Lost amidst much of the chatter over insurgent Tea Party primary victories in Delaware, Alaska, and elsewhere is the story of Michelle Rhee whose education reforms in District of Columbia are at risk after the primary loss of Mayor Adrian Felty to challenger candidate Vincent Gray.
Not only are significant piles of money at stake - “Race to the Top” funding which relies on Rhee’s reforms to go into effect comes to $75 million dollars, and private foundations have kicked in another $64.5 million – but important reforms to the failing school system threaten to pull the rug out from D.C. students who will benefit most from Rhee’s innovative approach to school reform.
Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly clear that D.C. schoolchildren never really got the change they deserved. Bill Turque reports that it is “increasingly likely that the discussion” between Gray and Rhee “will focus on the terms of her disengagement from the D.C. school system rather than how she might stay.”
After the primary election, Rhee was quoted as saying, “Yesterday’s election results were devastating…Not for me, because I’ll be fine, and not even for Fenty, because he’ll be fine, but devastating for the schoolchildren of Washington, D.C.”
The American Federation of Teachers spent roughly $1 million to defeat Adrian Fenty in this years D.C. primary race according to Politico. This is hardly surprising given the tense relationship between Rhee and the unions. Many of the reforms Rhee proposed and fought for were anathema to the traditional education approach backed by most teachers unions across the country.
Rhee’s reforms were dramatic and impressive in scope but also controversial. She fired 240 underperforming teachers, something almost unheard of in the public education business. In a similarly dramatic compromise, D.C. teachers were given drastic pay increase in exchange for relaxed tenure rules. According to the Washington Examiner, first-year teacher salaries would shoot from $42,000 to “$70,000 for the highest-performing rookies, and the best veteran teachers could earn $140,000.”
D.C. schools have consistently ranked among the worst in the nation, trailing far behind most of the rest of the country. Increased spending has done little to reform the system. Indeed, according to Mona Charen, “For the United States as a whole, per-pupil expenditures roughly doubled between 1969 and 1989. In the District, expenditures more than tripled, rising from $4,000 per pupil to $13,000. By 2010, D.C. was spending $16,800 per pupil, which is more than all but two states. Yet the District’s students were consistently among the worst performers on standardized tests, ranking 45th, for example, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 1998.”
Education-reform advocates on the left and the right welcomed Rhee’s reforms, though many also worried over such sweeping changes and especially over the firing of so many District teachers. In the end, it became clear that the problem was not so much the reforms themselves or with the ideas involved, but with the methods Fenty and Rhee used to sell their reforms to the public, which many viewed as arrogant and out of touch with D.C. voters.
As Mike Madden writes at the Washington City Paper, the notion that school reform killed Fenty is “preposterously oversimplified”. The fight over education policy, he writes, “didn't have to get so vitriolic and racially charged. if Fenty believed as strongly as Rhee says he did that school reform was good for everyone in the city, he should have doubled down on his efforts to persuade others that it was. Instead, he watched, smugly confident in his own political sense, and sure people would grasp what he and Rhee were doing.”
Unfortunately, thanks to the arrogance of Adrian Fenty and the poor PR campaign run by both Fenty and Michelle Rhee, not to mention the well-funded opposition to their reforms by the teachers unions, school reform in the District of Columbia may be dead in its tracks despite popular support for reform. Indeed, polls have consistently shown a majority of District parents favored Rhee’s reforms, even as her personal popularity was slipping.
Sadly, these parents may not get a chance to see whether or not they work, and D.C. schools may slip back into the endless cycle of failure that has defined them now for decades. And Adrian Fenty and Michelle Rhee have no one but themselves to blame.