The Washington Post is reporting that D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee will resign at the end of October. The news isn’t a surprise: When Adrian Fenty, who appointed Rhee, lost the Democratic mayoral primary last month, many attributed his loss—at least in part—to his hard-charging chancellor. (The American Federation of Teachers, which has been at odds with Rhee throughout her tenure, sunk $1 million into the race to defeat Fenty.) Just after the election, Rhee called the results “devastating.” She also told Newsweek that she’d meet with with Vincent Gray, the man who defeated Fenty, to discuss her future—but not until after she went on her honeymoon. In short, all signs pointed to the fact that there was no way Rhee was going to keep her job.
As I wrote back in September, losing Rhee is a sad development for D.C. schools. After becoming chancellor three years ago, Rhee pushed the city to take huge strides in education. She closed failing schools, introduced a new teacher evaluation system, and negotiated a groundbreaking contract with the Washington Teachers’ Union that allows the city to pay and fire educators based on their performance. Rhee became a national figure in the education reform movement, gracing the cover of Time magazine in 2008 and later emerging as the star of the controversial documentary Waiting for “Superman,” which opened nationwide just after Fenty’s loss.
Vincent Gray says he wants to promote an ambitious education agenda, but he hasn’t announced whom he will appoint to take Rhee’s place. (Rhee also hasn’t indicated where she’ll go, although she did just marry the mayor of Sacramento, so perhaps that’s a clue.) What’s clear is that he has to answer to the teachers’ union who helped him beat Fenty. While Gray might not force D.C. schools to take a u-turn on the road to Rhee-style reform, he could take his foot off the gas pedal. That isn’t good news for a school system where less than three-fourths of students graduate from high school and the majority struggle to become proficient in math and reading.
But Rhee’s resignation is about more than Rhee, and it’s about more than Washington, D.C. Rhee has been, in many ways, a case study for progressive education reform—and the political risks it can pose. Fenty, as Rhee’s mayoral backer, didn’t run sufficient interference with a skeptical community; and the chancellor, known for her tough candor, didn’t always win friends. Public officials in other urban districts could learn from Fenty and Rhee’s success at improving D.C. schools, as well as from their p.r. failures. But, with Fenty and now Rhee out of work, these officials might also decide the reform path is not for their cities. And that would be a shame.
Perhaps this concern is overblown. There’s been excellent (albeit imperfect or incomplete) educational progress recently in cities like Baltimore and New Haven, which don’t have chancellors or superintendents as outspoken or divisive as Rhee. Maybe in the coming months and years, we’ll see what I’ll call Rhee 2.0—school leaders with the same kinds of ideas and motivations that D.C.’s outgoing chancellor had, but who also have a stronger program for engaging with communities that are wary of change.
In an ideal world, tough stances wouldn’t be so controversial and Rhee wouldn’t be resigning. But it isn’t ideal, so I’ll hope instead hope that Rhee’s departure from D.C. schools signals not a devastating setback for education reform, but simply the beginning of a new chapter.