Fenty Loss in D.C. Puts Fate of Rhee’s School Overhaul in Limbo

BY John Merrow  September 15, 2010 at 1:10 PM EST

Now that Adrian Fenty has lost his bid for a second term as mayor of the nation’s capital, the education world is buzzing about the fate of Michelle Rhee, his outspoken schools chancellor.

Ms. Rhee has become a national figure, much beloved by many outside the district. At home, however, she is a lightning rod and a polarizing personality. In her three plus years she has closed nearly two dozen schools, fired more than 15 percent of her central office staff, and let more than 100 teachers go for inadequate performance.

While many say that Ms. Rhee has made long overdue changes in a dysfunctional system, others complained that she entered the system fighting and alienated teachers with her confrontational approach.

Indeed, both the local and national teachers unions campaigned to get rid of her and, by extension, some of the changes she has made.

By some reports, the unions spent over $100,000 to defeat Mr. Fenty and, by extension, Ms. Rhee and her policies.

What about Michelle Rhee herself? Would she want to stay on and report to Fenty’s probable successor, City Council Chairman Vincent Gray? (By winning the Democratic primary Tuesday, Gray became assured of winning the general election in this overwhelmingly Democratic city.)

Washington Post Metro Columnist Robert McCartney wrote that if Gray wants to reach out to the residents who voted against him, he should find a way to keep Rhee.

I sat down with Michelle Rhee for the final (12th!) chapter in our NewsHour coverage in late summer. I asked her whether she could work for Vincent Gray, should Mr. Fenty lose.

MICHELLE RHEE: I don’t believe that I can do this job and serve the children well unless I have the backing of the mayor, of my boss, in the way that Fenty has given me, and that I’ve never seen another politician who provides that kind of support.

That nearly closes the door–but not quite.

Then, late in the campaign Ms. Rhee made campaign appearances on Mr. Fenty’s behalf, always identified as a private citizen and not as a public official. Some accused her of violating laws against campaigning, while others noted that she may have cost Mr. Fenty votes, given how unpopular she had become in certain parts of Washington. I asked her about her taking a public stand.

JOHN MERROW: Did you cross a line there? I mean, there are rules about electioneering.

MICHELLE RHEE: I was asked a question, and I was answering the question. Um, and again, I’m not saying to people, “You should vote for this person” or “You should vote for that person.” I think that what I wanted to communicate to people was that there is a very clear choice in this election. You have two men with very different opinions, very different philosophies about how to approach school reform. And so, as it pertains to the schools, not anything else, but as it pertains to the schools, you have a very clear-cut choice, and I happen to be a part of the future in one man’s philosophy, not in the other’s. But I’m not saying to people, ‘Go one way or go the other.’ What I’m saying is, for me personally, I know that I wouldn’t be able to serve the children of this city well unless I had the kind of support that Fenty has given me.

So did she leave the door open? What will Vincent Gray do, given the strong support he got from Michelle Rhee’s strongest detractors? And, if Michelle Rhee leaves, what will happen to the financial commitments made by national foundations?

Given that Arne Duncan’s “Race to the Top” competition recently anointed DC as one of only a dozen winners ($75,000,000!), what complications would ensue if Ms. Rhee were to leave? And, if she stays, will she be able to change her behavior and become more inclusive, less confrontational?

So many questions, but the answers are certain to emerge in the not-too-distant future.

I address some of the possibilities in “Below C Level,” my new book, because even as I was writing that chapter a few months ago, questions about her surviving were being raised.

Those memorable lyrics are running through my head, and perhaps through hers: “Should I stay, or should I go?”

Learn more about special education correspondent John Merrow’s reporting on the Learning Matters website.