Rhee's appearance at D.C. Mayor Fenty's rally shows disregard for law

By Courtland Milloy
Monday, September 6, 2010; B01

"I'm here as a private citizen," D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee said at Saturday's campaign rally for Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. "I consulted with my lawyer, and he told me it was okay to be here as a private citizen."

Why does Rhee play games like that? The Hatch Act tells government employees not to use their positions to influence elections. Maybe that "private citizen" ruse puts her in compliance with the letter of the law, but she sure comes off as showing an arrogant disregard for the spirit of it.

Being too clever by half -- that's at the crux of Rhee's unpopularity among many black voters. A recent Washington Post poll found that 54 percent of blacks said they would not vote for Fenty in the coming Democratic primary because he put her in the job.

"There's something about her I don't like. Can't put my finger on it," said Clarise Whitfield, 68, a resident of predominantly black Ward 7.

That's the way people talk when they suspect you of being a con artist. Turn the school budget into a shell game, fire teachers with the spin of a roulette wheel, say things that don't quite ring true. Take Rhee's explanation for the achievement gap between students in predominantly white Ward 3 and students in wards 7 and 8, also predominantly black, that has widened as she begins her fourth school year as chancellor.

"It's important for people not to directly correlate that to race or income," Rhee wrote in an e-mail to Post education writer Bill Turque last month. "The ward by ward breakdown is where kids attend school, not where they live. Therefore Ward 3 schools doing better doesn't correlate to white and wealthy kids doing better necessarily. . . . The growth in 3 could be driven by the Ward 7 and 8 kids traveling there."

Who is she kidding?

Why not just tell the truth: There are circumstances beyond the classroom that make learning more difficult for poor children. And it's easier to improve schools in a ward where half the parents have advanced degrees and 10 times the wealth of those who live in wards where high school diplomas are the norm and unemployment is running above 20 percent.

Although 34 percent of black voters say their schools have improved under Rhee, many are insulted by how she's gone about it. The renovation of Wilson High in the largely white Ward 3 and Anacostia High in Ward 8 is a case in point.

Wilson High students have been moved to a specially equipped building at the University of the District of Columbia. Anacostia students, on the other hand, must stay put despite community concerns that they could be exposed to construction dust and toxic materials, including asbestos, while being bombarded with noise from trucks, hammers, saws and the like.

Rhee's response: There was not enough space at Wilson to keep its 1,500 students on site, but there is space at Anacostia for its 700 or so students.

But hey, both wards are getting renovated schools. Or, as Fenty put it while campaigning in Ward 3, "If you go to Ward 8, it's almost a mirror image."

Fenty-slick -- maybe that's where Rhee gets it from.

At the campaign rally, Rhee shied away from too much talk about education. But she doesn't have to talk about it. Her presence alone is reminder enough that she has all but threatened to quit if Fenty loses the race.

Among white Democrats, 68 percent said Rhee is a reason to support Fenty.

Yet no one knows how long Rhee will stay even if Fenty wins. She is about to marry the mayor of Sacramento, who has two years remaining on his term and could run again. As much as some D.C. residents want to keep her, residents of the capital of California seem just as eager to have a first lady in the mayor's house.

Rhee insists that hers will be a "commuter marriage." Then again, after saying in December that "I don't comment on my personal life," she has begun sounding giddy as the wedding nears.

"We want our wedding to be something that's personal and fun and romantic and something that we really enjoy instead of something that's driving us crazy," she told The Washington Post recently.

And, of course, what could be more romantic and fun than a coast-to-coast commute?

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