D.C. education truce, or just hiatus?

It was deja vu all over again in the John A. Wilson Building in many ways Thursday: An hours-long hearing on a D.C. schools chief, with emotional and sometimes angry testimony from residents upset over teacher firings and principal hirings and school closings.

But Michelle A. Rhee did not appear at the witness table, and things were otherwise quite a bit different: There were open seats in the council chamber. The witness list was relatively short. And every D.C. council member was in agreement: To lead the city schools, Kaya Henderson is just fine with us.

What a difference from late in the Rhee regime, when any appearance before city legislators became a forum for rhetoric and recriminations. That Henderson spent the better part of four years as Rhee’s right-hand woman — a co-architect of the policies that closed neighborhood schools, fired unprecedented numbers of teachers and laid the groundwork for other policies that contributed to Rhee’s departure last fall — barely registered with Rhee-loathing politicos, if at all.

Plenty has been said and written about Henderson — her softer touch, her scaled-back ambitions, her political savvy. But just as the chancellor has changed since eight months ago, so has the city and its politics.

For the four years between when then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) first suggested a mayoral takeover of the city schools and the day last in October when Rhee stepped aside after Fenty’s loss, the school reform debate not only dominated city politics, but also became a centerpiece in the national debate over education reform.

Whether over teacher evaluations or financial projections or a single principal’s firing, no matter educational was too picayune to deserve overheated political scrutiny. Now, scandal-battered city politicos seem ready to say goodbye to all that.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), who capitalized in part on Rhee-fueled anger to beat Fenty last year, found in Henderson a politically astute substitute who also has strong reform credentials — strong enough to allay the fears of a philanthropic community that put big hopes and big bucks behind Rhee. He is hoping Henderson can continue to thread that needle.

So far, so good: Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), who 18 months ago was calling for Rhee’s ouster , on Thursday praised Henderson’s “personal skills and community involvement,” telling her in the hearing that it “means a lot to have that balance.”

Henderson’s bedside manner is hard to discount. She sat quietly next to the witness table, fiddling with her BlackBerry while council members bloviated. But as witnesses aired their grievances, she listened intently, meeting eyes with her critics.

But that’s not enough to account for one rather shocking development: Nathan Saunders, firebrand president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, did not openly object to Henderson’s nomination, telling Chairman Kwame R. Brown that he’s neutral on her confirmation. He added that he didn’t want to “rehash” the many, many objections he’s lodged over the years. Rather, Saunders said, he is willing to deal, if Henderson is willing to deal back.

“The mayor’s choice has no sworn enemies in this union,” he testified.

That might not be entirely true. Saunders said in an interview that “There are [WTU] members who wanted to see me pour gasoline on the table and set the city council on fire,” he said. But he is playing the statesman for now, proving that “Nathan Saunders has got a layup, a jump shot, a dunk, and a three-point-shot.”

Saunders, for instance, isn’t convinced that Henderson — “a competent politician,” he calls her — hasn’t just been keeping a low profile, playing nice until she gets confirmed.

Sometime later this summer, this Era of Good Feelings could come to an abrupt halt. Teachers will receive their evaluations and find out whether they’re “highly effective,” “effective,” or “minimally effective.” Some of them — perhaps dozens, perhaps hundreds — will discover that they have been judged minimally effective for the second consecutive year and have been automatically fired.

The new evaluations could lead to the largest firing of city teachers since Rhee dismissed 266 teachers and staff in 2009 because of budget pressures. Don’t expect all the promises of collaboration to remain intact after that.

“The system of excessing and evaluations is always going to have victims,” said Saunders, who pledges to fight for the rehiring of “the 266” laid off in 2009. “As it chews up victims, they’re going to be angry at the mayor and the chancellor.”

And make no mistake, he said: “I still got a lot of fight in me.”

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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