WASHINGTON (AP) — Mayor Adrian Fenty’s head of public schools fired hundreds of teachers and aided a turnaround of Washington’s failing school system, but his choice of school chancellor also helped bounce him out of office.
Fenty, who four years ago became D.C.’s youngest mayor, lost the city’s Democratic primary Tuesday to an opponent who painted him as arrogant and unwilling to work with people. Residents repeatedly said personality and schools influenced their votes, and the teachers’ union in particular mobilized against Fenty.
Fenty’s challenger and the city’s presumptive next mayor, Vincent Gray, said during his victory speech he wanted to move forward with education reform in a “holistic way with a strong and empowered chancellor who works with — with — parents and teachers.” On Wednesday, he was bombarded with questions about whether he would keep public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee.
He made no promises other than to sit down with her soon.
“We’re not going to be turning back any clocks on school reform,” he said.
Gray, the chairman of the 13-member District of Columbia Council, still faces a general election in November, but he has no Republican challenger and the city is overwhelmingly Democratic. Gray said he would make no personnel decisions until after the general election.
Rhee, a former Teach For America teacher and the founder of a nonprofit that recruits and trains teachers, acknowledged in a statement education’s place in the election. She said both Fenty and Gray had embraced reforms and said important groundwork has been laid for progress.
“The hard choices are not over,” said Rhee, who earlier this year fired teachers based on a system that evaluated in part on students’ standardized test scores.
Parents’ reactions were mixed. Janet Brown, the mother of a kindergartner at Strong John Thomson Elementary School downtown, said she thought Rhee was trying to do good, but she was still concerned.
“I think what she tried to do here is good, but I’m not happy with public schools as a whole,” Brown said.
Terry Cobbs, the father of a fourth-grader, was also lukewarm over Rhee.
“Certainly, there’s been no leaps and bounds in education from what I’ve seen. If I did see some ingenuity, then sure, I’d support keeping her around,” Cobbs said.
Gray, meanwhile, got the backing of the Washington Teachers Union, which repeatedly clashed with Rhee.
The teachers’ union president George Parker said Gray’s win wasn’t all about education.
“The mayor’s style had a lot to do with it,” Parker said.
Other education leaders were closely watching the race. On Tuesday, before the primary results, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was asked whether Rhee could survive a Fenty loss. He declined to speculate, but told reporters the school system had made “tremendous progress” under Rhee, one of the reasons it recently won $75 million in federal Race to the Top education funding.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, sent out a scathing statement saying Fenty’s loss was disappointing for school reformers, including himself. He bashed the teachers’ union for its campaign against Fenty.
Gray, 67, said that his education plan would include a focus on pre-kindergarten services, parity between public and charter schools and special education reform. He said a hallmark of his administration would be openness and transparency.
Fenty said there was no way to know exactly what led to his loss.
Results from the election showed that Fenty, who is biracial, did particularly poorly in areas of the city that have a majority of black residents and did better in parts of the city that have more white residents. Black voters in particular accused Fenty of being out of touch with their community. Gray, who is black and lives in a heavily black part of the city, repeated his slogan of “One City” on Wednesday. He said he would reach out to Fenty voters and hold a series of town hall meetings with all residents.
Associated Press writers Kathleen Miller, Nafeesa Syeed and Erica Werner contributed to this report.