Rhee's pride could trip up admirable effort for D.C. schools

By Robert McCartney
Sunday, November 1, 2009

The future of the District's school system may well be decided by whether Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's forceful reform campaign becomes mired in a swamp of her own self-defeating hubris.

A lively, dramatic D.C. Council hearing Thursday illustrated again the need for Rhee to temper her autocratic approach, especially by communicating and collaborating better with the body that approves her budget.

On balance, I think she'll continue to move forward despite the emergence of potential legal problems. Her admirable, ambitious efforts are showing results in the form of higher test scores, spruced-up buildings and stabilized enrollment.

However, part of any schools chief's job is dealing effectively with the city's elected representatives, and there, Rhee is coming up short. The hearing revealed instances in which she circumvented the council's action and delayed giving it important information about the origins of last month's controversial teacher layoffs.

For now, Rhee can count on just enough support in the council to keep it from blocking her and her patron, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), from pushing ahead. That could change, though, if she doesn't wise up.

Admittedly, some council members postured for television at the hearings and bullied Rhee to show how tough they are. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) has a political motive for bludgeoning her, as he is considering running for mayor partly on an anti-Rhee platform.

But even some of Rhee's strongest allies were practically begging her to share more information with them and get along better with Gray.

"I will continue to support your reform. I need you to be a better communicator," David A. Catania (I-At Large) said. "I need more respect and understanding directed toward the chairman, and I don't know how many more times we can have this discussion."

Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) told Rhee: "I do know you were making progress. . . . Now I think you're further apart from our labor force."

The strained relations between Fenty and Rhee, on one side, and the council and the Washington Teachers' Union seem to be out of sync with the goals of some powerful people in the Obama administration. Recently, Education Secretary Arne Duncan strongly praised the cooperative spirit that led to a labor agreement between the city of New Haven, Conn., and the American Federation of Teachers, the WTU's parent organization.

"This is a really important progressive labor agreement. It's one that folks around the country should take note of. Basically, everyone came together, the school district, the union, the city," Duncan said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

Two-year-old negotiations between Rhee and the union over a new contract are currently in a deep freeze while the union fights the layoffs.

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