Michelle Rhee’s Unfinished D.C. Schools Legacy

The high-profile head of DC’s schools exits, leaving an uncertain legacy. Will her successor follow through on her reforms—or forfeit millions in federal funds?

As expected, D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee will announce Wednesday that she will step down after three years on the job.

Rhee’s tenure was defined by school closings, teacher dismissals, and incremental student test score gains in one of the poorest-performing and most racially segregated school districts in the nation. A Teach for America veteran who had never before run a school district, Rhee became a national spokesperson for aggressive school reform, unafraid to voice her disdain—often in the media—for teachers unions and for concepts such as cooperation and community buy-in.

“Collaboration and consensus building are quite frankly overrated in my mind,” she has said.

Rhee's departure raises questions about the sustainability of her reforms, many of which have yet to be implemented. Last June, after acrimonious negotiations between the Washington Teachers Union and Rhee’s administration, 80 percent of D.C. teachers voted in favor of a new contract that gave the chancellor’s office unprecedented power in evaluating and firing teachers and instituted a pilot teacher merit pay program financed by private philanthropies. Some of those donors conditioned their support on Rhee remaining in place as chancellor; the status of the funding absent her leadership remains unclear.

Also under Rhee’s watch, D.C. was awarded $75 million in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top education reform grant competition, largely to support Rhee’s experimentation in teacher training, evaluation, and pay. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said he will withhold Race to the Top money from any state that does not faithfully enact the plans contained in its grant application.

The question is “whether the Obama administration has the resolve” to withhold funding from uncooperative politicians, says Charles Barone.

Rhee’s exit has been preordained since her patron, Mayor Adrian Fenty, lost his reelection bid in the District’s decisive September Democratic primary. He was defeated by City Council Chairman Vincent Gray, who promised to continue school reform while working harder to earn community and teacher buy-in. Polls showed the District’s middle and working class black neighborhoods favored Gray, while wealthier, whiter neighborhoods remained loyal to Fenty and supported Rhee’s reform agenda.

With election season underway, many new governors and mayors—like Gray—will be responsible for implementing education reform plans they may not fully support. Gray has been vague about his intentions on teaching reforms. His campaign benefited from about $1 million in American Federation of Teachers advertising and get-out-the-vote support. The national union and its local affialite oppose Rhee’s signature teacher evaluation system, IMPACT, and sued over her July dismissal of 241 teachers, some of whom earned poor performance evaluations.

Rhee’s supporters say Gray should be held accountable for implementing D.C.’s Race to the Top plan, which also promised to meet specific benchmarks in raising high school graduation rates and closing racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps.

The question is “whether the Obama administration has the resolve” to withhold funding from uncooperative politicians, says Charles Barone, director of federal policy at Democrats for Education reform. “The onus is really going to be on Duncan, and this is where I think the jury’s out. It’s a different skill set for the administration…which takes a whole different level of political courage.”

The union, meanwhile, says Rhee's agenda focused too much on standardized test scores and did too little to help struggling teachers improve.

"Everyone acknowledges we did what we ought to have done" in approving the new D.C. teachers' contract, said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten in late August. "But I think it's hopefully one of the last old top-down industrial-model contracts. ... I disagree that it's revolutionary."

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Dana Goldstein is a Spencer Education Journalism Fellow at Columbia University, and a former associate editor at The Daily Beast. Her writing on politics, women's issues, and education has also appeared in The American Prospect, The Nation, The New Republic, BusinessWeek, and Slate. You can follow her work at www.danagoldstein.net.