- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 12, 2010

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee will step down Wednesday as head of the city’s troubled public school system, ending a 3½-year tenure during which she became a symbol of urban education reform nationally but a deeply polarizing figure in the city she served.

Ms. Rhee reportedly will announce her decision at a morning press conference scheduled at the Mayflower Hotel downtown. Expected at the event are her chief patron, outgoing D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, and her chief political antagonist, City Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray — the man who ousted Mr. Fenty in September’s Democratic primary.

Numerous sources reported that Ms. Rhee will be replaced on an interim basis by Deputy Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, a longtime aide. It was not known what the chancellor’s future plans would be, but there was speculation she could take another urban education post or even a job in the Obama administration, which has strongly backed her efforts to overhaul the District’s schools.

Word of her pending departure was first reported Tuesday evening on The Washington Post’s website.

Ms. Rhee’s decision to leave was widely expected after Mr. Gray’s primary victory. She had campaigned personally for Mr. Fenty and said after the vote that Mr. Gray’s victory was potentially “devastating” for the 45,000 children in the city’s schools.

Mr. Gray has said he recognizes the need to overhaul the city’s schools and improve the performance of teachers and students alike, but also said he favored a more inclusive, less confrontational approach. He has also said the reforms should not rely so heavily on a single, forceful personality such as Ms. Rhee.

The city’s teachers’ unions have been sharply critical of the chancellor over her push to remove ineffective teachers and principals and install new criteria for evaluating and paying teachers. Mr. Fenty had strongly backed her efforts, and Rhee defenders noted that enrollment in the city’s schools had risen in 2009 for the first time in nearly two decades.

She closed some two dozen city schools, let hundreds of teachers go and engaged in a bruising battle with the teachers over a new labor contract — all in her drive to shake up the city’s school system and improve pupil performance.

One measure of the national attention she and Mr. Fenty received came in the just-released new documentary chronicling their battles with the education establishment, a movie titled “Waiting for Superman.”

Appointed to the post by Mr. Fenty in June 2007, Ms. Rhee did not display a deft political touch, and her abrupt reforms left many community leaders and educators angry. Supporters say the tough approach was needed to shake up one of the country’s more troubled urban school systems.

Ms. Rhee expressed some hope after the Democratic primary that she could remain on the job. But a post-primary “summit” with Mr. Gray, widely expected to be elected mayor next month, went poorly, and the body language between the two underscored the wide policy differences between them as well.

Mr. Gray has said he wants to continue Ms. Rhee’s reforms but has also mentioned plans to re-hire at least some of the teachers let go in recent years.

He has ruled out bringing back former D.C. Schools Chancellor Clifford Janey. Possible replacements who have been mentioned include Detroit educator Robert Bobb, a former president of the D.C. School Board, and Rhode Island Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist.

Ms. Rhee’s departure also puts a cloud over a recent $75 million “Race to the Top” grant for the city’s schools given by the Obama administration. The grant was said to be largely awarded on the basis of reforms Ms. Rhee had pioneered in the city.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.