said that "there definitely was a change in our understanding" of what her role was in reviewing Rhee's school-improvement plan. "We're a brand-new agency trying to figure out the rules and responsibilities."

Rather than imposing rules on Rhee and the four charter schools, Gist said she is playing a supportive role, collaborating with them on their plans. Gist said her office will monitor the schools in fall 2009, when they enter the second year of restructuring, to ensure they are staying on track. She said she doesn't expect to have her people in the schools but will keep tabs on them by consulting with Rhee and principals and reviewing their reports.

In Rhee's plan, 17 of the 26 schools are slated to get new principals or teachers. Five schools will be run by an outside management firm, and seven will work with an alternative plan. Rhee opted against converting the schools into charters or turning them over to Gist, saying she wanted to maintain control of them.

School board member Lisa Raymond (District 3) said she saw several flaws in the plan: Rhee didn't include enough input from the school communities and hadn't decided which of six private nonprofit education firms will run five schools or what will happen with Eastern High School once it is phased out in three years.

Such flaws are why Gist needs authority for approval, Raymond said. "Someone needs to look at the plan and say, 'That doesn't meet the requirements of the law.' "

But school board member Sekou Biddle (District 2) said he's not completely convinced that the structure should be changed to give Gist more independence. "We've got to be careful in tinkering with stuff and making it worse than what it was," he said.

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