The biggest name in the Washington, DC mayoral race is neither incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty nor City Council Chairman Vincent Gray, who will be nearly guaranteed to win the general election if he defeats Fenty in the Democratic primary. It's Michelle Rhee, the school chancellor and close political ally of Fenty, who has strongly hinted she will depart if Fenty is not reelected. A recent poll shows Gray leading Fenty 53 to 36 percent among likely voters. The debate over Rhee and DC education policy, which has raged constantly for two years, is complex and policy-heavy. But a testament to her popularity in Washington came during the third 2008 presidential debate, when Senators John McCain and Barack Obama argued over whose education policy most closely mirrored Rhee's position. Here is a sample of the debate over the role that Rhee and education policy are playing in the DC mayoral election.
'Tough Reforms Bring Tougher Politics' The Washington Post's Andrew Rotherham writes, "Since she arrived in 2007, Rhee has shaken up the school system, doing a lot that might garner disapproval. Politicians and parents are upset about school closures. Hundreds of teachers have lost their jobs since Rhee ushered in layoffs and performance-based firings. The local and national teachers unions are smarting from Rhee's almost complete victory in the last round of contract talks. Charter-school leaders are upset with what they see as indifference from Rhee and Mayor Adrian Fenty. The city's Board of Education feels ignored; the D.C. Council gets its education news as often as not from this newspaper, not the chancellor herself. In other words, Rhee is doing exactly what she was hired to do. And that may prove to be a problem for the man who hired her."
- Fenty Defeat Would Chill Reform Movements The New Republic's staff editorial catalogs Rhee's record of improving schools and applauds Fenty for making hard choices. They warn that a Fenty/Rhee defeat would have a chilling effect on other local and state education reform efforts, which could become seen as too politically costly. "If Fenty loses, however, it would send the signal that reform is hardly inevitable. Mayors and governors will be staring at an object lesson of a colleague who staked everything on challenging the teachers' union--and lost. Of course, Fenty has done a ham-fisted job of navigating the city's changing politics. He may even be guilty of arrogance. But that hardly seems justifiable grounds for imperiling education reform, and not just in the District."
- Ran 'Roughshod' Over Teachers Liberal blogger Adam Bink is unsure. He deplores the "lack of willingness to meet with LGBT activists over a number of important issues including a trend in hate crimes. His schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, running roughshod over teachers and parents (40% of registered Dems find her tenure a reason to vote against Fenty). And so forth. On the other hand, there's something to be said for moving forward without consensus, or having long debate."
- How Rhee Tackled Education Costs A reader emails The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan to explain the high education spending in Washington. "For one thing, DC has traditionally lacked the ability to provide appropriate instruction for many identified special-ed students, so they send them out to private placements, often at costs of $30,000. Second, DC was spending a lot of many on half-vacant buildings. One good thing Rhee did - and I am NOT a Rhee fan - was to close down underutilized buildings and consolidate. Third, DC spends a lot of money on security, more per student than most other districts. Fourth, DC had way too many central office staffers, many of whom got their jobs during the Barry era and who managed to stay there without contributing anything to the education of children. Again, to her credit, Rhee got rid of a lot of the dead weight (though the way she went about it was unnecessarily antagonistic)."
- The Racial and Class Undertones The Washington Post's Colbert King frames the race between the city's bedrock of black unions and churches and the rising number of wealthier whites. "Emotions are riding high over much the same issue that animated many of the black voters who flocked to the polls in 1994: a determination to show who has the power to pick the District's Democratic mayoral nominee. ... [Fenty] is seeking reelection without the support of those who have traditionally played important roles in the city's political life: government workers and their unions, families, friends and churches. He's struggling to regain the support of longtime middle-class and working-class residents who feel they have been relegated to second place by an administration that caters to, and is under the influence of, that old race and class bugaboo: 'others.'"
- Courage to Do the Unpopular and Necessary The Washington Post endorses Fenty. "Four years ago, when we first endorsed Mr. Fenty, we noted that the scale of the problems facing the city required a leader who wouldn't play it safe. Mr. Fenty has not disappointed, displaying the political fortitude to make unpopular but sound decisions, from mandating meters in taxicabs to closing underutilized schools. The courage he showed in fighting for mayoral control of the public schools -- and then standing behind Ms. Rhee unflinchingly -- cannot be overstated. Imagine any other incumbent allowing his schools chief to fire hundreds of underperforming employees just weeks away from an election that will decide his political future."
- Fenty's Done a Good Job Liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias writes, "If you asked me to assess the overall state of DC governance over the past four years I'd say that Fenty and his team--especially the aforementioned Tregoning & Klein, plus Police Chief Cathy Lanier and Chancellor Michelle Rhee--are doing a good job and so is City Council Chairman Vince Gray. The main upshot of the election is that no matter who wins we'll almost certainly get a downgrade in Council Chair quality for the sake of possibly displacing a mayor under whose watch crime has fallen, test scores have risen, and the population has grown."
Met guy the other day who's worked on DC schools for over a decade, near tears at thought Rhee might go.
I can't believe D.C. Democrats are going to boot out Fenty. Possibly the craziest political outcome in a crazy year.
Can anyone give me a solid reason to oust Fenty -- i.e. not to do with "style," doesn't mention the word "slick"?
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.