Vincent Gray and Michelle Rhee's priority: D.C. students

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

PRESUMPTIVE D.C. mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray says he is committed to school reform. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee says she is motivated by what is best for the city's children. The two will seek to mesh those commitments when they meet this week for the first time since Mr. Gray's victory over Mayor Adrian M. Fenty in the District's bitterly fought Democratic primary last week. Attention will be focused on whether Ms. Rhee will stay and, if so, for how long. The more pertinent question might be: What is the best outcome to maintain progress in the D.C. schools?

Mr. Gray steadfastly refused during the campaign to say whether he would seek to retain Ms. Rhee. As chairman of the council, he was highly critical of her, at times even questioning her integrity. Ms. Rhee, for her part, made no bones about her misgivings about Mr. Gray. She campaigned for Mr. Fenty and then called his defeat "devastating" to the system's students, though she clarified her remark, saying that what was devastating was not Mr. Gray's win but any interpretation of the election results that would lead people to believe that school reform would not be pursued aggressively.

That Ms. Rhee spoke so forcefully -- her critics would say thoughtlessly -- within days of the election and with her own future uncertain is indicative of why she has become such a lightning rod, both locally and nationally. We have appreciated the chancellor's refusal to let political niceties deter her from undertaking the kind of changes needed in a system as troubled as that of the D.C. public schools. But it is Mr. Gray's right to have as his chancellor someone who shares his policies and his philosophy of governing.

Mr. Gray and Ms. Rhee need to have a frank conversation, and they alone must decide what happens next. If they decide they can't work together, they should cooperate in ensuring the least disruption to the system at this critical time.

Encouragingly, both the outgoing and incoming administrations seem to recognize the stakes. Mr. Fenty has promised to do all he can to promote a smooth transition; the departure of the state education superintendent had apparently been in the works for a while and was not, as has been perceived, a reaction to Mr. Gray's election. Ms. Rhee has poured her all into school reform and, if she ends up leaving, needs to be careful to leave the system as well positioned as possible to make further gains. We would hope, for example, that she would encourage the talented people she has recruited to stay and continue their work. That might be more doable in light of Mr. Gray's assurance that he wants his chancellor -- whoever he or she is -- to be an agent for further change.

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