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Why D.C.'s Next Mayor Ought to Keep Michelle Rhee (Who Doesn't Love My Husband)

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If Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty loses to his Democratic primary challenger, D.C. Council Chairman Vince Gray, this Tuesday as expected, I hope Gray does something wholly unexpected and finds a way to keep Michelle Rhee on as chancellor of the city's long-struggling public schools.

Not because she has in the last three years miraculously transformed the schools, where only 9 percent of ninth-graders will graduate from college within five years of leaving the system. And not because she's necessarily the superwoman we've been waiting for, as per Davis Guggenheim's admiring documentary "Waiting for Superman," which paints her as such -- and does everything but cue the music from "Jaws" when the teachers unions are mentioned. The big-screen valentine opens on Sept. 24.

No, they need to find a way to work together because we still don't know for sure what school reform efforts under Rhee have yielded -- and if she leaves now, we never will. On her watch, test scores have risen and enrollment has stabilized, but a vast achievement gap between white and minority students persists. Just 29 percent of the elementary school children in the city's poorest area, Ward 8, read at grade level. Don't the city's worst-off kids deserve to know if she's onto something real or not?

michelle rhee(Disclosure, before we go any further: My husband, Washington Post reporter Bill Turque, covers Rhee for the paper, often in ways she finds inconvenient. Anyone who assumes this column reflects his views definitely doesn't know us, and quite possibly has never been married. The only other thing I'll say about his coverage is that she's mistaken to see it as personal. "I don't love him on a personal basis,'' she told one reporter, "and I don't love some of the little things he's done, so for that reason I'm not going to show him all kinds of love.'' In another interview, she answered the Katie Couric question about where she gets her news this way: "I try to pick and choose my stuff in the Post. Lots of times what I've found is that on education coverage, it's often better if I don't read it." Though I can see how she might feel that way, I've never known him to have any heroes or villains among officials he covers; to a sometimes maddening extent, Chancellor, he really does not think like that.)

And whatever one thinks of Fenty or Gray, Rhee or the unions, the one thing everybody says and ought to mean is that the top three priorities here are the kids, the kids and kids. If that were true, Gray would dare to enrage some of some of his strongest supporters by urging her to finish what she started. If that were true, Rhee would take back her overt threat to walk if her boss and patron, Fenty, is not reelected.

Yes, I'm making the same "Don't change horses in midstream'' argument I not only rejected but ridiculed in '04, when Republicans insisted that changing commanders-in-chief in wartime would be very dangerous indeed. (Bush got us into Iraq, and thus ought to be the one to get us out, the thinking went, as if the presidency were some kind of punishment.) Only Rhee did not create the problems in D.C. schools, and does seem to have made some strides. If she were replaced, important time and traction would be lost in the transition.

Post columnist Colbert King, whom I do not know but very much admire -- especially as he often seems to be all that is standing between white readers and absolute ignorance of anything that goes on across the Anacostia River -- argued just the opposite in a recent column, "Time for Rhee to Go." In it, he said Rhee's efforts on behalf of the Fenty campaign had disqualified her from staying on:

"Fenty and his handpicked Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee are the darlings of most white D.C. voters, who believe the school system has started to turn around thanks to teacher firings, spruced-up buildings, central-office shake-ups and new hires. Rhee's poll numbers, however, are in the pits among black residents,'' 54 percent of whom "cite Rhee as a reason to vote against Fenty. Underlying the dislike for Rhee is the suspicion that her education reforms -- blessed by Fenty -- are part of a well-calculated strategy to weed out African Americans from positions in the public school management and classrooms, thus making the schools more acceptable to the city's growing number of well-off white people. And Rhee has only made matters worse'' by ringing doorbells for Fenty in predominantly white Ward 3. "Her polarizing action cannot be undone. Worse still, she has irretrievably compromised her position as chancellor. How can black parents now trust her to be fair? Regardless of Tuesday's outcome at the polls, Michelle Rhee should clean out her desk."

