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The defeat of Fenty and Rhee in DC – What is the lesson for Philly?

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The defeat of D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and the subsequent resignation of his schools chancellor Michelle Rhee is full of irony.

While Rhee is celebrated on Oprah’s show and in the movie theatres as the poster child for fixing public education, the alleged beneficiaries of her reforms, low-income African Americans, repudiated her sponsor Fenty at the polls. A Washington Post poll taken right before the primary indicated that Fenty trailed his opponent among Black Democrats by a 64 to 19 percent margin while leading among Whites by a better than two-to-one ratio.

The election was widely interpreted as a referendum on the Fenty-Rhee reforms. Most analysts have focused on the leadership style of the mayor and his schools chancellor.

Even those who generally support the content of the Fenty-Rhee agenda dissent when it comes to the process. Writing in The Root, Michael Lomax, CEO of UNCF (the United Negro College Fund), said, “D.C.’s outgoing mayor and his schools chancellor used education reform as something to do to black people instead of with black people. Reform advocates around the country should be taking notes.“

Lack of public engagement and transparency and a contempt for due process for teachers are charges leveled at Rhee by critics. Schools were closed with limited public discussion, and some city council members and the teachers union claimed budget numbers were manipulated to justify firing teachers Rhee regarded as subpar. When asked if she would fight against reinstating the 266 laid-off teachers, Rhee made unsubstantiated charges that unnamed numbers were employing corporal punishment or having sex with children.

Rhee has drawn a rather different lesson from her tenure as D.C. schools chief.

“The right lesson for this reform movement,” Rhee opined after resigning, “is now is the time to lean forward and be more aggressive and more adamant."

Here in Philadelphia an obvious question is what does Rhee’s departure mean for the troubled Ackerman superintendency? Ackerman shares a top-down, autocratic style of leadership with Rhee and shares her overall reform orientation. She is also associated with a mayor who has been criticized for being more responsive to middle-class Whites than poor Blacks.

But Ackerman has been much more effective in winning support for her reforms from parents and community leadership. Unlike the cold and arrogant Rhee, Ackerman knows how to work a room of African American parents and understands the need to shore up her political support. So tea-leaves readers who conclude Rhee’s departure mean Ackerman is not far behind are probably wrong. And, more importantly, the consensus about the content of Rhee’s reforms (and Ackerman) in the media and business and political elites, if not among rank and file educators, remains strong.

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