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Time for Rhee to go

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By Colbert I. King
Saturday, September 11, 2010

Nine years ago today, three D.C. public school teachers, chaperoning three 11-year-old sixth- grade students, joined two National Geographic Society staff members at Dulles International Airport to board American Airlines Flight 77 bound for Los Angeles International Airport.

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The National Geographic Society was sponsoring the educational trip to the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary near Santa Barbara, Calif.

The group had been in the air less than an hour when, at 9:37 a.m., the Boeing 757 , under the control of al-Qaeda hijackers, was intentionally crashed into the western side of the Pentagon, killing all 64 passengers on board and 125 people in the building.

National Geographic Society President John Fahey Jr. said the trip was "going to make geography and the environment come alive for these committed, talented teachers and their star students in putting them into the field with scientists and researchers."

They never got the chance.

"The D.C. School District," said Fahey in a statement, "has lost six extraordinary people."

Nine years later, the D.C. public school system that produced those three star sixth-graders and their talented teachers has become something else: a proxy in the struggle over race being played out in our nation's capital.

The election year polls show it: Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and his handpicked Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee are the darlings of most white D.C. voters, who believe the school system has started to turn around thanks to teacher firings, spruced-up buildings, central-office shake-ups and new hires.

Rhee's poll numbers, however, are in the pits among black residents. Where 50 percent of African Americans questioned in January 2008 approved of her performance, she now earns only 27 percent. This, in a city in which 75 percent of public school students are black. As The Post reported recently, 54 percent of black Democrats cite Rhee as a reason to vote against Fenty.

Underlying the dislike for Rhee is the suspicion that her education reforms -- blessed by Fenty -- are part of a well-calculated strategy to weed out African Americans from positions in the public school management and classrooms, thus making the schools more acceptable to the city's growing number of well-off white people.

And Rhee has only made matters worse. Last Saturday, she abandoned the role of a politically impartial school administrator. She jumped into the D.C. Democratic primary, campaigning in predominantly white Ward 3 -- considered her base of support -- to bring out that vote for Fenty on Tuesday.

I have expressed admiration for Rhee's courage in tackling the school system's bureaucracy. But her decision to demonstrate her political biases by injecting herself into a partisan contest, especially in such a divisive way, was about the last thing this racially strained city needed. Her polarizing action cannot be undone. Worse still, she has irretrievably compromised her position as chancellor. How can black parents now trust her to be fair? Regardless of Tuesday's outcome at the polls, Michelle Rhee should clean out her desk.

The next mayor faces some daunting challenges. Addressing racial disunity should rank near the top. A school system mired in race is a system unable to prepare all of our children for the world beyond the classroom. It is not a world of sweetness and light, as 11-year-old D.C. Public Schools students Bernard Curtis Brown II, Asia Cottom and Rodney Dickens tragically discovered nine years ago today.

That world is unchanged. We have no time for

division.

kingc@washpost.com


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