Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

Don’t Buy the “Emergency Powers” Argument for the District of Columbia Public Schools

October 13, 2007 4 min read

What powers!

What emergency?

There’s no “state of emergency,” no need for dictatorial authority, and no relationship between the real predicament and the requested powers. Imagine if President George W. Bush and Robert Gates were to argue for making every civil servant in the Office of the Secretary Defense an “at will” employee responsible to the Secretary, who would determine which employees would stay or go based on their performance over the next ninety days.

Their justification? First, a state of emergency brought on by wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and against Islamic terrorism. Second, the failure of the Department of Defense bureaucracy to identify weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, supply our troops with up-armored vehicles, prevent the abuse of prisoners at Abu Graib and Guantanamo, and take adequate care of wounded troops here at home, just to name a few shortcomings.

You decide the details of the response from Congress or among the public, but it’s pretty clear it would not be positive. First, the Second World War didn’t require turning the civil service over to the personal control of an appointed cabinet official. Surely the Republic is under no more serious threat today. Second, the failures cited were not fundamentally ones of the bureaucracy’s inability to execute policy, but of the political leadership’s decisions about policy.

Third, there are very good reasons civil servants are not at will employees. We don’t want them beholden to politics. We don’t want them to so fear for their job security as to put loyalty to the boss above loyalty to the people. We don’t want department heads to think they have such power. And we don’t confine this idea to the national security apparatus, domestic law enforcement, or the tax collectors. We extend it to the entire government, right down to the local level.

So why is it even debatable whether the District of Columbia City Council should give Mayor Adrian Fenty and Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee precisely this power over the school system’s central office?

Stop, think.

What they are saying is:

1) The public schools are in a “state of emergency,” a stretch of that term’s general meaning that seems worthy of Vice President Cheney. They want the City Council to state that public education in the District - by which I presume they mean overall student performance - is in such dire straights that these elected officials must eliminate civil service protections so that the Chancellor can decide who in the central office will have a job.

2) The central office is the problem. It’s why paychecks haven’t reflected what many teachers are owed, the district pays too much for external special education, schools aren’t ready for kids in September, etc., etc.

3) There is a direct and immediate relationship between 2) and 1). That is, unless the central office staff can be made personally responsible to the Chancellor immediately - and subject to her assessment of performance, there’s just no way the Mayor and Chancellor can improve student performance.

I don’t buy any of it, and I don’t see why the City Council should either.

1) We can’t possibly be in a state of emergency so dire that the Chancellor needs to be given absolute power over the school system’s civil service. Even if she and the Mayor are as pure as angels, what about the next Chancellor, the next Mayor? The Roman Senate gave dictatorial powers to Caesars when barbarians were at the gate, and found it hard to see those powers returned. I don’t see the barbarians; do you?

2) The bureaucratic failures cited are of policy making, not policy execution. O.K., unlike Bush, Fenty and Rhee weren’t “the deciders” who got us into this. But just like their predecessors who did by failing to use existing powers, they could use those same powers to get the system out of the mess. For the Mayor and Chancellor to say otherwise is to admit they are no more competent to run the government under the same rules that apply to every jurisdiction in the country than the folks they’ve just replaced. By that logic, the Mayor could just as easily have given the power to former Superintendent Clifford Janey and dispensed with hiring Rhee.

Yes, It’s easier to dictate policy without the restraint of law, but that’s not how we run this republic - and it’s certainly not how a jurisdiction that wants statehood demonstrates its maturity.

3. There’s no relationship between the supposed emergency and the requested powers. If the Chancellor fires every single central office employee tomorrow, reorganizes, and hires people she deems competent by the end of the week, there will be no change in student performance. For her and the Mayor to imply that student performance can’t improve without the central office they’d prefer is ludicrous. There is simply no reason why the Chancellor can’t put in some extra effort/people/funds to use the procedures already in place to do what she and the Mayor deem necessary to improve central office operations and terminate incompetents, while at the same time doing the other things required to improve teaching and learning in the classroom, and accountability and support in the schools.

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