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Reformers Can't Dodge Race Issues

In Washington D.C. schools there is one topic that rarely gets raised, especially among white school reformers: race. Just too uncomfortable.
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School reformers like to talk, so they conference a lot. They like writing even more, so they dash off torrents of commentaries on improving schools.

But in all that talking and writing there is one topic that rarely gets raised, especially among white school reformers: race. Just too uncomfortable.

That aversion to raising race issues is unfortunate, because in the year I spent researching the school reforms carried out by Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C., race issues were players nearly everywhere I looked.

For starters, race played a big role in explaining how the school's central office Rhee inherited was both bloated and poorly run. That dates back to former Mayor Marion Barry, who over the years padded the city payrolls with ever-more appointees, partly as a civil rights gesture for those who in the days of white-run Washington were frozen out of city jobs but also for political reasons. "It was the political machine's way of hiring folks and securing votes," one veteran school administrator told me.

Not only was the central office crowded, but many appeared to have little guidance on how to do their jobs. When Rhee arrived and began trying to fire the worst of the central office staff, her initial legal advice was: here at DCPS, we don't fire people for incompetence.

"What do you do with them?" Rhee asked. The answer: "We send them to the schools." And we wonder how D.C. schools got so bad?

Race also explains the sensitivities felt among black D.C. residents about firing anyone. In D.C., as in many urban areas, the black middle class was built on the stability of school jobs. Parents in affluent, white neighborhoods of Washington generally approved when central office workers were fired because they cost the city millions with bungled paperwork or a teacher was fired for harming students with bad teaching. The other side of the city heard a very different message: Not only was Rhee firing people they knew and liked, but she was disrespecting them by calling them incompetent.

When Rhee dealt with a budget cutback by laying off 266 teachers, she refused to abide by D.C. tradition of laying off the last hired. In white neighborhoods, firing teachers based on principal recommendations sounded logical; many on the black side of the city concluded the firings were random. As one black Washington Post columnist put it, "roulette wheel" firings.

Race played a huge role when Rhee changed the leadership at a Georgetown middle school favored by the city's black middle class, many of whom sent their kids there via out-of-boundary applications. In an attempt to diversify D.C.'s racially and economically isolated school population (rarely do such school districts stand a chance of success) by swapping in a principal of a mostly white elementary school from the immediate neighborhood (to encourage middle class parents to give D.C. schools a try), the middle school parents waged a resistance movement that suggested Rhee favored whites.

The fact that Rhee was Korean American, and not African American as her predecessors had been, also proved to be racially troublesome, especially when the district began to show testing improvements. Rationalizing that awkward situation gave birth to a widespread belief among many black Washingtonians that the gains Rhee achieved were the fruits of the black schools chief, Clifford Janey, who preceded her.

Based on my book research, that belief had little factual basis. Janey's most significant accomplishment, bringing the highly regarded Massachusetts standards to Washington, was not nearly enough to explain Rhee's gains, which came from aggressive staffing changes. Regardless, the Janey theory was broadly embraced among blacks.

There's no question that Rhee did a poor job managing racial relations. Both she and Fenty naively assumed that showing demonstrable results in the schools justified reforms ranging from closing schools to firing teachers. So wrong, so very wrong.

Neither of them, especially Fenty -- whose job this should have been -- adopted a proactive stance to explain why some teachers were being fired and why so many principals got shuffled in and out. Other voices filled in the void, leaving black voters believing that Rhee operated in a roulette style that disfavored black teachers.

Not all the racial lessons from D.C. spin negative. For the first two years of her term here, Rhee (perhaps unintentionally) managed to triangulate racial politics. In the book, I profile a dramatic turnaround at a middle school overseen by a Rhee-appointed African American principal and his same-race deputies. The inevitable protests that arose when they moved out nearly all the teachers who weren't working out went nowhere: black leaders helping black kids.

On primary day, Sept. 14, 2010, Rhee's foes overcame the triangulation. Based on my interviewing and polling, the belief that Rhee fired teachers for no apparent reason and favored whites was a significant factor in the racially lopsided voting that favored Fenty's challenger.

Neither Rhee nor Fenty saw this one coming, which is perhaps understandable. After all, only 7 percent of the district's students are white, and most of those depart after elementary school. And yet, the favoring-whites belief proved to be a significant wedge issue in the voting.

The best advice I got about race issues came from Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson (Michelle's fiancé) who came to D.C. to knock on doors to campaign for Fenty and Rhee. In African American communities, said Johnson, the issue of respect is never far from the surface. "If we don't trust what's being done, then this potentially becomes another experiment on our community."

That doesn't mean racial issues make urban school reform politically impossible. Urban political and education leaders such as Johnson will continue taking political risks with Rhee-style reforms. They're that hungry for turnarounds.

Reformers can continue making intellectual contributions to those urban reforms, but only by confronting that third rail, learning lessons on triangulation and always, always explaining reforms thoroughly before you carry them out. The fear among African Americans about being used as "experiments" is both understandable and justified.

Ducking the issue, however, is a sure ticket to irrelevancy.