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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Aftershocks from DC’s Mayoral Election

By Rick Hess — September 17, 2010 2 min read
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It’s Friday and it’s been a long week, so I’ll cut to the chase. Four things worth noting about the aftermath of Mayor Adrian Fenty’s defeat in D.C. on Tuesday.

First, the poaching is already on for the phenomenal staff that Michelle Rhee recruited to D.C. Assuming that Rhee is leaving, sharp-eyed talent hawks across the land are already contacting her team members. Unless they turn downs the outstretched hands en masse, this doesn’t bode well for a transition. This means that it would behoove mayor-in-waiting Vincent Gray to move quickly on the leadership question, and to make it clear that he truly is committed to continuing Rhee’s transformational efforts--or a new leader will find the DCPS cupboard picked over, and be forced to start from square one. More practically, if you’re running an outfit that’s hungry for talent and want a shot at folks in DCPS, you’d do well to start working the phones sooner rather than later.

Second, the word is that at least a few members of the D.C. City Council are floating a compromise which would have Rhee stay through 2011-12, to ease any transition. I don’t think that’s likely to get much traction. It would render her a lame duck and rob her of much of her effectiveness even as it denies Gray his chance to transition to more “inclusive” reform. Knowing Rhee a little bit and knowing how these things work, I think it’s safe to surmise that either Gray will be convinced by advisors that losing her would be devastating setback for his tenure--or that she’ll go where her talents are welcome.

Third, a fascinating twist to all of this may be that Rhee’s defeat--and the defeat of three like-minded reformers running for the New York legislature--may start to convince a larger number of would-be reformers that no one can really change dysfunctional school systems as they exist. They may figure, “If Rhee couldn’t do it, we need a whole new playbook.” This will ramp up efforts by outfits like ConnCAN to get serious about the political ground game. With any luck, it may also start to wean more than a few would-be reformers from their affection for weak brews like mayoral control and merit pay and towards more muscular efforts to dismantle, rethink, or bypass familiar schools and systems. (These are just the kind of folks I’m addressing in my forthcoming book The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday’s Ideas, which is due out in November).

Finally, like the warrior she is, Michelle seems intent on going out on her shield. No stutter-stepping or pablum. As she said on Wednesday at Washington’s Newseum, “Yesterday’s election results were devastating--devastating. Not for me, I will be fine. Not for Fenty, he will be fine, too. It was devastating for the children of Washington, D.C.” She continued, “The biggest tragedy is the lesson we should take from this is to pull back. We cannot retreat now in anything.... Now is the time to lean forward and be more aggressive and more adamant.” Damn straight. And my hope is that Michelle is right now plotting with funders, allies, and supporters who will put her in a position to lead just such an effort. I can’t think of anyone better suited for it.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.