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D.C. Schools Chancellor Rhee's approval rating in deep slide

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By Bill Turque and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, February 1, 2010

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's job approval rating has dropped precipitously over the past two years, alongside Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's, despite sentiment among District residents that conditions in the city's long-troubled public education system are starting to improve, according to a new Washington Post poll.

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Rhee's performance was viewed favorably by 59 percent of residents in January 2008, with 29 percent disapproving. Now, there is a near-even split: 43 percent approve of what she's doing, and 44 percent are dissatisfied. Those with children in D.C. public schools have nearly reversed their opinion of Rhee. Two years ago, 54 percent of those parents approved of her; now, 54 percent disapprove.

Support for Rhee has eroded most dramatically among African Americans. Two years ago, 50 percent of black residents backed Rhee, while 38 percent disapproved. Now, just 28 percent approve, with 62 percent dissatisfied. The intensity of African Americans' unhappiness with Rhee's leadership has also grown. The percentage who "strongly disapprove" of her performance has doubled over this period, from 22 to 44 percent.

Yet as residents grow less supportive of Fenty's designated change agent for the schools, they still approve of some of the changes. The proportion of parents in the city who see violence or crime in schools as a "big problem" has declined from 78 to 65 percent. Those with children in public schools are more favorable, with 57 percent calling it a big problem. The quality and availability of books and other instructional materials is viewed as less of a major problem by all parents, dropping from 67 percent to 48 percent.

In follow-up interviews, parents aimed some of their frustration with the system at Rhee.

Keisha Warner, 40, who lives in the Michigan Park community of Ward 5, said she was especially concerned about the city's struggling neighborhood high schools. Her daughter attends seventh grade at a Landover parochial school, Warner said, and unless she can enroll her in one of the city's specialty high schools, where admission is by application only, there isn't much of a future for her in the city's public system.

"The expectation is for my daughter to go to college," Warner said. "Unless she goes to Banneker or School Without Walls or even Wilson, I don't know how prepared she'd be," Warner said.

The poll results underscore how closely Fenty and Rhee are linked in public perceptions and how much of the mayor's political future might be staked on the chancellor's success in turning around the school system. Fenty's approval rating has dropped 30 percentage points to 42 percent since 2008. During the same period, the proportion of residents who say he has done a "good" or "excellent" job in improving schools has declined from 52 to 42 percent. The segment of residents evaluating his school performance as "poor" has grown from 18 to 24 percent.

Fenty appointed Rhee in 2007, the same year a new law gave him direct control of the city's public schools. The percentage of respondents crediting the transfer of schools to mayoral control is stalled about where it was two years ago, with more now saying that move has made things worse.

Rhee's efforts to raise the quality of teaching through improved training, evaluation and dismissals might be gaining some traction as well. The percentage of District parents regarding teacher quality as a "big problem" is down from 53 to 43 percent over the past two years. Among parents of students in D.C. public schools, 40 percent still call this area a large problem.

This also reflects the turbulence of Rhee's tenure. Charged by the mayor to transform a school system regarded among the nation's worst, Rhee moved at an urgent pace, closing underenrolled schools, firing principals and teachers deemed ineffective, and funneling more money to schools by shrinking a bloated central office bureaucracy.

Supporters say the results are plainly visible. Building on improvements in academic standards and curriculum put in place by her predecessor, Clifford Janey, Rhee has overseen an upward trend in standardized test scores. Annual declines in enrollment appear to have leveled off.


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