Washington mayoral race hinges on education — and especially Michelle Rhee

Amanda Carey Contributor
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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.”

When it comes to D.C. public schools and the mayoral election, there is a lot at stake.

“It’s really remarkable what Rhee has been able to do,” Mike Petrilli, vice president of the education policy think tank, Fordham Institute, told TheDC. “Reform is hard in any city — especially D.C.”

“But the reason Rhee has made so much progress is because she’s had the full backing of Fenty,” said Petrilli. “Having the support of the mayor is indispensable.”

Both Petrilli and Whitehurst pointed out that the underlying problem here is that the office of D.C. school chancellor is tied so heavily to whoever happens to be in office.

“The chronic problem of urban school districts is that they can’t hold on to superintendents,” said Whitehurst. “So it’s very hard for reform to gain traction because of change in power.”

So in many ways, Rhee is up for reelection just as much as Fenty is although her name won’t be on the ballot. Plus, she’s both a liability and a benefit to both candidates. Rhee is what is keeping Fenty at the level he is in the polls, yet she’s also probably partly the reason he’s not any higher.

In Gray’s case, anger over Rhee’s drastic changes is likely to get him elected. Yet immediately removing her from office will have a negative effect on his momentum. Not to mention the fact that finding someone suitable to take her place could take up to a year or longer.

“It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” said Petrilli.

“People threatened by the changes she’s made will send her out of town,” he added. “And the system will go back to not rocking the boat, instead of charging ahead with reforms.”

Since Rhee took over the District’s fledgling school system, moderate improvements have been made. Enrollment has stopped declining and significant improvements have been made in math and reading scores for 4th and 8th graders.

Skeptics may say that does not sound like much, but when urban school districts across the country have been struggling for years, it’s a step in the right direction. In fact, a recent Fordham Institute study found that D.C. is now among the nation’s top reform-friendly cities, along with New York, New Orleans, Denver, Charlotte, Jacksonville, Houston, Austin and Fort Worth.

The worst cities on the list? San Jose, San Diego, Albany, Philadelphia, Gary, and Detroit.

The hope for D.C. residents is that regardless of who is mayor, D.C. does not ever return to the bottom of that list. “I would hope anyone who’s mayor would be committed to strategies that look promising,” said Whiteurst.