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Home » Chalk Talk – Ode to Bethesda

August, 2007

‘Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam,
Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. / A rose is a rose is a rose.

Bloom where you are planted.

Work where you love and love where you work.

(I made that last one up… I think)

We’d like to thank all of our friends who have shed tears for us and prayed for our well-being. Please rest assured that, although we had to leave the radiator-rattling rats behind, we are surviving and thriving Outside the Beltway.

In the past few weeks since The Center for Education Reform moved its main offices to Bethesda, Maryland, the most interesting observations and comments have made their way to us.

“What are they DOING?”

“Is CER okay?!”

Why did they move to Bethesda?!?!”

It’s really gotten to be so funny. I mean, when other non-profits we know have moved to Arlington, VA, people seem to accept it with a nod. After all, it’s become conventional wisdom that Washington, DC – despite all its pageantry and the patriotism it still stirs in me when I cross the Potomac and spot a monument or the Capitol building – has become increasingly noisy, congested, and expensive.

But I think it was the rats that finally set us on the path to relocation. Bless their furry, beady-eyed little heads, we know they’re an urban staple, and maybe if they’d served up some French country cooking a la Disney we’d have reconsidered, but the scurrying behind the drywall could be a little distracting during a conference call.

And then there’s the fiduciary duty. The price for new DC space is up about $10 more per square foot than when we first locked in terms years ago. Since we look at our donors – whether $10 or $100,000 – as investors, it seemed needlessly indulgent to lay out their money on an steps-from-the-Whitehouse DC address when just a few miles west of the city lies a growing metropolis called Bethesda, offering more for less (and we’ve still managed to have an audience with the President twice since our move). Once a town that had only limited shops and was mostly populated by soccer moms, the 20814 zip code is now bustling with welcoming offices, restaurants, government and private agencies’ headquarters, townhouses, condos and apartments. Blackboard Inc’s investors occupy Bethesda office space, as do Education Week, Lockheed Martin, Marriott International and the National Institutes of Health.

When I told this to one good friend, he said facetiously that he was going to cry, but added that, out in Bethesda, we might not even hear him cry. Boohoo. (Trivia quiz: How many people know the District was – sort of like a woman from Adam’s rib – pulled out of parts of Maryland and Virginia? Swampy parts, I might add.)

It shouldn’t matter where one operates, especially in these days of technology. We have a colleague who runs a substantial part of an education company out of her home in Brooklyn. The founder and Chair of one of the nation’s leading investment funds operates from wherever he happens to be, and rarely passes through his office doors anymore. But let’s face it, there will still be those who think the address on the letterhead, like the label on the designer suit, makes the man – or in this case, organization.

I have analyzed the attitudes that make people so skittish about an influential national group suddenly having most of its operations outside of DC proper. We still maintain a convenient and very reasonable scaled-down space in DC to accommodate local work, meetings and in-town visitors, just 20 minutes from our Maryland offices. But I think it’s that perception – particularly within the wonky, political circle of the District – that somehow, something magical happens to someone or something with a Washington address. A presence, the late John Allen used to call it, and in his PR days it really was important to be a stone’s throw from pundits and lawmakers.

Today that stone transmits more quickly, more frequently, and more effectively across DSL lines and cell towers then physically across rivers. And the fact is, amazing though it may seem, that I see my Washington-area colleagues more when I leave for a conference or meeting in New York or California or Florida than when I’m actually sitting in my District office.

So what’s really at play in the DC-centric thinking so many of us have embraced for so long? It is precisely that same Inside-the-Beltway thinking that CER fights so hard to eschew in its policy and practice advocacy – that officious, in-the-box mentality that says it is the people in DC who know best.

Influence is a matter of impact, and impact comes from getting things done. As long as there are children without quality education options and as long as hostile state and federal laws need to be changed to help schools be more accountable and rules and regulations serve students and educators, rather than the other way around, The Center for Education Reform will have a job to do inside and outside the Beltway. We’ll do it as efficiently and effectively as possible regardless of location, which just now happens to include Bethesda, MD, in addition to Washington, DC.

We invite you to visit us anytime and let us show you a new side of the nation’s capital.

4825 Bethesda Avenue, Suite 220
Bethesda, MD 20814

910 Seventeenth Street, NW, Suite 1120
Washington, DC 20006