July 11 — 8:17 pm, 2012

Commentary: Hite’s hiring is not a cause for celebration

The appointment of William Hite as our new superintendent has won praise from many in education circles. His performance in meetings with stakeholders, his credentials as an educator, high marks from the teachers’ union in Prince George’s County, and his apparent effectiveness as an administrator of a large, poor and financially troubled school district all worked to his favor, especially given the weakness of his competition.

But before we break out the champagne, let’s remind ourselves that Hite was selected by the School Reform Commission based on the commissioners’ assessment that he was the best available candidate to carry out their agenda of austerity and privatization.

That agenda as it has emerged over the last six months includes:

  • Accepting the idea that the District must "live within its means" rather than vigorously advocate for equitable funding.
  • Continuing the rapid and costly growth of charters in the midst of austerity, while closing neighborhood public schools.
  • Continuing implementation of a "portfolio approach," which assumes that the way to improve schools is to change the management organization or shut down the school if it’s low-performing.
  • Supporting further downsizing of an already-gutted central office, using private organizations to perform many of these functions.
  • Reducing the deficit through union givebacks “by any means necessary,” including gutting collective bargaining.

Hite’s resume as a budget-cutter surely recommends him to an SRC that is bent on making huge cuts and managing public expectations. In  the face of three years of $150 million shortfalls in Prince George’s, Hite closed schools, eliminated more than 1,300 positions, cut back preschool from a full day to a half day, and raised class sizes. And, apparently, he did this without significant pushback from the union or the community.  

Secondly, Hite is “comfortable” with the SRC’s portfolio model, which envisions accelerated charter school growth. His public view is more nuanced than that of the other finalist, Pedro Martinez, who sounded like a PR flack for the Philadelphia Schools Partnership. Hite actually made PSP director Mark Gleason a little uneasy at the special session held for the charter school community. 

“He was perhaps a little tentative about certain aspects of the transformation plan,” Gleason told the Inquirer’s Kristen Graham, “but I trust the SRC when they say they’re confident he’s ready to lead toward the vision they’ve articulated.”

Exactly. The SRC’s agenda is in good hands with Mr. Hite at the helm. That is not a cause for celebration. The focus needs to be on reversing that agenda. The top priorities are fighting for the resources to fund a quality education, for transparent, accountable and democratic school governance, and for real engagement of parents, students and educators. Although Mr. Hite may be more receptive to some concerns, he is unlikely to be a consistent ally, given his position.

The problem with the whole discussion of the superintendent position is that teachers, students, and parents look at it through a different lens than the SRC. This was evident in the community engagement process leading  to the drafting of criteria for the position, as well as in the discussions when Hite and Martinez each came to town. For the SRC, the main thing is finding someone who can effectively implement the austerity and privatization plan. The rest of us have different priorities. Hite had strengths that recommended him to both camps.

His emphasis on collaboration and the quality of his conversation with stakeholders about teaching and learning set him apart from Martinez and explain why he won more hearts and minds. Martinez echoed corporate school reform talking points, but Hite was more nuanced. A case in point is his position on performance pay, where he expressed some skepticism about the “value added” metric promoted by the federal Race to the Top program. 

I don’t want to suggest that these differences in Hite’s approach are unimportant. As anyone who lived through Arlene Ackerman’s years as superintendent can attest, the style of leadership and the educational philosophy of the superintendent make a big difference to education organizing and advocacy groups that must deal with the administration on a whole range of issues.

However, it is important to be clear that the essential elements of the crisis we face are unchanged by this appointment. Over the last six months, broad opposition has developed to the SRC’s brand of school transformation. The task now is to see whether that opposition can find the common ground necessary to pose a real alternative to the SRC’s vision.    

Can parents, students, teachers, unions, and neighborhood-based groups come together around a plan for funding that doesn’t further burden working-class people with taxes or rest on cuts to the District’s unionized work force? Can these same forces reach unity around a plan to democratize school management and governance and a student-centered approach to teaching and learning?  

How these questions are answered will determine whether the current opposition can transform itself into an effective movement to defend and renew public education in our city.   

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