D.C. mayoral primary has Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s future up in the air

The day after Vincent C. Gray defeated Mayor Adrian M. Fenty in 2010, then-Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee said that the election results would be “devastating for the schoolchildren of Washington, D.C.” Not long afterward, Rhee quit.

The day after Gray was defeated at the polls this week, Chancellor Kaya Henderson had a much different response.

“No disaster has happened — not here, at least,” Henderson said in an interview Wednesday shortly after calling her staff together to reassure them that she remains committed to her job and that the election does not change anything — at least not immediately. “We’re still building a world-class education system for children in D.C., and so we’re going to keep doing that.”

But Henderson’s job is secure only for the next nine months. Gray’s defeat injects new uncertainty into the city’s efforts to improve public education, raising questions about how the next mayor will handle all kinds of policy decisions, perhaps none more closely watched than whether Henderson will remain at the helm of the school system.

Gray has been Henderson’s unequivocal champion, crediting her with leading the system forward after Rhee’s tumultuous tenure. But neither of the two D.C. Council members now vying for the mayor’s office — Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), who unseated Gray on Tuesday to win the Democratic nomination, and David A. Catania (I-At Large), who will challenge Bowser in the general election — has said whether Henderson will keep her job.

DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

“I just think that these kinds of personnel choices are made after elections. They’re not made before,” said Catania, chairman of the council’s Education Committee, who has sometimes sparred with Henderson about issues ranging from school budgets to the pace of middle-school improvement. “I’ve been clear that there are a good number of things that I support that the chancellor has done, and there are some things that I have a different point of view on and would hope for a greater sense of urgency in addressing.”

Bowser, during a mayoral debate in late February, said the city has a “great” chancellor but would not say if she fits into a potential Bowser administration. “I think she has good ideas, and she’s moving the ball in the right direction,” Bowser said. “I want the opportunity to make sure that her commitment and vision [match] my own.”

Henderson has led the system since 2010, building a reputation locally as well as nationally for continuing many of Rhee’s policies but with a softer touch. Under her leadership, the school system has made some of the largest testing gains in the nation, but enormous achievement gaps remain.

While critics fault her for not tackling those gaps more aggressively, supporters credit her for doing often-unheralded work to transform the school system, including engineering the shift to teaching more rigorous Common Core State Standards. Her continued leadership, they say, is vital to maintaining the city’s educational momentum.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) has urged the mayoral candidates to reach out to Henderson, as well as Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith, to reassure them if they are going to be kept on.

Henderson said she would like to remain chancellor until at least 2017, when she has promised that the school system will reach five goals for student achievement and satisfaction that she set as benchmarks in 2012.

“If I can meet those goals by 2017, then I will have delivered a very different school district,” she said. “And then,” she said, laughing, “I’ll be headed to a beach somewhere because the city will have beaten my good years out of me.”

She declined to discuss what commitments she would need from a new boss, adding that she will be ready to have that conversation when it is clear who will be the next mayor. But for now, she said, “I’ve got a boss until December, and I just need to keep working for him.”

Henderson said she is eager for the day when the school system’s excellence is so well established that political change does not trigger uncertainty in the education sphere. “I want to get to the point where the day after an election, I don’t have to go talk to my staff about how we’re going to keep the trains running,” she said.

She said she took the chancellorship in 2010 because she saw how Fenty’s defeat and Rhee’s decision to leave threatened the schools’ controversial trajectory.

“We can’t have a system that’s built on one person: a mayor, a chancellor, a principal or whatever,” Henderson said. “If we are building a world-class school system, we’ve got to build a system where we’re all accountable, where we’re all holding the bar high, where if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, things can continue in DCPS.”

Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.

Emma Brown writes about national education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.

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