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Michelle Rhee leaves, and the DCPS 'churn' continues

By Mike DeBonis Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 15, 2010; 1:05 PM

Three years and four months ago, when Mayor Adrian M. Fenty made Michelle Rhee the first chancellor of the D.C. Public Schools, there was one promise that seemed might at last actually be kept.

The constant shuffling at the top of the DCPS food chain - the "churn," it's often called - would finally cease.

Fenty, after all, was only months removed from his all-precincts landslide. His cache of political capital was still loaded, even after pushing a controversial schools takeover through the D.C. Council. And now he had a schools chief pledging to stick around for two full Fenty terms - which would be the longest tenure for a DCPS chief since the late 1980s.

With the announcement of Rhee's imminent departure this week, the churn goes on. Even with top deputy Kaya Henderson left to run the show, at least for now, the city loses another school chief too soon and opens itself up to the possibility of another new philosophy, another new mission statement, another round of hirings and firings.

Why is no secret. "I love the children. I love the families - even when they're yelling and screaming at me 'cause they disagree," Rhee told WAMU-FM on Wednesday. "I have enjoyed every moment of this job." But she clearly never enjoyed the politics.

She appeared at D.C. Council hearings only grudgingly. Grand gestures of inclusiveness did not come naturally, if at all. Instead, parents got comments about how consensus is "overrated"; issues with her particular reform agenda were dismissed as an "adult concern" - as in, it's not good for the children.

But as much as she protested over the past three years that her decisions were made in the best interests of children, not adults, she operated in a world of adults.

Rhee's political maladroitness was not hers alone. A better shepherd might have led Rhee through that adult world more successfully. Fenty did no such shepherding.

He did her no favors by offering her carte blanche support, backing her every move on high principle without tending to the gritty concerns of winning the people's support for her decisions. His disdain for the city's political folkways became her own and contributed to their downfall.

Fenty, after sending off his most controversial appointee Wednesday, backed off his leadership philosophy not an iota: "I believe we were elected to fix the schools as fast as humanly possible," he said. "I wouldn't change anything."

Their political problems at home were compounded by Rhee's high profile nationwide.

Mary Levy, a longtime parent activist and budget expert, has been around for more than her share of superintendents. She's seen schools closed, the central office cleaned out, teachers fired. The difference with Rhee? "Nobody else was a celebrity," she said.

Vincent Reed, Floretta McKenzie, Julius Becton, Arlene Ackerman, Paul Vance, Clifford Janey came and went, said Levy, and "nobody was writing articles in the Atlantic Monthly or the New Republic or anything like this. They weren't such good copy."

There's no doubt that Rhee's brashness, and its attendant celebrity, benefited the school system in obvious ways. The heat and light she generated attracted young, ambitious principals and teachers.

And then there's the money - particularly the $65 million in private foundation grants that made possible a landmark teacher contract, complete with big raises and fat retroactive checks at a time when other city employees went without contracts for years.

But with every magazine cover profile, every appearance in a Hollywood documentary, every trip to the Sun Valley Conference, every Oprah Winfrey guest spot, someone asks: What are you in this for, anyway?

Meanwhile, the unique demands of city politics went untended. Town hall meetings. Prayer breakfasts. In an early example, meetings to discuss the closure of 23 city schools were held simultaneously across the city, thinly spreading DCPS officials to hear residents' concerns.

And when gestures of inclusiveness were made, too often they were undercut with an offhand comment in the national press.

It falls now to Henderson, who by most accounts is more sensitive to the political demands of the job than her friend and former boss. But more significantly, she will have a boss, Vincent C. Gray, with a better ear for the communications that this town, with its well-earned doormat complex, demands from its public officials.

Levy, for one, said she's "very fond" of Henderson, whom she worked with during her years as Teach for America's top D.C. official. "Question is, will she have the Rhee attitude - 'I know what's best for you - shut up and sit down'?" she said. "She never struck me as that type of person. I hope that hasn't changed."

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