How D.C. schools might be affected if Rhee decides to move on

Voters in D.C. cast ballots Tuesday in the closely watched Democratic primary race for mayor between Adrian Fenty and Vincent C. Gray.
By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The scenario is familiar in the District and big cities across the country: An ambitious leader is appointed to reform schools. Policies and practices are upended, five-year plans unveiled, a flurry of initiatives launched with high hopes. After two or three years, political pressure from interests and constituencies unhappy with the changes forces the newcomer out.

Enter a successor, with a new agenda.

That is what many supporters of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee fear will happen if Fenty loses to D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray in the Sept. 14 Democratic mayoral primary.

Gray has not committed to retaining the chancellor Fenty named in 2007, and he has criticized Rhee for her hard-edged management style and prickly relations with some community stakeholders. A Washington Post poll taken last month showed that support for Rhee among black residents has fallen sharply over two years, to 27 percent. More than three-fourths of D.C. public school children are African American.

Rhee has hinted broadly that she cannot work for Gray because she doubts his resolve to support the unpopular personnel and budget decisions that have marked her tenure. She has said that if Fenty is reelected, she's prepared to stay for his second term.

If she leaves, her successor would be the school system's fourth head in 10 years -- not counting interim leaders. Rhee's advocates say instability at the top would jeopardize gains in academic achievement, enrollment and teacher quality that have not had a chance to take root. Some urban school experts agree.

"It's really tough to make a dent in one to three years," said Harvard education professor Thomas Payzant, who had uncommon decade-long stints as superintendent in San Diego and Boston. The average tenure for a big-city schools leader is about 3 1/2 years. It's a measure of the District's revolving-door history that if Rhee leaves early next year, she would still be the longest-serving schools leader in the past 20 years.

By contrast, Superintendent Jerry D. Weast plans to step down next year after 12 years at the helm of Montgomery County schools. Loudoun County Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III has led that school system since 1991.

Yet there is reason to believe that if Rhee leaves, the old patterns of churn and change may not play out again in the same way. Major shifts in education policy, wrought by measures such as the 2002 No Child Left Behind law and President Obama's Race to the Top grant competition, have created expectations and commitments that will be difficult for any new administration to compromise or reverse.

Rhee, who is beginning a school year that might finish without her, said she is not focused on what would happen if she leaves. "Honestly, I don't think about it," she said. "That's not the way my brain works. I don't spend a ton of time thinking about the what-ifs. I'm a much better thinker when it's, 'Here's the situation, now what?' "

One vision of life after Rhee in D.C. schools holds that a switch in leadership would imperil progress. Gray has said he wants a chancellor who will continue to improve schools while closing rifts between the District and its teachers. But Rhee supporters question how much tension or pushback he would tolerate to continue the reform movement.

These supporters also say her departure would undermine a nascent but discernible growth in parent confidence in the school system, especially among young families. Enrollment has stabilized after decades of decline. Any new chancellor would need at least two full school years to assemble a team and produce real evidence of effectiveness. That would bring the city to the cusp of another mayoral election cycle.

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