Imagine that Carl Cohn had accepted the job of superintendent of the D.C. schools. Imagine that he had imposed the changes he believes made the difference in Long Beach, Calif., where he last plied his trade:

School uniforms. An end to social promotion. A behavior code with high standards. Real academic expectations. A focus on the lowest-performing schools, along with the development of a marquee classical high school designed to lure families away from private and parochial schools.

Could he have done it? Would he have been laughed at by the system's permanent bureaucracy, which has grown expert at ignoring anyone who passes through the revolving-door superintendency? Could he have snapped the selfishness of principals and teachers who long ago retired in place? Could he have broken through the cynicism of educators who speak of children in their schools with derision and the lowest of expectations?

We'll never know, of course, because Cohn, like Rudy Crew before him, said "no thanks" to the District, where the schools are being managed, to be generous, by the third chief in eight months.

Now that two brief love affairs have ended in humiliating public rejection, the D.C. schools are in a familiar place -- nowhere.

But Cohn, a professor at the University of Southern California and consultant on managing city schools, says there's no cause for despair. "A lot of urban systems are in trouble," he says. "Most of these school bureaucracies have the same attitudes. You have to raise their spirits. Once they sense that the community supports these changes, they will line up to support you."

Three things make Washington a particularly tough case, Cohn says:

* There are too many cooks and not enough authority. No one knows who's really in charge: the school board, the D.C. Council, mayoral appointees, the superintendent?

* The system has been largely abandoned by the middle class and the well-to-do, virtually eliminating the public pressure essential to building up resources and expectations.

* The system long ago became more a source of easy public jobs than a vehicle for lifting children out of ignorance and poverty.

When Cohn told D.C. politicians that they should do as St. Louis did and bring in a management firm that specializes in turnarounds, "people said that won't work in Washington because the system has so many patronage jobs and the city's workforce depends on having all those jobs."

Cohn was floored to hear such an affirmative defense of such a corrupt concept of a school system.

That's why he believes the first task for the city -- even before hiring a superintendent -- is to bring in an independent, respected outsider to run a town meeting at which city and school leaders join residents to thrash out what's holding back the schools.

"It has to be made clear to everyone that this is about the kids," Cohn says. "Then you bring in a take-no-prisoners company that addresses the fundamental issues of operation, of people not doing their jobs. You get rid of the land mines -- I mean, $75 million a year for special education transportation alone? Something is deeply wrong: In Long Beach, with a larger student population, we spent $16 million for our entire transportation budget."

Although Cohn left us standing at the altar, he made a lasting contribution before he split the scene: He got Mayor Tony Williams to give up on taking personal control of the schools.

Cohn liked Williams, but "as part of my due diligence, I asked people about the mayor, and they said if you're looking for a Daley of Chicago or a Menino of Boston, the mayors who successfully took over school systems, Tony Williams is not like that."

Cohn found the school board president, Peggy Cooper Cafritz, to be "mercurial, sometimes focused, sometimes off on something else."

It's easy for Cohn, now out of the picture, to assure us that the D.C. schools can be saved. The clear message from educators is that the best people want nothing to do with this job. But city leaders can change that almost overnight. They need only to make it clear that the new boss will have real authority and that the District is ready to run the schools for children -- period.

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