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Despite Rhee's missteps, her egalitarian vision for schools inspires

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By Courtland Milloy
Monday, September 13, 2010

From its birth in 1790, the District has inspired grand visions of a more perfect union among diverse peoples. Even the landscape has been infused with our common striving; a design by French architect Pierre L'Enfant intended "principally to connect each part of the city," as he put it, "by making the real distance less from place to place."

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On the eve of Tuesday's Democratic primary in the District, I'd like to revisit one of the more compelling visions of what a city of knitted souls might look like. The question for voters: How do we get there?

From a commentary by D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee that appeared in the Feb. 8 issue of Spotlight on Poverty and Education:

"I believe we can solve the problems of urban education in our lifetimes and actualize education's power to reverse generational poverty," Rhee wrote. "But I am learning that it is a radical concept to even suggest this. Warren Buffett [the billionaire investor] framed the problem for me once in a way that clarified how basic our most stubborn obstacles are. He said it would be easy to solve today's problems in urban education. 'Make private schools illegal,' he said, 'and assign every child to a public school by random lottery.' "

How about that? Elitism as the most stubborn obstacle to school reform. Not teachers' unions, dysfunctional families, lazy students or black prejudice against a Korean American schools chancellor, but reluctance by the city's haves to share classrooms with the have-nots. You most likely didn't hear that debated at any candidates' forum.

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray, who is challenging Mayor Adrian Fenty's bid for reelection, has fired the imagination of many residents, black and white, with his vision of "one city moving forward together."

But I'd bet that few if any of his supporters ever imagined the kind of radical oneness conjured by Buffet and Rhee.

It is ironic, given Rhee's profound egalitarian insights, that she would end up as one the most polarizing figures in the city, widely perceived among African American residents as a champion of the city's white elite right along with Fenty, who appointed her. But that is her fault.

All Rhee had to do was show a little patience in building a citywide coalition whose trust and respect she had earned. Without such support, it was only a matter of time before she was captured and compromised by those stubborn obstacles.

We aren't just talking about caricatured snooty elites, of course. There are serious philosophical underpinnings against Rhee's brand of social engineering, and the minute she were to start sounding like Fidel Michelle Castro Rhee, she'd have hell to pay.

Francis Fukuyama, the noted political economist, laid out some of the philosophical underpinnings of the forces aligned against such reformers in the June 2007 issue of the American Interest:

"Joseph de Maistre, the French arch-conservative, argued at the beginning of the 19th century that Washington would fail as a city because one cannot engineer a true community," Fukuyama observed. "He and other anti-planners like Jane Jacobs were right in a certain way. The strong hand of government cannot fix many entrenched urban social problems, and often makes them worse by its intervention."

Was Rhee naive to think she could, as critics charged from day one? No doubt. How else to explain her admission that she is just now learning that school reform -- using education to empower poor black students -- would be viewed by some as a "radical concept"?

And yet, her vision of a city school system with its academic fabric rewoven almost takes your breath away.

"Think about what this would mean," she wrote. "CEOs' children, diplomats' children, many would be going to schools in Anacostia and east of the river, where most of our schools are. I guarantee we would never see a faster moving of resources from one end of the city to the other. I also guarantee we would soon have a system of high-quality schools."

Imagine that. A system of high-quality schools -- and soon. Guaranteed. The power of education to reverse generational poverty, actualized. Centuries of striving realized.

Vision of the future? Or just a pipe dream?

milloyc@washpost.com


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