On Wednesday night, the red carpet was rolled out in downtown Washington for the premiere of Waiting for Superman, the buzzworthy documentary about the country’s urban school crisis by the director of An Inconvenient Truth.
It was more than a little ironic, however, that the documentary was opening in town the day after a city primary election put the movie’s heroine, hard-charging reformer and Washington Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, in danger of losing her job. Mayor Adrian Fenty, who gave Rhee free rein three years ago to overhaul the city’s dismal schools, lost the Democratic mayoral primary Tuesday, and with it, his bid for reelection.
What remained unclear in the election’s aftermath was what the result means for the future of the national education-reform movement, which Rhee has come to epitomize. Will other city mayors back away or slow down the kinds of fast-paced reforms (shutting down underused schools; firing underperforming principals, teachers, and staff; and pushing through labor contracts that diminish tenure protections and require more accountability) that disrupt communities and teachers’ unions even as they improve test scores and increase enrollment?
Or would other city leaders simply blame Fenty’s loss primarily on his own political missteps. Polls conducted before the election indicated that most Washington voters thought Fenty was moving the city in the right direction but didn’t like the mayor’s personal style, described by some votes as arrogant and aloof.
And further complicating the picture is the pledge of the primary’s winner, City Council Chairman Vincent Gray, to unify a city split along racial lines. Four of every five black residents cast their votes for Gray, while four of every five whites voted for Fenty, in a city that is projected to become majority-white before the next election. A recent Washington Post poll indicated that 54 percent of black voters said they would not vote for Fenty because of Rhee, while 68 percent of whites said Rhee’s reforms were the reason they were voting for Fenty. Both Fenty and Gray are African-Americans.
Throughout the campaign, Gray insisted that he supported continued school reform, and despite getting considerable support from the teachers’ union, said he planned to meet with Rhee after the election to see if they could find a way to work together. Gray, who prides himself on building consensus and following procedures, often clashed publicly with Rhee, who had been allowed by Fenty to make whatever changes she thought would improve the school district quickly.
Adding momentum to that pledge, two City Council members who backed Gray but whose constituencies overwhelmingly support Rhee, were publicly urging the next mayor to offer the school chancellor an extended transition period through the 2011–12 school year, so she could complete her five-year plan and prevent further disruption to a school system that has had four different chiefs in the last 10 years.
“We’re concerned about the signal (her dismissal) would send about the city’s commitment to dramatic reform,” said Mary Cheh, a City Council member representing one of the city’s most affluent white sections. “While I haven’t spoken to the rest of the council, I suspect that if the chancellor and the mayor-elect can work something out, everyone else would line up immediately.”
Rhee told NEWSWEEK late Wednesday that Gray had called her after the election and left a message that he wants to talk, but that they were going to put off the meeting until she returns from her weeklong honeymoon. Rhee, who married Sacramento mayor and fellow education reformer Kevin Johnson over the Labor Day weekend, postponed her wedding trip until Sept. 15, because of the mayoral primary.
“I’m leaving town for my honeymoon, so we can both take some time to think a little bit, and when I come back, I will talk to him and see where his head is on this and what he’s thinking about,” Rhee said. But she added that it’s important that every new chief executive pick a team that shares his vision.
"I haven’t been shy about the differences in opinion I’ve had with the chairman, but I think he deserves the opportunity to start with a fresh plate and recruit someone for this job that shares his vision and will execute that,” she said. “I think stability is not the thing that people should be obsessing over. I think he’s got to choose the person he thinks is right for the job."
While Gray has said that he agrees with many of the reforms Rhee has made, the chancellor acknowledged that Gray’s emphasis on consensus and her desire for bold and fast-paced change may not be compatible, particularly with so many tough and likely unpopular choices ahead.
Rhee said she was particularly concerned about the next round of the city’s teacher-performance reviews, a national model, which scores effectiveness using a combination of evaluations done by school principals and outside experts, as well as student-achievement growth. Those with the highest scores are eligible for higher salaries, while underperformers are encouraged to get additional training. Teachers identified as “minimally effective” have a year to improve before facing dismissal. About 700 teachers received that rating this summer.
“I think the big test will be what happens next year to those 700 people we identified as being minimally effective,” she said. “The district is on the verge of a huge opportunity to really improve the face of education in this city, based on a plan that has been very well thought out. Those 700 people have had plenty of time and warning, and if we don’t seize on this, it will be a missed opportunity. You have to wonder, is Gray now beholden to the teachers’ union? Will he really fire 700 people if they don’t improve?”
Later Wednesday, during a panel discussion following the Waiting for Superman screening, Rhee argued that no one should conclude that the message of the D.C. election was that education reform needs to slow down until more consensus is built.
"I would say that the biggest tragedy that could come from [Tuesday's] election results is if the lesson people take from this is that we should pull back," she said. “We cannot retreat now. If anything, what the reform community needs to take out of yesterday's election is, now is the time to lean forward and be more aggressive and more adamant."