Updated: Fate of Fenty, Rhee Before Voters Today

By Dakarai I. Aarons — September 14, 2010 3 min read
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Adrian M. Fenty’s bid for for a second term as the District of Columbia’s mayor is now down to the final hours as voters head to the polls today to decide between him and challenger Vincent Gray, who is the city council chairman.

The race has been closely followed nationwide for reasons more than familiar to regular readers: Fenty is the boss of D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, whose ability to inspire both adoration and enmity among voters has played a significant role in this contest.

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

And as our Stephen Sawchuk recently wrote, the outcome of this race could have major implications on teacher policy. Rhee has created a teacher evaluation system and negotiated a teacher contract that are both widely seen as models for other “reform"-minded school districts to adopt.

Fenty received the endorsement last week of Democrats for Education Reform.

“Mayor Fenty pledged to make the tough choices that would benefit students, even if those choices weren’t popular with powerful special interests—and he’s done just that,” said Joe Williams, DFER’s executive director, in a statement. “Now those same special interests are desperate to roll back reforms and have lined up behind Mayor Fenty’s opponent. That support will compromise Mr. Gray’s education agenda to the point that the reforms that took so long to accomplish will start evaporating the moment he takes office.”

One endorsement the mayor did not receive was that of President Barack Obama. Jon Ward of the Daily Caller says the president missed a major opportunity in not giving his vote of confidence to Fenty because of his willingness to stand up for many of the education reform principles the Obama administration favors.

The Fenty campaign, which has trailed Gray in recent weeks, is playing hardball down to the wire, even saying yesterday that D.C. could lose its $75 million in Race to the Top funds if the Fenty-Rhee reform plans are changed.

Fenty himself cited some of the tough changes he and Rhee have made as a reason some voters are angry with him in a recent interview with the DCist, a local publication.

“The thing that has caused us to have an uphill battle more than anything is that we closed 27 schools, or that we fired half the central administration, that we made employees at-will, that we went against the taxicab drivers, we went against the unions and fired employees when they were doing wrong, and on and on it goes. This city isn’t completely used to that yet,” he said.

Gray has been endorsed by the Washington Teachers’ Union, which has sparred with Rhee regularly over the past three years, and is regularly praised in ads paid for by the American Federation of Teachers’ political arm saying he’s the right choice.

“The WTU strongly believes that Vincent Gray’s lifelong dedication to children, the community and most importantly, education make him an excellent candidate for Mayor,” the union wrote in an endorsement posted on its website. “In addition, his passion and commitment to students and teachers in the District has had a positive impact on the community, especially his advocacy in support of early childhood education.”

Gray’s education plans, like Fenty’s, call education D.C.'s No. 1 priority and call for the continuance of mayoral control but he’s refused to say whether he would keep Rhee if he becomes mayor.

What will happen if Fenty were to lose today? Despite the endless prognostication across the blogosphere for the past few months (including what Rhee calls the sexist assumptions she’s going to decamp to California to join fiancee Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson), the reality is no one knows for certain.

Win or lose, change is likely in some form.

[UPDATE 2 p.m.: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave Rhee’s work his own endorsement this afternoon when asked by White House reporters if the chancellor would survive a Fenty loss. Duncan said he wasn’t sure what would happen, but that the progress made was a reason D.C. was a Race to the Top winner last month.

“What I do know is that D.C. has made tremendous progress educationally over the past three years,” the secretary said. " D.C. was a school system that was, frankly, historically a disgrace to the country, and it was amazing to me that the nation’s capital school system was allowed to languish for so long and students were allowed to suffer for so long. And by any measure, by every measure, D.C. has made real and substantive progress.”]

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