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School reforms, Rhee in limbo after D.C. vote

Teachers union backed Gray

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Michelle A. Rhee wasn't on the ballot in Tuesday's primary, but the hard-charging D.C. schools chancellor - and the cause of overhauling one of the nation's most troubled public school systems - took a major hit when the votes were counted.

Ms. Rhee, whose efforts to shake up the city's school system generated national attention, was closely tied to defeated D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. Her drive to overhaul and streamline the school system - in the face of fierce opposition from the powerful teachers union - now has an uncertain future under presumptive mayor-to-be Vincent C. Gray, the current D.C. Council chairman.

Education reformers on the ballot in races in New York City also lost to candidates with financial and logistical support from teachers unions.

"The lesson here is that the unions are going to protect their own, but that doesn't mean you have to knuckle under to them," said Peter Murphy, policy director for the New York State Charter Schools Association, who said a number of candidates seen as favorable to urban education reform in New York City did not win Tuesday.

As he did throughout the campaign, Mr. Gray on Wednesday refused to say whether he would retain Ms. Rhee, who personally campaigned for Mr. Fenty in the primary's final weeks. He told reporters Wednesday that a decision on Ms. Rhee won't be made until "after we sit down," and he wants to hold the meeting "ASAP."

But in his victory speech to jubilant supporters Tuesday evening, Mr. Gray pointedly said he wanted to improve the schools with a chancellor who "works with parents and teachers" - something critics long maintained was not Ms. Rhee's strong suit.

Ms. Rhee, in a statement, praised Mr. Fenty's support for her efforts, including closing neighborhood schools and dismissing hundreds of teachers and administrators. But she warned that the changes were "not irreversible" and "the hard choices are not over."

"The need for political courage remains great, and what is important is continuing the progress weve made here for every child who goes to school in the District, and we cant turn back," she added. Her statement did not address directly her own future in the job.

Two of Mr. Gray's supporters - D.C. Council members Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, and Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat - urged Mr. Gray to retain Ms. Rhee at least for a transition period.

"I would ask the chairman and the chancellor to finish out this school year and add one more year to ensure the stability of the school system and to keep school reform on track," Mr. Wells said.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (ATF), congratulated Mr. Gray on his primary victory and pledged to "help ensure victory" for him in November. She didn't refer to Ms. Rhee, but praised Mr. Gray for his "willingness to listen and engage" and get everyone "rowing in the same direction."

Ms. Rhee generally has been at odds with the ATF's local, the Washington Teachers' Union, since she became chancellor in June 2007. The union spent heavily in support of the Gray campaign.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, pointed to the D.C. result as a symbol of deeper problems plaguing the nation's public schools.

Mr. Fenty's loss "is further evidence that despite all their rhetoric about 'the children,' what the teachers unions really care about is getting more money for jobs they can't lose at schools that produce students who are not prepared to compete," said Mr. Pawlenty, who is considering a run for the White House in 2012.

One complication for Mr. Gray is that the District recently qualified for a four-year, $75 million grant from the Obama administration for school funding - a grant largely based on programs and reforms pushed by Ms. Rhee.

The District's school reforms are definitely in the "national spotlight," and school reformers should allow Mr. Gray to decide Ms. Rhee's fate, said Mr. Murphy of the New York charter school group.

"The last thing children should have in Washington is for the clock to be turned back on the significant progress that's been made," he said.

Mr. Murphy said the D.C. and New York results "could be a call to arms" and demonstrate that politics and education reform are "inextricably linked."

School reformers and education analysts said the Washington mayoral vote was not the only outcome that could alter the national debate over reform Tuesday night. In New York, several races turned on a battle between union interests and school reformers.

In Harlem/Upper West Side, Brooklyn and Queens, union-backed state Sens. Bill Perkins, Velmanette Montgomery and Shirley Huntley soundly defeated reform-backed opponents.

But two New York state assemblymen - Jonathan Bing of Upper Manhattan and Sam Hoyt of Buffalo - won their races, even though they had bucked education unions on reform issues.

In Baltimore, political newcomer and teacher Bill Ferguson, an aide to city schools chief executive Andres Alonso, unseated a veteran Democratic incumbent, said Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform.

Historically, "teachers unions have generally run the table on the Democratic side in elections, and the fact that we're able to essentially reach a draw in a lot of places ... I think it shows tremendous progress," said Mr. Williams. "It's no longer just a special interest determining education policy and who gets elected to represent school issues. The issue has been opened up."

Some critics said Mr. Fenty and Ms. Rhee fell short as much on marketing as on substance, failing to build a political consensus for education changes as they charged ahead.

"I think Michelle Rhee unquestionably ended up doing this city a disservice with her habit of spending more time courting a nationwide constituency than on painful block-by-block selling of her message in skeptical communities," Matt Yglesias wrote in his blog at the liberal site ThinkProgress.org.

"The fact that she packaged this posture up as an 'I dont do politics' persona was part of the misguided sales job and not a real reason," he added.

CORRECTION: The original version of this story has been corrected. Due to an editing error, the original story suggested that the New York State Charter Schools Association had formally endorsed certain candidates. The association in nonpartisan and does not endorse individual candidates or participate in political campaigns.

 

  • Deborah Simmons contributed to this report.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

About the Author
Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein covers family and social issues as a national reporter for The Washington Times. She has been a reporter for three decades, working in New York City and Washington, D.C. Since joining The Washington Times in 1985, she has been a features writer, environmental and consumer affairs reporter, and assistant business editor.

Beginning in 1994, Mrs. Wetzstein worked exclusively ...

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