After Rhee in D.C.

Vincent Gray beat Adrian Fenty in the Democratic primary for mayor of Washington, D.C., which is just like winning the election. Almost certainly, Michelle Rhee is out as schools chancellor.

In his victory speech, Gray said, “School reform will move forward” with a DCPS chancellor who “works with parents and teachers.” Collaboration hasn’t been Rhee’s strong suit.

Don’t expect a new nice-guy chancellor to build on Rhee’s successes, wrote Rick Hess before the election.

If Rhee leaves under duress after a little more than three years and hands off to someone brought in as a conciliator, it’s safe to say that much of the good that she’s accomplished will be unraveled. A Gray victory would embolden the Washington Teachers Union and the neighborhood and bureaucratic interests that chafed under Rhee’s firm grip. (Unless, of course, should Gray choose to forthrightly embrace Rhee).

A new “collaborative” superintendent brought in to foster consensus will have difficulty resisting various claimants—and will quickly be attacked as insufficiently collaborative should she try. The talented central staff, school leaders, and new teachers recruited under Rhee simply haven’t had time to put down deep roots deep enough to upend decades of established culture. Absent district-level accountability and steely leadership, history teaches that these staff would be left to mount a rearguard fight against resistant community and school interests. Many would be poached by other districts or by charter schools, and the new systems put in place at the district level diluted or rendered toothless.

In a post-election column, Hess hopes Gray can be persuaded that losing Rhee would a “huge setback” for the city.

Who should replace Rhee? Jay Mathews looks at possibilities.

I think Gray is a good guy with smart ideas about schools. I like his outspoken support of charters. He has the benefit of the support and advice of Kevin Chavous, a former D.C. Council member who knows more about how to make schools better than 99 percent of the politicians in the country.

Gray now has to pick a new chancellor. Chavous would be great, but I suspect he doesn’t want to submit himself to such a meat-grinder of a job. I like the idea of inviting back Cliff Janey, who had some success as the head of D.C. schools before Fenty replaced him with Rhee. Janey is available because he was just told that his contract in Newark will not be renewed.

Janey is part of what I call the Education Justice League, or the Super Supers, a collection of energetic, innovative school district superheroes who make good changes as superintendents and then, invariably, run afoul of local politics and don’t get their contracts renewed. Between jobs they get cushy research posts at Harvard or Columbia, waiting for another school board to ask them to save their schools.

Rudy Crew, who’s run schools in Miami and New York City, is available.

But doesn’t D.C. need more than a retread?

I wonder what’s next for Rhee, who will be the youngest member of the Education Justice League. One of the oldest members, Ray Cortines, is going to retire as superintendent in Los Angeles. Rhee is supposed to marry Kevin Johnson, the mayor of Sacramento, any day now.

Update: Teachers’ union leaders will use Fenty’s loss to keep Democratic officeholders in line, predicts Andrew Rotherham in Time.  “But perhaps the biggest repercussion of the D.C. election is that it will reinforce the idea that in America’s notoriously change-averse schools, you can just hunker down and wait out the reformers.”

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  1. Our schools are “change averse”? I wish our schools were more change averse. It seems we jump on every bandwagon that passes by. That’s part of the problem.


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