Rhee should take herself out of D.C. mayor's race

By Jay Mathews
Monday, July 5, 2010

I can't blame D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee for getting herself pulled into the D.C. mayor's race. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty wants her support. She wouldn't have her job if it had not been for him.

Although she didn't ask for the assignment, now that she has had some initial success in raising achievement for D.C. children, she apparently feels obliged to help the guy who is more likely to let her follow through.

But suggesting she might leave if D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray beats Fenty, as she has in recent days, is turning her back, at least in part, on those children. Rhee has vowed to focus on the problems of students, not adults. Until now she had been true to her word. That has led many adults whose advice she has ignored and prerogatives she has overridden to wish she would go find some other school district to save.

Saying she would leave if Gray is elected is good news to those people. It is bad for the principals she has appointed, the teachers who share her commitment to raising achievement and the parents who are beginning to see the teamwork, creativity and persistence in regular city public schools that they have found in many charter schools.

In Gray's plan "for ensuring a quality education for all children," released last week, he has not committed himself to keeping Rhee. That is smart politically. He does not want to alienate her supporters or detractors. I like his plan. It is full of good intentions and reminders of how he supported mayoral control of the schools and the hiring of Rhee, although she is to my mind the most unconventional and stress-inducing administrator ever put in charge of an important American school district.

But there is something lacking in Gray's plan that indicates either he doesn't care, or doesn't understand, how important his decision about Rhee will be. He gives no hint of what a disaster for public education it would be to lose this chancellor.

Reasonable people say that's not so. There are other good administrators who could do the job. Nobody is indispensable. In the abstract, that is true.

But the D.C. reality is this: Educators who know what makes schools work -- high expectations, more time for instruction, taking testing seriously, strong principals who foster teamwork -- would realize the minute Rhee is let go that they can no longer depend on powerful support in difficult situations. The school veterans who preferred the status quo and decided to hold tight until Rhee failed would be proved right. It may take another decade or two to regain the momentum for change that Rhee developed in the past three years.

In his plan, Gray says he wants a "strong chancellor" who will make "hard choices with regard to staffing, hiring and firing to get bad teachers out of the classroom and keep good teachers in the classroom." Rhee should take him at his word, step away from the mayor's race and get back to strengthening the many fine principals she has installed.

If Gray wins, she should not falter. He will hear from many people that he should fire her. But his plan suggests he has not made up his mind about that. Rhee should not make it easy for those who want her gone.

She needs to tune out the politics and stay on the job. If Gray fires her, he will take the blame for what happens next, which I think he knows will not be good. Give him a chance to prove he is as smart as his education plan suggests, and let Rhee keep working for our kids.

For more Jay, go to http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

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