Politics

Washington mayoral race hinges on education — and especially Michelle Rhee

Washington, D.C.’s mayoral race, as it turns out, revolves around one person. And she is not a candidate; she is Michelle Rhee, the district’s school chancellor.

Rhee was appointed to the position in 2007 by incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty, who will be challenged in the Sept. 14 primary by Council Chairman Vincent Gray. When Gray announced his candidacy in March, many thought it a foolish bid, saying he had neither the capital nor the political apparatus to pull off a successful run.

Tides have turned. A recent Washington Post poll showed Gray in the lead among all Democrats, at 49 percent to Fenty’s 36 percent.

But the centerpiece of this election cycle is what will happen to the reforms Rhee put in place for the public school system, should her strongest backer (Fenty) get booted out by the voters. Gray has made his dislike of Rhee’s initiatives known, criticizing her on multiple occasions for her reformist attitude and approach in tackling what used to be the worst public school system in the nation.

While Rhee won’t specifically say she would leave her post if Gray is elected, she did say in a recent interview with Newsweek that in order for her to do her job, she needs the full backing and support of D.C.’s mayor — whoever that may be.

“You need to be in lock step and have the same philosophy and outlook,” said Rhee. “But if procedure and harmony are [Gray’s] priorities, I’m not his girl.”

The story of Rhee’s intervention in the District of Columbia public school system is one for the books. Completely and 100 percent backed by Fenty, Rhee was given full control, and she took advantage of it immediately.

Within months, she fired 30 percent of the school’s bureaucracy, commissioned an outside audit of the school system, closed 25 underperforming schools and replaced half the district’s principals with her own people.

When it came time to negotiate the new contract with the city’s teachers unions in the summer of 2008, Rhee offered them an unprecedented proposal: the chance to earn a six-figure salary (nearly unheard of for public school teachers) in exchange for giving up tenure.

In 2009, when a budget crisis hit the city, Rhee fired 266 teachers who were, by her standards, underperforming. After that, she revamped the teacher evaluation process, tying it to student performance. More recently, Rhee fired another 241 “underperforming” teachers in July.

“It is clear Rhee has annoyed a lot of people, but it’s hard to be a change agent,” Russ Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, told The Daily Caller.

“I would say Rhee’s been doing a good job,” Whitehurst said. “She’s undoubtedly challenged the status quo. No rational person could have been happy with the status quo here before.”

The changes were drastic, and the reactions matched them. Not surprisingly, teachers unions fired back the hardest, claiming Rhee cooked the numbers during the teacher evaluation process so she could bolster her public image by coming down heavily on DC teachers.

“I’m not sure what the motives here were,” Washington Teachers’ Union President George Parker said in the Washington Post, “except a big splurge of news to show that this chancellor was the big hero cleaning up the D.C. schools.”