Rhee-Style School Reform In Question After DC Mayor's Loss

When Washington, D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty lost his primary in a major upset against city council chairman Vincent Gray on Tuesday night, the immediate question for many was not what would happen to the young black mayor once hailed as a Democratic party rising star. It was: what will happen to his hard-charging school chief Michelle Rhee?

Since Tuesday, Gray has repeatedly ducked the question, saying he will not comment on personnel issues until after the November election. Gray and Rhee have clashed over the years, and the local teachers' union backed Gray, who noted during his campaign that he's interested in working "with parents and teachers," a group of folks that Rhee has been at odds with in her short tenure. Rhee, for her part, has had to tamp down rumors that she's already stepped down, though she acknowledged Wednesday evening that she "absolutely" felt guilty for Fenty's loss. She also has made it clear Wednesday night that she's uninterested in compromising her reform agenda for a new mayor.

The question for the rest of the country is: where aggressive, pro-testing and pro-teacher accountability school reforms are concerned, how much are parents and teachers willing to handle?

Michelle Rhee has served as chancellor of the D.C. public school system since 2007, when she was installed by Mayor Fenty. The turnover rate for her job is high and chancellors in the failing school district have rarely lasted long. But Rhee, a self-styled education reform crusader with a take no prisoners attitude, was determined to stay. Or at least shake things up.

Within her first 18 months on the job, Rhee dismissed 270 teachers, shut down almost two dozen schools and dramatically consolidated the district's administrative offices. She's pushed an agenda demanding that teachers' job security depend on their students' test scores, a model of so-called "accountability" that's slowly being adopted by the rest of the country, in part at the urging of the Obama administration. She's since made it a yearly practice to fire teachers whose student test scores prove unsatisfactory. This summer Rhee fired 241 teachers and put another 737 on probation. And Rhee instituted a teacher evaluation system called IMPACT where student test scores counted for as much as 50 percent of a teacher's job performance. Rhee was also responsible for negotiating a controversial and unprecedented teacher contract that weakened teacher tenure in favor of higher salaries and bonuses upfront. Unsurprisingly, the national American Federation of Teachers union poured in a lot of money to unseat Fenty.

Rhee's one of the most public faces of a controversial model of local education reform called mayoral control, where school chiefs appointed by mayors push aggressive policies and operate with near full autonomy because they don't have to answer to school boards. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan is himself a former school chief who ran Chicago's public schools with the backing of his mayor Richard Daley. He and President Obama have offered high praise for Rhee. Tuesday's election and the fallout from Fenty's loss has allowed the rest of the country to re-evaluate a model of education reform that's got lots of people talking, but perhaps not a whole lot of actual support from voters. Already, school chiefs operating under mayoral control in other cities who've been sheltered from city politics are looking at D.C. with wariness. New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein told Time: "The vote on Fenty will be opportunistically misused by the opponents of real school reform." But it wasn't just Rhee's style, it was also the substance of her demands that got her in trouble.

While it's true that Adrian Fenty, once praised as a suave, smart young politician on the rise, had problems that were much bigger than Rhee alone, she acknowledged that her aggressive nature (if not her policies) showed a level of tone deafness she now regrets. According to a Washington City Paper poll, Fenty polled well with white D.C. voters who have kids in the DCPS, and who are newer residents in the rapidly gentrifying city. But he lost support with longtime black residents, who were generally not opposed to school reform, but hated Rhee's yearly mass firings.

With Fenty out of the picture, it's not just Rhee's job that's on the line--though two of her allies on the D.C. city council are lobbying for her to stick around till the end of the 2010-2011 school year. The question for the rest of the country remains how much support education reform initiatives have at the local level. At the end of the day, who outside the Obama administration and hard-driving reformers wants the brand of change that they're pushing?

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