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

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.

Rhee's tin ear was on display most recently in her ill-advised decision to openly campaign for Fenty. Many political observers believe it cost the mayor at least as many votes as it gained, because many voters felt the schools chief should stay out of electoral politics.

Rhee also came close to saying during the campaign that she couldn't work with any mayor other than Fenty. She's been unhappy over some of Gray's criticisms of her, such as for removing a popular principal at Hardy Middle School. Rhee was offended, too, by Gray's suggestion -- admittedly terrible -- that she might not stay in Washington after her planned marriage because she'd want to move to California to live with her husband.

Gray ducked the Rhee issue in the campaign, and I criticized him for it. He only said that if he won, then he'd want to sit down with Rhee very soon after the primary and get a sense of what the "chemistry" is between them.

On the other hand, Gray's also said that he favors continued "aggressive" education reform, and that he'd be willing to fire ineffective teachers.

Speaking to supporters after he was declared the winner, Gray promised that the District would have a chancellor "who works with parents and teachers." That was immediately interpreted as a sign that the schools chief would be somebody other than Rhee, whom Gray has criticized for resisting community involvement.

But Gray left himself some wiggle room. He could keep Rhee on condition that she be more inclusive. He said in the speech that the chancellor should be a "strong, empowered" one, like Rhee, and emphasized: "Make no mistake, school reform will move forward in a Gray administration."

Later Wednesday, both Gray and Rhee said they were looking forward to talking with each other about her future. Gray said he hoped to do that as soon as possible, and that he'd already placed a call to her but didn't reach her. Rhee said she also needed to talk to Fenty and "lots of other people to sort of determine what we think is right for the school district and best for our kids."

Rhee supporters are already calling on Gray to keep her at least through June 2012. Council members Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) went public with such a proposal late Tuesday, and it also has strong support in the business community.

"It behooves [Gray] and the chancellor to bury their personal hatchet and think about the children," said Michael N. Harreld, regional president of PNC Bank and chairman of the education committee of the Federal City Council. "The most important thing that this school system needs is stability. . . . If the chancellor leaves over the next few months, change will not have taken seed and not have been institutionalized, and we will be back into the chaos that we've had for many generations."

Both Gray and Rhee would have to show some courage for her to stay. Gray would have to defend his action to Rhee critics -- notably in the Washington Teachers Union -- who opposed Fenty in large part because of the chancellor. He'd also have to rein in the temptation to micromanage her.

"At the very least, he should ask her to stay for an additional two years and pledge the same level of support as Fenty has given her," said Viki Betancourt, co-chair of the public education working group for Washington Grantmakers.

Rhee would have to agree to be less "polarizing," as Gray has put it. It's not clear that she is sufficiently self-aware, patient and disciplined to do so. But it'd put kids first.

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM).

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