Could D.C. Soon Be Without Michelle Rhee?

Posted by Nikhil Swaminathan

nullThe last time I visited the nation's capital was in May. At that time, the idea of current Mayor Adrian Fenty not winning reelection seemed laughable. Fast-forward one summer, and that event is looking more and more like reality. A recent Washington Post poll has Fenty behind by 10 points to challenger and current City Council Chairman Vincent Gray in the Democratic Mayoral Primary—which in, heavily Democratic Washington, is the mayoral election.

One major consequence of a Fenty loss is the likely dismissal or resignation of current D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who is easily one of the most recognizable names in the fight for education reform, along with Geoffrey Canada, Arne Duncan, and Joel Klein. Fenty essentially staked his entire tenure on Rhee, who moved with brusque alacrity to change everything from school lunches to the system's use of test score data. Her crown jewel was renegotiating the District's contract with its teachers to add in a lot more accountability and strike at the heart of teacher tenure. 

Unfortunately, both Rhee and Fenty are apparently going down because their brand of service was often performed without a smile. Rhee is routinely described as brash and combative in her dealings with other education officials and she failed to build a strong consensus around her reforms. Combined with Fenty's snobbish detachedness, especially felt by the city's large black population, those traits could be the duo's undoing.

What would be lost along with a Fenty defeat? Perhaps the most ambitious attempt to reform a school district outside of post-Katrina New Orleans. 

As argued in a new article in The Washington Post, Rhee was divisive, for sure, but she also introduced "a flurry of initiatives launched with high hopes"—many of which, with a changing of the guard, could go unrealized. She's helped turn the country's collective eye for the need for education reform, as nearly all coverage of the topic in a newspaper, magazine, network or cable news, or even in documentary form cannot help but feature her prominently. Her exit, after just three and a half years, would, ironically, be emblematic of an old crutch that's been tripping up school reform for years: lack of consistency in leadership.

In calling for D.C. voters to take stock of how education hangs in the balance in the current mayoral race, The New Republic's editors noted that Rhee and Fenty's reforms were made possible by a wave of teacher accountability backed fully by the Obama administration that for the first time in a while put powerful teachers unions on their heels. With her out of office, the unions might muster more of a fight:

A Fenty defeat, which would really be a Rhee defeat, would deal an especially noxious blow to the national fate of education reform. That’s because we’ve arrived at a curious moment. Thanks to Barack Obama, the Democratic policy establishment and a handful of high-profile politicians have turned against what Steven Brill calls “the base of the base” of the party, the teachers’ unions. With the Race to the Top program, Obama has inspired a wave of unprecedented legislation in the states intended to hold teachers accountable for their classroom performance. Unions have understood the new political environment. Since they have assumed the inevitability of reform, they have largely acceded to the change and resigned themselves to merely shaping it at the margins.

She's the stern, at times boorish, data-driven, results-oriented maven who was the face of education reform, for better or for worse. I, along with many others, would like to know if what she had in mind would have worked. If Fenty can't figure out a way to fix his image in the next week, we may never find out.

Photo via Time.