In D.C. schools, Rhee and Fenty learn that tough reforms bring tougher politics

By Andrew J. Rotherham
Sunday, September 5, 2010

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee has an overall approval rating of 44 percent, according to a recent Washington Post poll.

What's most surprising about that number? That it's so high.

Since she arrived in 2007, Rhee has shaken up the school system, doing a lot that might garner disapproval. Politicians and parents are upset about school closures. Hundreds of teachers have lost their jobs since Rhee ushered in layoffs and performance-based firings. The local and national teachers unions are smarting from Rhee's almost complete victory in the last round of contract talks. Charter-school leaders are upset with what they see as indifference from Rhee and Mayor Adrian Fenty. The city's Board of Education feels ignored; the D.C. Council gets its education news as often as not from this newspaper, not the chancellor herself.

In other words, Rhee is doing exactly what she was hired to do. And that may prove to be a problem for the man who hired her. Fenty is down in the polls and facing a serious challenge from D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray in the Democratic mayoral primary on Sept. 14.

It is easy to forget how much Rhee was up against when she arrived in Washington. Mismanagement was rampant, teachers wanted for textbooks and basic supplies, there was no instruction at all in many classrooms, and an abysmal 9 percent of the city's ninth-graders could expect to earn a college degree within nine years.

Meanwhile, the schools were bleeding students to other education options. In particular, traditional public schools had lost almost a third of their students to public charter schools. It was chaos. Rhee was the seventh superintendent in a decade.

A few years have not changed all that, though test scores and other measures are moving in the right direction. Schools are now accomplishing basic managerial tasks such as ensuring that teachers are actually on the payroll when school starts, as well as implementing meaningful performance evaluations and performance-based pay, among other changes.

Yet all this is coming at a price: disruption, controversy and tension.

"Uprooting entrenched systems and cultures requires taking on vested interests. Michelle [Rhee] had to do this," says Rick Hess, a national expert on urban education. "Michelle could have been less divisive, but that would have required dialing back her efforts and her timetable." According to Hess, "Too many superintendents move so slowly that, at the end of a six- or eight-year tenure, they accomplished only a fraction of what Michelle has thus far done."

Rhee is able to move so quickly because she's accountable only to Fenty, rather than the school board or the city council. This is what's known as mayoral control -- when authority over education is in the hands of a mayor rather than an elected school board. Historically, school boards were established in an effort to take the politics out of education governance; the growth of mayoral control over the past two decades has ironically been born of the same frustration, as well as a desire to streamline accountability and improve the way decisions are made. It is still relatively rare, but more and more mayors in large and midsize cities are seeking power over their schools.

The problem, as we're seeing now in Washington, is that the greatest strength of this system is also its greatest weakness. It decreases the political demands on the leader of the schools -- no board to please or council members to contend with -- but it does not decrease the political challenges of running a school system. It just shifts them elsewhere. The mayor is not absolved of dealing with educational politics. Instead, the mayor must attend to them more than he or she might otherwise have to.

In other cities, this works itself out in various ways. In Chicago, former schools chief and current U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was largely insulated from politics because of Mayor Richard Daley's sway over pretty much all aspects of the city. In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg steps in at times to strike deals with the teachers union. In Boston, the leadership chose to move more slowly, with steady and admirable progress and less breaking of china.

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