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A note on the Kaya Henderson interview

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I sat with Ms. Henderson before the Christmas Holiday, but I think about our conversation every day since then. Our meeting did nothing less than altered my thinking about school reform. Let me explain why.

I have been a school choice supporter from the time my grown children first entered elementary school. Even back then in Fairfax County, which is supposed to be one of the greatest school systems in this country, I could sense that my wife and I were not customers in our kid’s schools.

Based upon my experience there, and knowing what I did about the horrendous state of D.C. public schools, I was completely convinced that the competition for students afforded through school choice, in which money follows the child, was the only way that traditional public schools would be forced to improve.

Even in the nation’s capital my faith in school choice was shaken early on. As the charter movement got going, and more and more parents moved their kids into this alternative system, DCPS did not react. I was shocked. It was only when they lost over 25 percent of their population that Mayor Fenty was elected, the regular schools were put under Mayoral control, and Michelle Rhee was made Chancellor.

For the first time in perhaps a hundred years DCPS started to make positive changes both on the academic and facility sides. Until then, kids started every year without books in buildings filled with weapons, drugs, and gangs. The facilities were literally crumbling from lack of appropriate upkeep.

I thought I was finally vindicated. School choice had the effect that economist Milton Friedman had written about in the 1950’s. Then I met Ms. Henderson.

The Chancellor is different. Here is an individual who doesn’t believe she needs to implode the system to fix it. Through a day-to-day consistent glowing optimism she is working within DCPS, complete with its political environment and teachers’ union, to bring about the extremely tough changes that are raising academic achievement of her students. She is focused, determined, and has set high expectations for herself and her staff. Ms. Henderson is doing nothing less than installing the pedagogical rigor that has been absent from her classrooms. She is doing this, despite the constant naysayers and distractions, with a smile on her face.

It made me think that if she can do this here then could others do the same thing in other cities? And while DCPS appears currently to be on the right track if school choice vanished tomorrow would the improvements continue? I frankly do not know.

What I do understand is that we have a superstar in our possession that we must all support. Recent public conversations about whether a new Mayor would retain the services of Ms. Henderson do not help anyone. She is an individual who is totally convinced in her heart and in her head that by working together we can finally provide all students with a quality education, no matter their background. For me, today, this is more than sufficient.

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