Rhee hints that her job as D.C. schools chief hinges on Fenty's reelection

Speaking with The Washington Post's Nikita Stewart, D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee hints that her tenure as schools chancellor hinges on Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's reelection bid over D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray.
By Bill Turque and Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 1, 2010

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee has all but ruled out staying in her post if Mayor Adrian M. Fenty loses his reelection bid to council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, who she said lacks Fenty's commitment to reforming the city's public school system.

In two interviews Tuesday, with The Washington Post and WAMU (88.5 FM), Rhee placed herself in the middle of the D.C. mayoral race, shedding her reluctance to weigh in on the election. She edged closer than ever to framing the election as a referendum on her leadership, signaling that a vote for Fenty would be a vote for her tenure in the District and that a vote for Gray would place her at risk.

Rhee told The Post that she "could not imagine doing this job without the kind of unequivocal support [Fenty] has given," standing by her despite criticism over school closures, bruising negotiations with the teachers union, layoffs and tough budget decisions. She also indirectly, but unmistakably, said she could not work for Gray, whom she painted as a candidate who lacks Fenty's vision and resolve.

"You can do school reform in lots of ways," Rhee said. "You can have more incremental changes. If that's the way that a city decided to go, I probably would not be the best person for that. There are probably people that are better suited toward that different sort of tack."

Rhee had been circumspect in her public comments about the Sept. 14 Democratic primary. When asked, she has offered her usual effusive praise for Fenty's leadership but has declined to discuss whether she would serve in a Gray administration if invited to stay. Gray has declined to commit to retaining Rhee if he's elected, saying that the future of school improvement in the District should not hinge on one person.

But with Fenty's campaign foundering in the wake of straw-poll defeats and shaky performances at candidate forums, Rhee appears poised to intervene more forcefully. In an interview with WAMU on Wednesday, she said she thinks Gray lacks Fenty's commitment to school reform.

"I think the chairman is certainly interested in education reform," she said. "I think that he is committed to this city and its progress, certainly. But in terms of what I'm talking about with Mayor Fenty and his willingness to make some very difficult decisions . . . no, I haven't seen the same thing from the chairman."

The Gray campaign did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Fenty said he knows that among many voters, his reelection hinges on Rhee. "I have asked people for their vote, and I have heard them say, 'I will support you as long as you promise to keep Michelle Rhee.' I have absolutely heard it that way," he said in an interview with The Post on Tuesday. "I think what people see in Michelle Rhee is the embodiment of all of the types of decisions they have wanted to see in a schools chancellor in a long, long time."

But political professionals say Rhee is an asset and a liability for the mayoral hopefuls. She is as unpopular as Fenty in some sections of the city, especially east of the Anacostia River, where many children languish in low-achieving schools. A Washington Post poll in January showed that 54 percent of parents disapproved of her performance and that her standing with African American residents had slipped. In a Post poll two years earlier, 50 percent of black residents said they supported her. In January, 62 percent disapproved.

Her best use as a Fenty asset would be in predominantly white Northwest sections of the city, where schools are better and residents admire her tough stance against the teachers union. Fenty must roll up large majorities in those neighborhoods to offset his weaknesses elsewhere.

Rhee is a dilemma for Gray as well, as evidenced by his refusal to say what would happen to her if he is elected. To announce that she has no future in a Gray administration would risk eroding his support in predominantly white communities. To say he would keep her would mean losing significant support in strongholds such as wards 7 and 8.

There is also the matter of the Hatch Act, which regulates political activity by D.C. government employees. Rhee is allowed to campaign for Fenty -- making speeches, distributing literature, attending fundraisers -- only on her time off and without the use of her official title. But as Tuesday's interviews show, there is leeway in the law.

Rhee's comments came during a week in which both sides scuffled for advantage on the school reform issue. Fenty did not attend a planned education policy debate Monday with Gray, citing scheduling conflicts. The following afternoon, he appeared with Rhee at a news conference to tout the improvements achieved during his tenure, including higher test scores, renovated school buildings and a new labor contract that will allow the District to pay teachers for their effects on student achievement.

Gray is scheduled to announce his education platform Thursday.

Gray supported the 2007 legislation that handed control of D.C. schools to the mayor and supported Fenty's unorthodox choice of Rhee -- who had never run a school system -- as the city's first chancellor. But he has clashed consistently with Fenty and Rhee, faulting them for a lack of transparency in their dealings with parents and other stakeholders on issues such as school closures and budgeting.

On Monday night, Gray described their approach to public disclosure as "opaque." He expressed frustration with Rhee for her failure to work out the fiscal details of the new teachers contract -- including an unusual financing arrangement with private foundations -- before announcing it publicly. Confusion over funding of the pact placed it at risk for several days in the spring.

But business and political leaders say Gray and Rhee would have much to lose by parting company. Rhee would leave behind the unfinished business of fixing the schools, a job that vaulted her from obscurity to national prominence as a voice for education reform and also made her something of a celebrity. She is scheduled to marry Kevin Johnson, the mayor of Sacramento and a former NBA star, in September. She has said they will have a commuter marriage.

Although there are signs of progress -- a halt in enrollment decline, significant gains on national tests in math and reading in fourth and eighth grades -- Rhee has said that it would take five to eight years to achieve dramatic results. And even some supporters say privately that a resignation driven by an election would risk rendering hollow one of her foundational views: that urban school districts suffer because adults place their interests ahead of those of children. To leave, without at least trying to come to terms with Gray, they said, could be seen as the ultimate adult-interested decision.

Should Gray win and decide to sack Rhee, he risks halting at least some of the momentum Rhee has generated. Gray has said that chronic instability at the top of the school system has hindered past reform attempts. A search for her successor would take months and possibly require the naming of an interim chancellor. It is likely that many of Rhee's top deputies would leave with her.

"We would be in for a year or two pause in the progress that's been made. Could it be restarted? I think it's unclear," said George Vradenburg, a former AOL executive and philanthropist active in supporting reform initiatives.

But others agree with Gray and say that school reform in the District cannot hinge on one person and be sustainable.

"If the mayor doesn't prevail in the primary, what's critical is that we have a smooth transition," said Ted Trabue, president of the D.C. State Board of Education. "What's the company? Apple. Steve Jobs? The stock report rises and falls based on his health in the morning. I wouldn't want that to be our system."

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