Michelle Rhee a Dividing Factor in D.C. Mayoral Contest

By Dakarai I. Aarons — September 01, 2010 2 min read
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With less than two weeks before District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty’s fate is decided by voters, it is clear that for many, another person is a strong factor in voting for or against a second Fenty term: Michelle Rhee.

A new poll released this week by The Washington Post shows that while 41 percent of registered Democrats see her as a reason to vote for Fenty in the Sept. 14 primary, 40 percent say she is a reason to vote against the mayor.

The hand-picked school chancellor has made friends and enemies across the city with her aggressive approach over the last three years to fixing one of the nation’s long-floundering school districts.

Since Rhee took the helm in 2007, the 45,000-student school district has shed dozens of central office employees, closed decrepit and failing schools and seen modest improvement on local and national standardized tests, moves that have won her fans around the nation.

But her personality and fast-moving approach have earned her the enmity of many teachers and longtime civic leaders.

“We’ve always known that the aggressive reforms we have pursued would stir opposition,” Rhee told The Post. “The fact that people are saying that what we’re doing is more of a reason to vote for the mayor than not shows that many people see the progress we’re making.”
This election year has been a rocky one for the Fenty-Rhee team. As early as January, public polls indicated the duo’s popularity was on the decline. A poll released that month by The Post showed even though D.C. residents believed the schools had made progress and that teacher quality had improved, their opinion of Rhee herself had declined.

The relationship between the chancellor and the teaching force became even more strained this winter, after Rhee took several days to explain comments she made to a business magazine that inferred several of the 266 teachers she dismissed last fall had physically and sexually abused students. In the end, just one of those teachers was being investigated for sexual misconduct, and was not in a classroom at the time of the layoffs.

Rhee and Fenty won a clear victory this spring when the district brokered a long-awaited agreement with the teachers’ union on a much-watched teachers’ contract some national observers say could become a model for how teachers are compensated in other cities. Teachers approved the contract by a wide margin in June, and after numerous delays and intra-administration fighting, the contract was cleared for approval by the city council.

The mayor’s political troubles, to be sure, are not all related to Rhee. City residents give him credit for improving education and other parts of the city, but have said he is arrogant and unwilling to listen to divergent views. That has given his challenger, Vincent Gray, the city council chairman, a lead in most recent polls. Fenty has taken to going to some key voters to personally apologize to help boost his fortunes.

Whatever the result on Sept. 14, it will likely have implications for D.C. education going forward. We’ll keep you posted.
(6:18 p.m.): Gray and Fenty debated today, and Bill Turque of The Washington Post has a fact-check on their claims up on his blog. ]

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.