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Why the fate of education reform rides on the D.C. mayoral race.

Journalists often annoyingly inflate events in their own backyards, fallaciously treating the local and provincial as mega-trends and national harbingers. Those of us who practice political journalism in Washington, D.C., have been somewhat immune from this tendency. Our city government, with the still-looming figure of a former crackhead mayor and the not-very-distant memory of a federally imposed control board, is way too sui generis for that. But for once, Washington has emerged as an urban vanguard—a home to bold and laudable reform. And, rather predictably, it stands poised to revert to form by royally screwing it up.

When Adrian Fenty became mayor in 2007, he made a self-conscious decision to tether his entire political future to the performance of his schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee. He gave her license to make the most painful reforms—closing schools, firing teachers-and never once wavered in his backing, even when her rhetoric may have unnecessarily alienated voters.

When Rhee took over, Washington schools were crying out for reform. By national standards, spending on education was high—and yet that spending had yielded particularly appalling test results. Only 8 percent of eighth graders were at grade level (or above) for math. Rhee hailed from the world of Teach for America, with a strong sense of how a broken system could be remade by demanding accountability. In an exhilarating flurry, she has imposed competence on Washington’s shambolic schools—creating new mechanisms for measuring teacher performance, rationalizing the ordering of textbooks, taking care of special-needs students long left dangling on wait-lists. Above all, she negotiated a collective-bargaining agreement that weakened the jobs-for-life protection provided by tenure.

Such reforms take time to yield results. But even in her brief term, there have been plenty of statistics that inspire awe. Over the last three years, the percentage of secondary school students passing competency tests has skyrocketed—by 14 points in reading and 17 points in math. Elementary schools have also made leaps, although they disappointingly slid backwards this past year. What’s more, enrollment in the system has stabilized after many years of sustained flight; and graduation rates have increased.

Any revolution will prove deeply unsettling. And Rhee’s spurt of reform takes place against a backdrop of demographic transformation. In the local parlance, Washington has gone from Chocolate City to Vanilla Village. According to demographers, African Americans will likely cease to be a majority in the city by the year 2015. There’s a strong sense in the black majority that it is “being kicked to the curb,” as Washington Post columnist Colbert King has put it—a feeling that the culture and well-being of longtime African American residents are being neglected as politicians trip over themselves to build dog parks and bike lanes and ratify gay marriage. Rhee fits this anomic narrative. There’s a sense that she has vilified teachers—pillars of the old black bourgeoisie—for the sake of making the schools more hospitable to newly arrived white families.

If the polls are to be believed, the man who will likely topple Adrian Fenty in the September 14 Democratic primary is D.C. City Council Chairman Vincent Gray—a tough critic of Michelle Rhee. Although he won’t say that he’ll fire her, Gray has attacked the “tenor and pace” of reform and her self-described “100 miles an hour, the children can’t wait” approach.

A Fenty defeat, which would really be a Rhee defeat, would deal an especially noxious blow to the national fate of education reform. That’s because we’ve arrived at a curious moment. Thanks to Barack Obama, the Democratic policy establishment and a handful of high-profile politicians have turned against what Steven Brill calls “the base of the base” of the party, the teachers’ unions. With the Race to the Top program, Obama has inspired a wave of unprecedented legislation in the states intended to hold teachers accountable for their classroom performance. Unions have understood the new political environment. Since they have assumed the inevitability of reform, they have largely acceded to the change and resigned themselves to merely shaping it at the margins.

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.

This article ran in the September 23, 2010 issue of the magazine.

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*This was corrected from an earlier version, which incorrectly attributed the “100 miles an hour, the children can’t wait” description of Michelle Rhee's approach to Vincent Gray. It was Rhee, not Gray, who used those words. We regret the error.