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?
(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.)
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.
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