Politics & Policy

Michelle Rhee at Risk

Lessons from the D.C. mayoral election

In an outcome that had come to seem inevitable, though it would have been shocking six months ago, D.C. city-council chairman Vincent Gray beat incumbent mayor Adrian Fenty 56 percent to 42 percent in Tuesday’s Democratic primary. Fenty, who swept to a massive citywide victory in 2006, fared well with white voters but cratered in the black community. He lost the city’s black Democrats, even though the Washington Post reported in August that 67 percent of registered Dems thought the mayor had “brought needed change” to the city.

The contest assumed national significance because of its educational implications. It was Fenty who fought for mayoral control of the D.C. public schools, appointed Michelle Rhee as chancellor in 2007, and then stood rock-solid behind Rhee’s remarkable efforts. Rhee has made it clear that she regarded Fenty as a stalwart champion and was skeptical she could be equally effective without that support. Her stance has been read as a particular dig at Gray, who had persistently equivocated on the contentious particulars of her efforts.

It’s not yet 100 percent certain whether (or when) Rhee will leave. But nonetheless, for several reasons, the election results bode poorly for school reform in the nation’s capital.

First, the Washington Teachers Union threw everything it had, including nightly phone banks and big bucks, behind Gray — which indicates that Gray shares their views, or at least does so considerably more than Fenty did. The WTU charged Fenty and Rhee with inadequate efforts to build trust and forge consensus with teachers and unions. I’ll be blunt. Given Rhee’s determination to move forcefully to improve a district with no functioning personnel system, abysmal achievement, schools in need of closure, a lethargic central administration, and too many overmatched principals and teachers, there was no way to make progress without angering powerful constituencies and bruising feelings.

In any city, the school system is a major employer of the black middle class. Thus, any ambitious attempt to wring out the central administration, evaluate teachers, remove weak principals, or shutter schools feels like an attack on the black community — and no amount of dithering, consensus-seeking, or collaboration can ultimately change that. Rhee held scores of community conversations in 2007–08 as she planned a series of badly needed school closings — and was still slammed for inadequate efforts to secure teacher buy-in. When teachers lashed out at Fenty and Rhee, with the union piling on, D.C.’s reformers found themselves in an uphill struggle against thousands of respected professionals with strong ties in neighborhoods and churches. Would-be reformers may win this struggle for three years or six, but they almost always lose in the end.

Second, many hoped that a Gray victory would be a chance to build on Rhee’s work while soothing its rough edges. That’s a hollow hope. If Rhee leaves under duress after a little more than three years and hands off to a “conciliator,” much of the good that she’s accomplished will be unraveled. Gray’s victory will embolden the WTU and the neighborhood and bureaucratic interests that chafed under Rhee. A superintendent brought in to foster consensus will have difficulty resisting claimants — and will quickly be attacked as insufficiently collaborative should she try.

Third, there’s a caution for fans of mayoral control. Mayoral control can allow a city like D.C. to pursue a coherent, aggressive agenda for improvement. However, this election is an example of its limitations and why it’s a mistake to romanticize this tack. Because Rhee’s efforts are integral to Fenty’s legacy, Gray has particular incentive to visibly alter course.

Looking forward, there are two big lessons for reformers. Transforming dysfunctional systems inevitably entails fierce pushback in the schools and communities — especially in the African-American community. In places like New Orleans and D.C., even black parents who welcome many of the school improvements are concerned about the influx of “outsiders” or question whether reform needs to be so tumultuous. For would-be reformers to succeed in the long run, they can’t merely rely on test scores and graduation rates to win the debate — they need to address such concerns and explain why their harsh medicine is necessary. They need political cover and aggressive efforts to make their case to parents and voters. Even Rhee, perhaps the closest thing to a superhero in schooling today, couldn’t do all this on her own. No one backed her heralded efforts with the requisite muscle or organization, and the consequences are now clear.

Finally, as Einstein supposedly said, the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over, while hoping for different results. For Fenty, one of the most unyielding, most effective school-reform champions we’ve yet seen, to lose decisively after three years of remarkable school transformation illustrates just why reformers need to stop trying to stop playing the same old game and need to start changing the rules.  

– Frederick M. Hess is director of educational-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and is author of The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday’s Ideas, due out in November from Harvard University Press. 

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