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Thompson: The Rule of Law

Godonourside Stephen Sawchuck remembers when Dianne Piche' "likened permitting teachers' scoring of their students' tests to allowing 16-year-olds to score their own driver's-license exams." Being a former adult, I see such arrogance as the only way to reconcile the values of the Citizens Commission on Civil Rights with "reformers''" agenda of abridging the legal rights of the scapegoats de jour teachers.  An attorney should recoil at the hubris of subordinationing "Man's law" to beliefs in our own righteousness. 

The teenager teacher in me responds by asking whether "reformers" should be alone in assessing the legality of their agenda. John Merrow seems to have found some "smoking gun" evidence that "reformers" in D.C. are ignoring the spirit, and almost certainly the letter of the law when hiring twice as many teachers as normal on the eve of a budgetary crisis. Michelle Rhee acknowledged "by law, we can only move a personnel action form forward if there is a vacancy at a school level, and then there is a budget to support that."  A member of the D.C. Council supporting Rhee argued "I don't believe she over-hired, with the intent then of firing teachers that she didn't want there. I don't think that's what happened. And, even if it did, so what?"

Under formal precedings where words have legal ramifications, the D.C. Council could not get answer answer to the following "you have stated on the record that you made an administrative decision, regardless of the law and the process that is in front of you to follow." When Rhee replied "my understanding is that I do have the authority," the Council Chair sought a reply to the follow-up "before you move to your understanding, I am just talking about the law."

In an interview where words do not have legal implications, Merrow was able to get an answer to the question of whether Rhee is a "rule-breaker." "I am is somebody who is focused on the end ... If there are rules standing in the way of that, I will question those rules. I will bend those rules," Rhee explained.  Is it up to Rhee alone to determine what is a rule and what is a law? What is the difference between bending and breaking rules that carry the force of law?

The former legal historian in me wants to  be clear.  "Reformers" have the right to lobby against teachers, but it is improper to uses trickery to violate contracts that are already in effect.  In the Court of Public Opinion, "reformers" can hurl any false accusation they like and copy Karl Rove's scorched earth politics if they believe it will advance the greater good.  "Reformers" can advocate for test-driven growth models, Intelligent Design or whatever superstition they like.  But in a Court of Law, there is no place for misstatements of fact or pseudo-science.  And it is wrong to use federal regulations to micromanage local contracts that were negotiated in good faith.

What is the common link between Rhee’s supporters and Diane Piche’s complaint? The head of D.C.’s professional development condemned the district’s teachers saying "fifty percent don't have the right mind-set." The Citizens Commission condemned teachers unions as "implacable foes of laws and policies designed to improve public education for disadvantaged children." Unions are attacked for asserting their political positions, defending their legal rights, and speaking their minds on growth models and using standardized tests for high-stakes evaluations. In other words, when teachers - or any other stakeholders - believe differently than the "reformers," we are "vehement" enemies of disadvantaged children.

And that brings us back to Merrow’s conclusion, after he reported the growing concerns of some of Rhee’s supporters.

MICHAEL A. BROWN, Council of the District of Columbia: You clearly don't trust a lot of the stakeholders. It's obvious the stakeholders don't trust your office. So, how do we repair this?

MICHELLE RHEE: I will fully do my part, to the extent that people have suggestions about how we move forward. Some of the difficult decisions that we make will indeed cause some people to be unhappy. But we know we have to push forward on those decisions because they are right for schools and kids. - John Thompson


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