McCartney: Vincent Gray should find a way to keep D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee

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Supporters at Vincent Gray's election-night party were overjoyed that that their candidate took the primary, though there seemed to be just as much emphasis on incumbent Mayor Adrian M. Fenty losing as there was on Gray winning.

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By Robert McCartney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 15, 2010; 3:13 PM

He should find a way to keep her.

Now that he's won Tuesday's Democratic mayoral primary, Vince Gray's first big decision will be how to handle the future of Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.

He ought to try to have her stay. That would infuriate many of his supporters, so he needs to move slowly. It also might be an impossible quest, because it's not at all clear that Rhee is willing to even consider working for Gray. In his victory speech early Wednesday, Gray hinted Rhee might be replaced.

But keeping her would be the right thing to do for the city, its students, education reform, and Gray and Rhee themselves. Here's why:

First, Gray campaigned on a promise to build "One City." The theme was designed partly to signal to African American voters that Gray would take blacks' interests and views into account. Incumbent Adrian Fenty was seen as having come up short that way.

It worked for Gray, and he won the primary largely because of what polls and campaign analysts said was an overwhelming margin among black voters.

But if he's going to pull the city together, then Gray needs to reach out quickly to the Rhee supporters, most of whom are white, who opposed him. The fastest way to do that is to make clear he's open to leaving her as chancellor.

For her part, Rhee must stay if she is to go down in history as one of the greatest urban school chiefs in history. If she leaves now, for whatever reason, she'll be dogged by questions for the rest of her career over whether her work here was spectacular (as her acolytes believe) or overrated (as skeptics assert).

If she remains and sees her work through to success, though, then she'd have the unique satisfaction of having done so while working for two very different bosses.

Rhee also needs to stay to live up to her own, constantly repeated credo that what matters most is putting kids' education first. She uses that to defend her own actions, and to imply that anyone who opposes her somehow puts kids second.

If that's true, though, then surely the most important thing for Rhee to do is to try to stay and finish the work she's begun. She's barely had a chance to implement the historic labor contract reached earlier this year. The tens of millions of dollars of private foundation money have just begun to flow (and could stop if Rhee leaves). Major changes in hiring, evaluations and procurement practices are only in their early stages.

To leave at this point would be to confirm critics' suspicions that Rhee has a tragic flaw -- an inability to compromise even when it's necessary to (are you ready) put kids first. She seems never to have accepted that it's wise to avoid offending important constituencies needlessly.


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