Closing the Book on Michelle Rhee, and Other Capital Tales

The Democratic Primary election has been done and over since mid-September, but somehow, the past week still felt like election mode.

Especially if you were Vincent Gray, the still-Chairman of the City Council who won the primary. Especially if you were District of Columbia School System Chancellor Michelle Rhee. Especially if you were Mayor Adrian Fenty, who lost the primary election.

Gray, faced with what he himself identified as a deeply divided city along class and racial lines, was already in the midst of a series of town hall meetings in all eight wards of the city, when the most suspenseful issue on his plate as presumptive mayor seemed to solve itself almost as if by a magic.

That thumping noise you might have heard during Wednesday night of last week? It was just the other shoe dropping in the great back-and-forth saga of the fate of Rhee in the aftermath of the election. You know the one—will she or won’t she? Will HE or won’t he?

She won’t….be staying. And he didn’t…fire her.

Word leaked Wednesday that Michelle Rhee would be resigning from her job as chancellor. This, apparently after a number of telephone conversations between Rhee and Gray, following a lengthy meeting between the two at which both claimed not to have discussed the issue, but rather exchange views on educational philosophy and policy.

Gray, who had said that the possibility of Rhee staying was still on the table right up until the point that it wasn’t, did not fire Rhee, according to both. And Rhee did not resign abruptly, as Gray would say repeatedly. It was all a mutual decision, as both of them labored to tell the press at a conference called by Gray at the Mayflower Hotel.

“It was a mutual decision arrived at over several phone conversations,” said Gray.

The press conference was notable for its strangely muted and controlled tone, and for the debut of newly named interim chancellor Kaya Henderson, Rhee’s right-hand person at DCPS, and a leading force in school reform.

Gray’s choice of Henderson was a signal to the many voters—most of them in the predominantly white Wards 3 and 2, who had voted strongly for Fenty—that he would continue apace with school reform, which had been energetically, dramatically and often controversially conducted by Rhee. Rhee accomplished a lot, and she did it swiftly. She closed schools, fired support staff and a swath of teachers, one during a controversial RIF and the other after a series of Impact evaluations. She eventually forged a dramatic contract agreement with the teachers union, one that emphasized teacher evaluation, some merit pay and a forceful dilution of tenure. Under Rhee, test scores improved in some areas, school enrollment and graduation rates went up, and the infrastructure
improved. She also became a national figure and something of a poster child for reform, first after a cover story in Time Magazine in which she was pictured wielding a broom, and then, most recently as part of the documentary “Waiting for Superman.”

Amid the praise, there was strong criticism for perceived deteriorating relationships with the district’s poorer wards and black residents—one that mirrored Fenty’s similar problems. Those residents, especially parents, felt left out of the process. Rhee was all but attached at the hip to Fenty, for whom she made campaign appearances as a “private citizen.” She also publicly criticized Gray for not having a strong enough commitment to reform.

The dust has settled. The shoe dropped. And the official announcement came, accompanied by a show of bonhomie and mutual support. In fact, Fenty, Rhee and Gray used the word “mutual” so much that you expected a bell to ring and signal the end of trading for the day.

Rhee contended, as she does with most things, that the decision was “heart-breaking,” and that it came about because continued speculation about her future was not best for the children. “It was best for this reformer to step aside,” she said.

Gray’s choice of Henderson, who is a veteran African American educator and reform proponent, also meant that most of the top echelon of Rhee’s team would stay, giving him further bonafides as a reformer. “We cannot and will not return to the days of incrementalism,” he said.

A local television reporter asked who wanted out. “Was it that you didn’t want him anymore or he didn’t want you anymore,” he asked Rhee. Mutual decision, Rhee said.

A national television reporter asked Fenty if Rhee had been forced out by pressure from the teacher’s union. Guess what? “It was a mutual decision,” Fenty said.

There was a lot of hugging going on here. Rhee hugged Henderson, Rhee and Gray hugged, Fenty and Gray hugged. Rhee and Fenty hugged. No one hugged members of the media.

Oddly enough, the question of Rhee and reform hardly came up the following night at Foundry Methodist Church in Ward 2, one of those wards which had voted overwhelmingly for Fenty in the primary. Maybe it was because Henderson was part of the VIP audience.

While Gray made a lengthy exhortation about his reform commitment, the audience moved on to other things: the presence of a noisy pizza parlor in Georgetown, the makeup and power of the many commissions and boards who often make key policy decisions; raising taxes (or not); the looming budget crisis; statehood. Gray impressed many with a command of the issues, seemingly calling
up statistics, examples and understanding of how this city functions and works, not so much as a politician showing off but as a man who seems to have made a study of the subject of bureaucracy and government at work.

Gray also showed a certain benign kind of opportunism, in the sense that he used every question as a way to not only invite, but urge people to take part in the process of government. Asked about how grants are received by aging programs. “This isn’t just an issue about which organization gets what grants,” he said. “This is about protecting some of our most vulnerable citizens, the elderly and others. You have to want to take part here. You can do that. Work as a volunteer, work with those groups that give seniors an opportunity to come together in groups.”

Per talking about the looming budget crisis ($175 or more million deficit coming right up): “We need your input and cooperation in this. We are all in this together. It’s not the government’s problem, it’s not the city council’s problem or the mayor’s or some agency’s, and it’s ours. Tough decisions are going to be made; I’m not going to sugarcoat this. Cuts will have to be made. Don’t’ say, ‘cut this one or that one, but not the one that we don’t want cut.’ It’s about all of us. We need your input.”

Talking about statehood really jazzed him up. “Yeah, I’m going to be going up to the hill on this and in my capacity as mayor. But on statehood, I don’t want to go up there alone. I don’t just want to have somebody right behind me, another person on the right and the left. I want hundreds, no, thousand of people behind me, and if we get thrown in jail, so be it.” They hooted and hollered and whistled then.

A homeless person asked about the prospect of homes for everyone and then appeared to disapprove of the right to marriage law passed by the district, allowing gay couples to marry. Gray took on both. “Housing for everyone sounds nice,” he said. “Who wouldn’t want it? But it doesn’t work that way. It’s impossible to be truthful. Because it’s not going to solve the problem of homelessness in this city. Everybody will come here and you increase the problem. As for the other, I fought for the legislation on right to marriage legislation. I believe in it with all my heart.”

“I came here and to all the other town hall meetings so that you can get to know me better,” he said. “Lots of people know little about me. I think maybe I wouldn’t vote for me if I knew as little as all that.”

“I want us to work together,” he said. “And that’s a concrete thing. I want people from all the wards to work together, to get to know each other. We are facing tremendous challenges but also a great future. We did that on the council, and I have to say I think we have and had a tremendously talented
council. I have to say, in all honesty, that I’m feeling a little separation anxiety starting to seep in. I’ve developed friendships in this council. We all have.”

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