Now that Mayor Adrian Fenty’s administration is history, the fate of education reform in Washington, D.C.’s public schools system remains to be seen.
Fenty lost his bid for a second term at the city’s helm in the heated Sept. 14 mayoral primary against City Council Chairman Vincent Gray.
While the mayor-elect has already begun acting on plans for delivering programs and services to residents, Gray has been quiet on whether or not he will retain revolutionary schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, although he is expected to meet with her within the next week.
Mark Plotkin, political analyst for WTOP radio in the District, said there’s little chance Gray will keep Rhee around. “I don’t see how he can. I don’t think he wants to, and I don’t think she wants to stay,” Plotkin told the AFRO. “I think she signaled her intentions by her remarks right after the election in which she said the results were devastating for the city and devastating for the children.”
Plotkin said although Rhee later tried to clean up her comments, the damage was already done.
“So I think they’ll be going through some sort of minuet where they both wish each other well, but I think neither one of them wants a relationship,” said Plotkin.
Still, observers such as Nathan Saunders, vice president of the Washington Teachers Union, say Gray would be committing political suicide to abandon successful policies established by Rhee.
“First of all there is a potential for D.C. public schools to become better after Michelle Rhee,” Saunders said. “But obviously, no sane mayor would abandon efforts that are successful.” Saunders alluded to DCPS’s award-winning Web site as an example. “There is a level of efficiency, at least technologically, which allows teachers to do things they could not do before with regard to administration of their affairs online.”
Some of that, he said, is the result of Rhee’s ambitious and aggressive efforts. So, “If Mr. Gray decided to come in and throw out components because she initiated them, that would be a very difficult thing to do because it doesn’t make practical sense,” Saunders said. “He would sabotage himself politically and economically.”
Furthermore, if reforms already put into motion by Rhee are stalled, the city stands to lose out on $75 million in federal funding. That money was gleaned from the U. S. Department of Education “Race to the Top” program for a plan that includes more than 200 pages of reform objectives. Among them are plans to turn around under-performing schools and implement more data-focused assessments.
But Gray – who still faces the general election in November and whose education plan also focuses on improved pre-kindergarten programs and special education reform – has also been a highly outspoken critic of Rhee’s efforts to revamp the long-troubled District of Columbia Public Schools System. For starters, he has vehemently opposed her use of a new evaluation system for gauging teacher performance.
As part of that evaluation, Rhee—who recently married and could soon be moving to the West Coast to join her new husband—has fired several hundred teachers, closed schools, revamped the central office and introduced initiatives aimed at increasing student standardized test scores and providing better learning environments.
The iron-willed chancellor, who was loudly cheered as a “warrior woman” during an appearance this week on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” has also called for all 120 of DCPSS facilities by the fall of 2011 to have an in-school data analyst who would focus on fostering a school-level , data driven culture.
Ward 7 resident and activist Rebecca Stamps said that while she’s been pleased with Rhee’s efforts, if Gray does opt for a replacement, that person would have to be given a fair chance.
“I like what Michelle Rhee has done as far as stepping in and bringing the schools in line –even if she had to fire ineffective teachers, because that’s what she was supposed to do,” Stamps said. “But if Gray decides to bring in another chancellor, all we can do is let that person have a fair chance to prove they can do their job.”
Rhee, who campaigned against Gray, could not be reached immediately for comment. But she has acknowledged her reformation efforts being a key factor in Fenty’s inability to maintain the mayor’s post.