The New Chancellor

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

AT 12:01 THIS morning, D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty took control of the city's troubled schools. His first act is to pick as his chancellor, as the superintendent will now be called, a 37-year-old woman who has never run a school district. Mr. Fenty's unconventional, some might say risky, choice eliminates any doubt about his intent to shake up the troubled system, and to do so strictly on his own terms.

At a news conference this morning, the mayor plans to announce Michelle Rhee, a national expert in urban education, as his choice to replace Clifford B. Janey as head of the D.C. schools. Ms. Rhee is founder, president and chief executive of the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit organization that recruits and trains teachers for hard-to-staff schools and helps school districts to reform their operations. In effect, the mayor is saying that traditional superintendents haven't worked, so let's try something different.

Mr. Fenty is staking on this selection not only his political future but the real-life futures of thousands of D.C. children for whom this is the last hope for school reform. The enormous, and intractable, challenges facing the district as detailed in a current Post series are enough to make anyone want to weep. Despite top-dollar per-pupil spending, students in the city's schools perform worse than students anywhere else in the country. A bureaucracy that serves its interests at the expense of children defies change. And superintendents who arrive with hope and energy depart, one after another, dispirited and defeated.

Will Ms. Rhee also be chewed up and spat out by a dysfunctional system? She has never managed a school system. The D.C. system (55,000 students, 11,500 employees) dwarfs the 120 people in her organization. Through her work she is familiar with District schools and with the Washington area, but she's not from the District and will have to make herself known and accepted. That she is a Korean American woman seeking to head a system serving mostly African American children will disappoint some.

But Mr. Fenty, who sought and secured responsibility for the schools, knows well that Ms. Rhee is likely to be the most important appointment of his mayorship. He listened to people who have worked with her and was impressed by her skill and vision in building the New Teacher Project, by her eloquent advocacy of the equitable assignment of good teachers, and by her courage in taking on groups with vested power. She played a critical role, for example, in the elimination of involuntary teacher transfers in New York City. She is smart and personable and exudes confidence. Her reputation should help her attract to the city the able team she will desperately need. That her two children, ages 8 and 5, will attend D.C. public schools enhances her credibility.

Ms. Rhee's appointment must be confirmed by the D.C. Council, which should take seriously its obligation to vet her candidacy but should do so without delay. In the meantime, both the mayor and the city owe Mr. Janey a round of thanks. The mayor needs a school chief in whom he can feel confident, and it's been obvious for some time that Mr. Janey didn't fit that bill. Nonetheless, Mr. Janey laid important foundations in rebuilding standards and reworking the curriculum.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company