Fixing D.C.'s Schools

Joe Stephens and James Grimaldi
Washington Post Investigative Reporters
Thursday, December 20, 2007 1:00 PM

Washington Post investigative reporters Joe Stephens and James Grimaldi were online Friday, Dec. 21 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the latest installment of The Post's series examining problems in the District's public schools.

A transcript follows.


Joe Stephens and James Grimaldi: Hi everybody, thanks for joining us. Let's get started.


Silver Spring, Md.: Why is there so much angst concerning the District's public school system? The simple fact of the matter is that politicians and school administrators have no real interest in making things better. Politicians because the school system is the bogeyman that can be dredged up during election cycles and administrators because making the system more efficient would cost many of them their high-paying jobs. There are the same systemic and infrastructure problems that existed when I graduated from DCPS more than 30 years ago. New D.C. schools slogan -- All Children Left behind!

Joe Stephens and James Grimaldi: JS: Thanks for the comments. A lot of the angst comes from the continuing low test scores, despite some of the highest costs per pupil in the nation.


Washington, D.C. : I work in finance and, frankly, I have heard enough stories about corruption in the D.C. government and specifically with the D.C. school system. Is anybody organizing a community effort to help the school system make better decisions or help with oversight?

I am just so absolutely frustrated with these types of embarrassing stories that I would rather volunteer my time just to help them get it right. There are a lot of talented finance/accounting people in this city and I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels this way.

Joe Stephens and James Grimaldi: JS: That's very giving of you. Contact me off line and I'll be happy to pass your name along to the DC Public School officials. Also if you know of specific examples of waste and corruption, please send us details. You can reach me at


Betheda, Md.: I'm pretty sure D.C. school kids would perform substantially better if they could eat my home-made cookies. A few million bucks should be more than sufficient to get this show on the road. Where do I apply for this money?

Joe Stephens and James Grimaldi: JS: Hmmm. I don't know which form that expense that would go on.


Appearance Concern: The article indicated that Ms. Ford violated no ethics rules by meeting with D.C. officials to fund her private enterprise while she was still employed by the D.C. government.

How can it NOT be an appearance concern for a government employee (especially a highly visible one such as a principal) to lobby for funds for a private enterprise?

Joe Stephens and James Grimaldi: JS: Some people we talked to did think there was an issue of the appearance. Experts also pointed to laws and regulations aimed at such situations. Ms. Ford told us that she does not believe she violated any ethics rules, and an attorney for her organization agrees.


Silver Spring, Md.: Did the Institute work with teachers in the troubled schools or just the schools of principals identified in the article? I would like to hear from troubled schools.

Joe Stephens and James Grimaldi: JS: The Teachers Institute works in a couple of dozen elementary schools, all within the District of Columbia.


Rockville, Md.: What's been the reaction of D.C. school officials to your excellent series on the breakdown in the system? Have they formed a task force to look into all the problems you've uncovered?

Joe Stephens and James Grimaldi: JS: No task force has been formed, to our knowledge. And as far as I know, DCPS has made no formal comment about our series.


Washington, D.C.: Hello gentlemen. I am just wondering...does today's story about how badly DCPS officials handle their funds argue for MORE, rather than LESS, oversight by Congress? The article yesterday about Sen. Landrieu's earmark made it sound like it was a bad thing for lawmakers to force their spending ideas on D.C., but maybe D.C. just can't be trusted to do it on their own?

Joe Stephens and James Grimaldi: JG: I was not attempting to pass judgement on whether the earmark was necessarily good or bad. The question really is, who decides? Should the decision be made by the local school officials and administrators or by a U.S. senator from the state of Louisiana. I leave it to you and the rest of the readers to make that choice.


Washington, D.C.: When will you do an investigation on Rhee's claims about her impressive gains on tests when she was a classroom teacher?

Joe Stephens and James Grimaldi: JS: If you know some aspect of that that needs to be looked into, and have some facts, please let us know.


Upper Marlboro, Md.: When you observed the professional development performed by TI, was it any good?

Joe Stephens and James Grimaldi: JS: I observed some training, but have no way to gauge its effectiveness myself. I have talked to some principals who speak highly of the program. We quoted a few in the article.


Ms. Ford told us that she does not believe she violated any ethics rules, and an attorney for her organization agrees.: There's a shocker. Yeah, and Paul Wolfowitz violated no ethics rules at the World Bank by dealing with his girlfriend's salary.

Sometimes, you have to go beyond the ethics rules and use common sense. Remember that old test -- do you want what you're doing to appear on the front page of The Washington Post? Well it did. I wonder how that makes Ms. Ford feel.

Joe Stephens and James Grimaldi: JS: Thanks for the comment.


Arlington, Va.: What steps can be taken to avoid even the appearance of this kind of thing in the future?

Joe Stephens and James Grimaldi: JS: Financial experts say what is needed is more emphasis on the standard financial controls in place elsewhere. That generally involves putting out formal requests for proposals, competitive bidding, negotiating contracts and the like. Two years ago, my colleagues Dan Keating and David Fallis published a fantastic two-part series that demonstrated in graphic fashion how lax financial controls were in the Distict of Columbia. It was called Blank Check.


Washington, D.C.: It seems to me that the incompetence and mismanagement of the D.C. government in this case rubbed off on an innocent contractor whose only "crime" has been to do business with the city.

What would recommend that private contractors do when dealing with the DCPS? Should they question the legitimacy of the officials? And where would that leave the children who are in need of some sort of help from people outside the school system?

Joe Stephens and James Grimaldi: JS: Good question. The officials at the Teachers Institute told me that they actually considered returning the $2.9 million because there was no contract laying out specifically what they were required to do in return for the money. They ultimately decided to go ahead with the training.


Louisville, Ky.: What do you think of the recent program of awarding schools -- principals, teachers, and custodians -- with cash for improved academic performance?

Joe Stephens and James Grimaldi: JS: I hear they've been used in other districts, but don't know whether they've been effective.


Capitol Hill: I applaud the previous commenter on their offer to volunteer. Trouble is, as your articles have pointed out, there doesn't seem to be any coordinated or cohesive programs in place. It looks as though DCPS is just grabbing onto anything and everything that might work. Is this the main reason why there are so many troubling issues with DCPS, or have you found other aspects that are contributing? As of right now, where do you think Ms. Rhee's main focus should be? Thanks for the great articles.

Joe Stephens and James Grimaldi: JS: Thanks for the comments. It's not a reporter's role to give advice to public officials. But there have been a number of important issues raised in our continuing series, Fixing D.C.'s Schools.


Washington, D.C.: As a DCPS parent for over 10 years, with kids in high-performing upper NW schools, I am continually outraged by the tactics of the leadership of the teachers' union and (until recently under Rhee) the complete lack of responsiveness from 825. Parents United, the so-called parents' advocacy group, does N-O-T-H-I-N-G. I have often felt that the parents and kids need a union in this city to advocate for their rights. Do you know of any such group (I heard former Mayor Williams was trying to start one) either in this city, or others?

Joe Stephens and James Grimaldi: JS: I'm not aware of a parents and kids union, but its an intriguing idea.


Joe Stephens and James Grimaldi: JS: Great chat. Thanks everybody for stopping by.


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