Poll: Polarizing D.C. schools chief Rhee helps, hurts Fenty among Democrats

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 1, 2010; B01

Since Mayor Adrian M. Fenty brought her to town in 2007, she has closed schools by the dozens, fired teachers by the hundreds, and revamped the way educators are evaluated and paid. In doing so, D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee has polarized not just the local and national education communities, but also the city's Democratic primary electorate.

A Washington Post poll in August found that Rhee, the public face and voice for Fenty's cornerstone issue, is such a divisive figure that politically she is a virtual wash. Forty-one percent of registered Democrats regard her record as a reason to vote for Fenty over D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray in the Sept. 14 contest. Forty percent say her leadership of the school system is a reason to return the mayor to private life.

Views on her leadership are also sharply divided, with 44 percent of residents approving of her job performance and 38 percent disapproving -- about the same as the findings of a January Post poll. Twenty-eight percent of registered Democrats regard her record as "extremely important" to their vote for mayor; 23 percent say she's "not too important."

"You have her very equally either a positive or a negative force," said Ted Trabue, president of the D.C. State Board of Education.

Rhee said she was pleased that the results show many voters consider her reform effort a reason to back Fenty.

"We've always known that the aggressive reforms we have pursued would stir opposition," she wrote in an e-mail. "The fact that people are saying that what we're doing is more of a reason to vote for the mayor than not shows that many people see the progress we're making."

Rhee's problematic image might be one reason the Fenty campaign has yet to take her up on the offer she said she made this summer to walk city neighborhoods and knock on doors.

The poll depicts the deeply divergent views of progress in the 45,000-student public school system, long regarded as one of the nation's weakest. Rhee also has failed to win over the city's African American Democrats. That is notable for a school system in which black students account for three-fourths of enrollment, and suggests a challenge no matter how long her tenure lasts.

Her standing in the black community has collapsed over the past two years alongside the mayor's. In a January 2008 Post poll, 50 percent of black residents approved of her performance, a figure that has dwindled to 27 percent. Among white Democrats, 68 percent said Rhee is a reason to support Fenty. Fifty-four percent of black Democrats cite her as a reason to vote against the mayor.

Fifty-nine percent of white voters say D.C. public schools have improved over the past four years, compared with 7 percent who say they have worsened. Among African American voters, sentiment is more fragmented. Thirty-four percent say that schools are better, 30 percent that they are worse and 26 percent that there has been no change.

In the African American community, goodwill generated by improved test scores, higher graduation rates and renovated schools has been eroded by other issues under Rhee. Last fall's teacher layoffs, for what she said was a budget crunch (an assertion that has been challenged in court by the Washington Teachers' Union), and the closure and consolidation of more than two dozen underenrolled schools resonate with poll respondents.

Kevin Hall, 28, a Ward 6 resident whose son attends J.O. Wilson Elementary, said classes have been more crowded since the layoffs. "It's taking away from the children's education," he said. "I think Gray will put money back into the schools."

Others said that Rhee's personal style seems cold and disdainful, damaging her ability to be effective. After last fall's layoffs, she left the impression in an interview with a business magazine that an unspecified number of the terminated teachers had sexually abused students. Later, she said that just one of the laid-off instructors had been under a sexual-misconduct investigation.

"There's something about her I don't like. Can't put my finger on it," said Clarise Whitfield, 68, a Ward 7 resident who supports Gray. "She doesn't know how to express herself with people."

White Democrats see Rhee as someone who has taken encouraging steps to turn the system around. But they are concerned that she won't continue the progress that has been made because she has strongly hinted that a Gray victory would prompt her departure. Rhee has raised doubts about Gray's ability to withstand the criticism that comes with making difficult decisions.

"If Fenty doesn't get four more years, I have to move out to the suburbs and commute," said Amy Weiser, 43, who has a child in kindergarten at Key Elementary in Northwest Washington. Gray, she said, strikes her as someone who is "going to hold hearings and hem and haw and nothing's going to get done."

Even among some white Democrats who support Fenty, there are doubts about how Rhee treats people. "I have mixed feelings about Michelle Rhee. I don't necessarily like her style or approach," said Debbie, a Ward 4 poll respondent and Fenty supporter who spoke on the condition of anonymity because her husband is a political consultant. "I think you have to take bold action. But I don't know necessarily that insulting people is the way."

There is not a wealth of polling data on urban school leaders, but what's available shows that they are rarely wildly popular. Support in New York for city schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein -- a mentor of Rhee's who recommended her to Fenty -- has never been higher than 46 percent in the Quinnipiac University poll. The mayor who has employed him since 2002, Michael R. Bloomberg (I), has had approval ratings in the 60s. Last year, when Bloomberg won a third term, Klein's approval rating was 37 percent.

Polling director Jon Cohen and assistant polling analyst Kyle Dropp contributed to this report.

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