The wait is over. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee finally answered the much discussed question of whether she would retain her post under Mayor-elect Vincent Gray’s administration: She announced her resignation Wednesday during a press conference at the Mayflower Hotel in downtown Washington, D.C.
Flanked by Gray, Mayor Adrian Fenty and her interim successor Deputy Chancellor Kaya Henderson, Rhee – who during her three years at the helm drew attacks from the local and national teachers unions for giving the boot to more than 200 teachers and putting 700 more on notice – was all smiles.
She said the decision to move on was a mutual one made by her and the City Council chairman.
“This was not a decision that we made lightly, but it is one that I believe is absolutely essential to allow Chairman Gray to pursue our shared goal of unifying the city behind the school reform efforts that are making such a large difference in the lives of the children of the District of Columbia,” Rhee said, adding that she and Gray decided the best way to keep current reform going was for her to step aside.
With plans calling for Rhee to vacate her post on Oct. 29, while her management team remains in place, she said she felt confident Henderson could quickly step up to the plate in moving the system – which has become a model for education reform across the country – forward.
However, according to the chancellor her career in the education arena is far from over. She said that after taking some time off which will include travel to Sacramento, Calif., her next public role would certainly involve “serving America’s children.”
While observers express concern over what immediate effect Rhee’s parting will have on the school system, where instituted a hard-charging brand of reform, Washington Teachers Union President George Parker said things will be fine—particularly with Henderson in charge.
Parker, who has had a somewhat contentious relationship with Rhee, also said he wasn’t taken aback by her decision to step down and that ending speculation over her departure was a positive step.
“I think it’s a good thing that she’s ending the suspense,” Parker said. “It’s a good thing that the decision is being made sooner, rather than later because with the decision in limbo, it could have resulted in the school system being in limbo a well, because neither teachers, principals or parents or students actually knew what direction the school system was going to take.”
Henderson, who has worked in the District’s public schools for the past 13 years, is also known for her reformist ways. She was instrumental in the system’s firing of about 100 teachers back in 1998. She has a background with the New Teacher Project, having headed its D.C. operation. Like Rhee, she has also taught with Teach for America.
Henderson described Rhee as her friend and mentor and in brief comments, said she was excited about the progress the schools have achieved under Rhee’s leadership. “I look forward to continuing the progress and continuing to serve the families and students of the District of Columbia,” Henderson said.
According to Parker, Henderson will fit the bill, as the teachers union has always had a good working relationship with her. “She’s definitely talented, fair and has the ability to take over and she has less controversy which will help in moving the system forward,” Parker said. She’s definitely reform-minded and she shoots straight from the hip.” He added, “Henderson is what we need right now because the Rhee-Fenty election piece has divided the community.”
Jeff Smith, executive director of the D.C.-based advocacy organization, DC Voice, said a lot of people had been hopeful that Gray and Rhee would have worked out their differences so that she would remain.
“A lot of us were hopeful that they might be able to work on something would keep in place the current leadership throughout this school year, because I don’t think it benefits anybody to change it now,” Smith said. “But noticing that Rhee and Gray never had a very cordial relationship, we knew her days were numbered as the chancellor.”