Vincent Gray beats Adrian Fenty: What does it mean for school reform?

Michelle Rhee, the D.C. schools chancellor, launched aggressive school reforms under Mayor Adrian Fenty. But with Vincent Gray's win Tuesday, she'll probably be ousted.

By , Staff writer

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    District of Columbia Council Chairman and mayoral candidate Vincent Gray (l.) and his daughter (r.) greet supporters at a polling station in Washington on Tuesday.
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With Mayor Adrian Fenty’s loss to D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray in Tuesday’s mayoral primary, all eyes are on what will happen to some of the most aggressive school reforms in the country.

Backers of the reforms in the District of Columbia hail it as a model for changing teacher evaluation and tenure procedures so that measures of performance, including student gains on test scores, hold more weight.

While the election didn’t hinge solely on education, a large part of the mobilization against Fenty was prompted by the hard-edged way in which Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee pursued her strategies – including closing schools and firing teachers and principals. Fenty has given Rhee unwavering support since he appointed her in 2007.

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“There’s not a city that has embarked on more ambitious and thus more controversial reforms,” says Patrick McGuinn, a political science and education professor at Drew University in Madison, NJ. “[A schools chancellor] with a different temperament [than Rhee’s] might be able to sustain the reform by building greater consensus, but that probably slows the timetable down.... That’s the tradeoff.”

Gray, who is likely to win the general election for mayor in the heavily Democratic city, has not ruled out asking Rhee to stay. But their clashes in the past suggest that a new chancellor will be brought in.

Several members of the D.C. Council said on Tuesday that they hope Rhee’s tenure could be extended through the 2011-12 school year to help ease the transition, the Washington Post reports. That’s also the year the council plans to review the law that set up mayoral control of schools in 2007.

Mayors currently control the school system in a dozen cities, including New York, Chicago, and Boston. For those cities and other hoping to move in that direction, “the DC story is that it is important to focus on engaging the stakeholders along the way,” says Kenneth Wong, chair of the education department at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

Defenders of Rhee say that although her no-nonsense style may not have been politically popular, it’s not a good reason to ditch her or slow down reforms. “The crisis in our schools is so gigantic, it’s like a burning building ... and we don’t ask a fireman to run in and say, ‘Please, can I help you?’ ” says Ellen Winn, director of the Education Equality Project, which promotes principles for school reform that Fenty and Rhee have taken up.

But Rhee’s departure wouldn’t necessarily mean a reversal of her policies.

Some of her initiatives, such as dramatic action to improve the worst-performing schools, overlap with requirements tied to the US Department of Education's Race to the Top competition, which recently awarded the city a four-year, $75 million grant.

Reform advocates fear that the new teacher evaluation system could be in jeopardy, however. After a long battle, Rhee reached a collective bargaining agreement with the teachers’ union earlier this year. It includes a sophisticated evaluation system that incorporates student test score gains. And rather than just using seniority in assigning teachers or allowing them to continue teaching, it takes those evaluations into account.

Gray was supported by unions that challenge the new evaluation system. The contract will be up for renewal in 2012.

The majority of parents with children in public schools seem to believe there’s been progress during Rhee and Fenty’s tenure. Sixty-two percent of that group said they supported Fenty, according to a WashingtonCityPaper.com poll.

During Rhee’s tenure, the test-score gap between white and black students has narrowed.

"I imagine that Gray will stay the course ... – pushing for teacher and principal accountability, and [improving] the process of assessing tenure,” says Professor Wong. But Gray will also create more transparency in the system and host more community forums “to make sure [residents] understand the changes and the benefits they’ll get as a result of the reforms."

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