Michelle Rhee's role in the D.C. mayoral race

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

EVEN AS D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee suggested she might not be able to continue her work if Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) is voted out of office, she insisted the race is not about her. The key, she said, is "the two gentlemen who are running and what their kind of stances are about education reform." She is both right and wrong. Clearly, voters must decide whether, on the all-important issue of education, Mr. Fenty or D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) is the better choice. That decision, though, is inextricably linked to a judgment about Ms. Rhee.

At center stage in the District's debate is Ms. Rhee and her polarizing efforts to fix the city's troubled schools and, in the process, reshape the nation's approach to urban education. She was the mayor's surprise choice three years ago to lead the schools after he persuaded the council to give him control of the public school system. Mr. Fenty saw Ms. Rhee, who had never run a school system, as a change agent who would make the hard decisions that generations of D.C. officials lacked the political will to do.

Ms. Rhee did not disappoint, cleaning up the central office, firing principals who couldn't deliver, closing underutilized schools and insisting there be higher expectations and new accountability. Much-needed competency was brought to a system notorious for an inability to ready classrooms for the opening of school, pay its teachers or order enough textbooks. Meanwhile, a historic effort was underway by facilities manager Allen Y. Lew to renovate dilapidated school buildings. There are still stubborn problems in the schools, but progress is unmistakable: Enrollment has stabilized, graduation rates have increased, special education is being reformed, the growth in student achievement levels is unprecedented and a new teachers contract is being hailed for its pioneering reforms. Key to Ms. Rhee's ability to bring about change was the unflinching support -- in resources and political backing -- from the mayor.

Indeed, Ms. Rhee highlighted this support of her unpopular decisions in drawing a contrast with Mr. Gray and explaining why she might not be able to work for him. Mr. Gray is more cautious and far more sensitive to the sensibilities of those upset by the chancellor's actions. His education plan, unveiled last week, emphasizes community collaboration and buy-in.

Mr. Gray voted for mayoral control of the schools but was one of the last council members to decide to do so. He was upset that the mayor didn't consult the community in selecting Ms. Rhee, but he voted to confirm her and give her authority to fire central staff. Nonetheless, it wasn't long before he became disaffected with what she has described as her "100 miles an hour, the children can't wait" approach. School closings, teacher layoffs, spending decisions, even her reassignment of a middle school principal became subject to Mr. Gray's second-guessing and withering criticisms. He has left open the door to retaining Ms. Rhee if he is elected, but critics say that is motivated more by the politics of his mayoral campaign than any real possibility he would retain someone with whom he has so repeatedly clashed.

Mr. Gray rightly argues that reform doesn't depend upon one person. But the past three years have shown two men with a very different sense of urgency about reform. Voters who believe the D.C. schools have turned an irreversible corner may opt for Mr. Gray's slower, consensus-building style. Those who believe Ms. Rhee has made epic progress in positioning the schools for change but think there is still work to be done, will have reason to give Mr. Fenty their vote.

This is one in a series of editorials on the issues and records of candidates in the Sept. 14 mayoral primary.

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