If pleasing black (or other) parents were the primary concern, that might indeed be true. But if their children are our first focus, I'd hate to see her thrown out for being impolitic. In fact, most of Rhee's mistakes have been political: She might have given teachers the impression she wanted to work with them instead of riding in on the famous broom she was holding on the cover of Time magazine. She did herself no favors that time she popped off about the 266 teachers she'd fired in October '09: "I got rid of teachers who had hit children, who had had sex with children, who had missed 78 days of school.'' (Exactly one of them, as it turned out, had been accused of sexually assaulting a student.) And if the black community thinks she's out to get them, maybe it's because she's been painted with her own broad brush.

Yet because I read the comments appended to my husband's blog posts, I can also see that much of the hardest-core criticism of her is flatly racist and obsessively focused not on kids, but on protecting jobs.

One of Rhee's recurring themes is that school systems have all too often been run to accommodate the interests of the adults who work there instead of being run to accommodate the needs of children. If she leaves now, it seems to me, she will be just one more adult in the lives of the students in these disastrous schools who made them promises and didn't stick around to make good on them.

Follow Melinda Henneberger on Twitter.
Filed Under: Education

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I think this is a great article that is well summed up by the last paragraph. The truth is that DC has to keep Rhee. Because it one thing for politicians to make false promises about education reform, and it is another thing to give up on them before they have a chance to reach their full potential. Don't even focus on her being the 4th chancellor in the last decade, 3 years probably beats out any chancellor DC has had in the last 25 years. That is for two reasons every chancellor in DC either gets discouraged or burned on a stake for lack of progress. One thing we all know that Rhee is not going to get discouraged. However if she leaves or is fired, we are back to square one, the same square DC and most of this country for that matter can never seem to get past when it comes to education reform.

September 14 2010 at 12:12 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Please keep Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C. She has worked for excellence and opportunity for all students. Her work shows courage and a willingness to fight for what she knows is the right way to provide an optimal learning environment for students.

September 13 2010 at 7:50 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

the best argument there is for school leaders to be granted contracts which do not coincide with the political terms of their sponsors. If Ms Rhee had been granted a 6 or 8 year contract the new mayor would have to honor it and try to work with the chancellor for the good of the school system and the children it serves.

September 13 2010 at 7:40 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Welcome to the new world. In DC, you have signs in Chinatown saying Rhee is racist and hates black people. There was a guy on Friday handing out flyers near the Gray campain office (I don't think he was affiliated with Gray) saying the ice queen should take her racist, slated eyes back to Korea or Sacramento. A Korean woman who is married to a black man is a racist. The national discussion on race needs to include everybody. Racisim is not longer the only issue for the white man.

September 13 2010 at 3:38 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

It would be an opportunity, should it come, for Mr. Gray to exhbit a profile in courage. Thanks, Melinda, for a thoughtful, challenging piece.

September 13 2010 at 1:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This is an interesting article for a variety of reasons. One of the amazing things happening in DC now is the decision of the voters to eschew a focus on results in favor of a focus on process and personality. Process and results do not necessarily need to be mutually exclusive and Mayor Fenty has done himself no favors by not better engaging the community. But the fact that people are explicitly stating that they take their mayor's interpersonal style so personally that they will vote against the man who they also say has improved the city is mind boggling. Now here is a writer who is endorsing Michelle Rhee while very actively and openly not taking her style personally. This is especially remarkable because compared to the vast majority of DC residents this writer would have a very personal reason (the open conflict between her husband and Michelle Rhee) to take Michelle Rhee's style personally. This sentiment seems to echo comments by Jim Graham, the ward 1 council member, who said he supported Michelle Rhee even though he doesn't like her personally because of the results she has produced. So the question is...where is that line where people are willing to dislike someone personally while supporting them due to results? And is it possible to drive for those results without alienating all the people who prefer the feeling of being included to the positive results that sometimes only come about precisely because they weren't included? I feel like this is the issue facing American Democracy today and there are definitely strong parallels between Fenty and Obama, two men who are accomplishing essentially exactly what they said they were going to do. Apologies for the long post.

September 13 2010 at 1:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Ms. Hennenberger, It is a pleasure to read your stuff. You are smart, articulate and have a sense of humor- hich, of course, all married folk know is essential. Carol Ziegler

September 13 2010 at 12:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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