Two days before the resignation
on Wednesday of D.C. public schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, President Obama took a little-noticed meeting with the young students
featured in the hugely hyped documentary "Waiting for Superman
For the reform-minded president, it was, perhaps, tacit approval of the film's message: the documentary lays much of the blame for the country's failing and underperforming schools squarely on teachers, and calls for an overhaul of how educators are paid and evaluated. Teacher pay and evaluation -- as well as turning around low-performing schools -- are, in fact, core tenets of the administration's Race to the Top
In Rhee, President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had a near perfect partner right in their own backyard. Appointed by D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty in 2007, Rhee came in to clean up the District's deeply troubled school system and did so aggressively
, firing more than 500 teachers. She also closed 23 schools, fired 63 principals and assistant principals, and decreased the central office payroll by 122 employees. A veteran of the Teach for America program, Rhee established the New Teacher Program, and was considered one of the leading lights of the education reform movement.
If Rhee (and Fenty's) take-no-prisoners approach to the District's schools led to higher student test scores, it also generated a considerable amount of controversy and outcry -- especially from the teachers' unions. Rhee often found herself at odds with Randi Weingarten
, president of the American Federation of Teachers. Fenty's oversight of Rhee's bare-knuckles style won him no accolades in low-income areas of the city, where efforts to gut the schools of longtime teachers were deemed drastic and out of touch with community needs.
Related: Five Reasons Michelle Rhee's Departure Does Not Spell Disaster for D.C. Schools
When this year's Democratic primary rolled around, teachers' unions spent an estimated $1 million
to defeat Fenty and hand the nomination (and presumably the mayor's office) to City Councilman Vince Gray. Fenty -- who suffered from anemic and somewhat tone-deaf messaging
-- had endorsed Obama early on in his race for president and made no secret
of his desire for the president to offer his endorsement in turn. In heavily Democratic Washington, Obama's support could have been the lifeline Fenty needed to stay in office. But as Fenty and his team -- including Rhee -- sank in the polls, the White House remained mum. On primary day, Fenty lost, and it was a foregone conclusion that Rhee would follow him.
A few hours after Rhee announced her resignation, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs brushed aside questions about whether the president regretted staying out of Fenty's battle for re-election. "I don't think the president has any regrets about not getting involved in a mayoral race," he told Politics Daily. "The important work of Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan and others has to continue, regardless of the outcome of elections."
Staying out of the mayoral race, says Andrew Rotherham, partner at Bellwether Education, a non-profit seeking to improve educational outcomes for low-income students, was "a pretty deliberate move" on the part of the Obama administration. "There was a calculation that they wouldn't get involved in the race," regardless of whether the future of reformers like Rhee and Fenty was on the table.
Explains Kevin Carey, policy director of Education Sector
, an independent think tank, "If you put your weight behind a race -- and specifically say it's for part of an agenda -- and lose, then you do damage to your national agenda."
And, adds Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education
, "Usually you don't lose an election over just one issue." Wise ascribes Fenty's loss to a host of factors -- and not just Rhee's tough-love tactics. As such, the White House's silence on the race, he asserts, isn't a bellwether for how hard the administration might continue to tackle school reform. "I'm still bullish on reform," he said.
If the White House should be concerned about anything in the wake of Fenty's loss and Rhee's departure, says Wise, it's "not the reform but how it's being communicated." Public dissatisfaction with the steps Rhee took to clean up the D.C schools, Wise explains, "shows the need to get out there and explain what it is you're trying to do and why." He adds, "When there is a lot of misunderstanding or confusion, the best thing you can do is look people in the eye." For a White House that is no stranger to public dissatisfaction
with its reform policies, Fenty's example might be a playbook for What Not To Do in advance of the 2012 presidential elections.
As for Washington -- and the students left waiting for superman -- says Rotherham, "People who thought Vince Gray would fire Michelle [Rhee] and bring in some hack -- Vince Gray didn't get to where he was by being stupid. This stuff plays out in more subtle ways. And look: he may yet surprise us. He may find a way to continue to push for aggressive reform. I'm personally not optimistic, but you can't say that's not a potentially viable outcome."