Monday, May 03, 2010

Rhee, budgets, and "school reform"

Rhee, smoke and mirrors in the D.C. schools budget
D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s mantra is performance and accountability, and more performance and more accountability.
She is, in fact, getting ready to judge teachers under her new IMPACT evaluation system, and, presumably, will lop off, figuratively, the professional heads of those who don’t score high enough. That’s accountability in action.
But what about Rhee’s own performance?
To look at the unnecessary and damaging mess over the proposed contract that she negotiated over two-plus years with the teachers union is to wonder whether she could pass an evaluation as tough as the one she set for teachers.
Reaching a contract with the teachers after years of painful negotiations was seen by many as excellent sign that Rhee, and the teachers union, were both able to make painful concessions. Rhee, with her take-no-prisoners, I-am-always-right style, saw the value of compromise.

To fund teachers’ raises in the contract, she secured private funding from foundations--apparently without checking whether the city’s finance folks would sign off on such an arrangement.
Unfortunately, school advocates in the city say that Rhee is the most secretive superintendent in memory, as well as the one who demonstrates the least understanding of budgeting. In the past, the public had a chance to see proposed school budgets early in the process and comment on them. Under Rhee, information is tightly held and only those around Rhee see the budget until she has to formally give it to the D.C. Council.
Even something as routine as releasing enrollment projections for the District became a drawn-out affair; it took my colleague Bill Turque, who covers Rhee, months to get them. Why? Nobody knows.
Figures from the D.C. Council show that under Rhee, there has been an increase of $60 million, or 28 percent (from $217 million to $277 million) in expenditures in private school tuition, transportation and fees paid to lawyers who handle cases of students who need to be evaluated by the system. (The city pays to transport special education students to school, whether they are in public or private schools, a program that for years suffered from huge cost overruns.)
And there is this, which speaks to Rhee’s unrealistic budgeting: The projected overrun for this in the current year is about $50 million. But Rhee’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2011 is $6 million less than the projected cost for this year.
That’s just one example of bad budgeting. The list is long.
So what have we got? A powerhouse of a superintendent who is bent on doing whatever she thinks she has to do to achieve her goals.
Unfortunately, she doesn’t seem to understand--still--that reforms only work when the people who have to implement them are on board. She can make bold pronouncements and she can start all kinds of new programs. But if she keeps damaging her own credibility, it is not likely that she will be in the city for the very long term to see that the reforms are put in place.
And yet again, D.C. school kids will be left behind. 


Read the entire piece at:  washingtonpost.com/answersheet

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