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Viva La Rhee-volución

By Elizabeth C. Bloom

There was a significant election on September 14. No, it wasn’t the primary for a senate seat, or even for a governorship. It did, however, have ramifications for Washington, D.C. and for the nation.

I’m talking about the Democratic primary for the office of mayor of the District of Columbia. Council Chairman Vince C. Gray defeated incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty in convincing fashion. This election was significant because it could mean the forced or voluntary departure of the D.C. Public School system’s controversial chancellor, Michelle A. Rhee.

Rhee, a former Teach for America corps member and founder of a non-profit that recruits teachers for public schools, took over the school system after Fenty became mayor in 2007. Fenty had written legislation giving him mayoral control over the schools and asked Rhee to run the system. She became chancellor on the condition that Fenty would give her the political cover necessary to make unpopular reforms in the country’s worst school system.

It was a deal. As soon as she stepped into her office, Rhee immediately closed down 23 under-enrolled schools and fired principals. In July, she fired an unprecedented 241 teachers for poor performance on the District’s new teacher evaluation system. Rhee has been a polarizing figure in D.C., popular nationally for her cutting edge reforms and contentious locally for those Washingtonians who wish she wouldn’t fire their teachers and close their schools.

Now that Fenty has gotten the boot, Rhee may quit, if, as presumed, Mayor Gray doesn’t fire her.

This past summer, I interned in the D.C. Public Schools’ central office. Needless to say, the results from this election disappointed me. It was a sad day for the schoolchildren of Washington, whose tests scores have seen dramatic improvement since 2007. Rhee brought a mission and a sense of urgency to Washington, but she also captivated the nation. She is a superstar among policy wonks and education reformers. Then-Senator Barack H. Obama and Senator John S. McCain discussed her in a presidential debate; she was even on a notorious Time Magazine cover. Without her name at the front of the nationally recognized DCPS brand, can the education reform efforts sustain a national presence?

The end of Rhee’s tenure in the D.C. schools would be a shock to the budding education reform movement. D.C. was a petri dish for many of the efforts that education reformers have long advocated but have been unable to implement in the traditional public school system. The election may end Rhee’s time in Washington, but it shouldn’t stifle the reform movement as a whole. Rhee-formers should recognize that the chancellor is but one woman. She is not the only agent of change. If she does leave D.C., she will not take the wave of reform with her.

What impressed me most about Rhee’s central office were the people. They are intelligent, deliberate, motivated. The sense of purpose DCPS employees take to their work is inspiring. DCPS has been dysfunctional for too long, and every day, central office staff work to stop the bleeding.

Fenty’s loss might suggest that education reform is fundamentally unsustainable, but I don’t think that is the case. Reformers ought to continue forward with as much exigency as ever. If they do, they will be able to continue the revolution that Rhee has boldly pioneered in Washington. The education reform movement needs visionaries like Rhee, but it also requires a coordinated effort by valiant foot soldiers—teachers, central office employees, and administrators—to fix the schools and to fix them fast.

Rhee’s tenure in D.C. is one example of the wave of education reform looming in the United States, but there are other movements not linked to just one individual. The proliferation of charter schools is one example. So is the Department of Education’s Race to the Top funding for state-level school innovation. Now is the time for the reformers at work on these other movements to redouble their efforts on behalf of students. Rhee’s efforts have been a significant step in bringing education to the forefront of the American political consciousness, but her potential departure cannot dissuade others from joining the broad revolution she represents.

Elizabeth C. Bloom ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Currier House.

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