Presumptive mayor-elect Gray and Chancellor Rhee both seem to be in lose-lose situations regarding education reform in DC. No matter what next steps each chooses in the coming weeks, each will be criticized harshly.
Neither appears to want to make the first move. Doing so, presumably, would be a sign of weakness. Jo-Ann Armao of the Washington Post believes that “the two are playing chicken with each other.” This is an apt description, even if both are waiting because Gray is not yet mayor.
So let’s get to Gray. Gray is in a gray area right now. He won the primary in large part due to the overwhelming support he received from black voters who have grown increasingly frustrated with Mayor Fenty’s seeming aloofness and unequivocal support for Rhee’s efforts. The WTU (which endorsed Gray) and its many members (who supported him) expect “change”–substantive, symbolic, or both–at the top of the DCPS hierarchy. But Gray knows he needs to court Fenty (and Rhee) supporters too. His victory was a slim one. Change the course of education in DC too greatly in another direction and voters will protest again. He simultaneously needs to push Rhee out while pulling back in at least some of the progress she has made.
How about Rhee? Rhee is rhee-ly in need of rhee-lief. If Gray asks her to stay and she leaves, she’ll appear hypocritical and somewhat like the captain who abandons the sinking ship before helping her passengers. If Gray asks her to stay and she also chooses to stay, she’ll have to tolerate the philosophical straitjacket that Gray will likely put her in. Even if Gray asks her to stay because he truly believes that Rhee remains the best choice for Chancellor, he will still publicly curtail her powers, to follow through on his tacit campaign promise of “undoing” part (or most?) of Rhee’s reforms. If Gray asks her to leave and she tries to stay, she will look powerless, and will lose the tough image that she has developed as housekeeper, Braveheart, Super(wo)man, Warrior Woman. If Gray asks her to leave and she willingly leaves–well, this is probably the most likely outcome, one, certainly, where both sides can “save face.”
So what happens if Rhee leaves? Who should fill the vacuum left behind?
I’ll get right to my point. Deputy Chancellor Kaya Henderson would be a fine choice for Chancellor. In a way, she is a blend of what Gray and Rhee wants. She might be what one might call the “compromise solution.”
Let’s face it: many black voters voted against Fenty because he seemed to be ignoring their interests. During his tenure, he appointed not a single black top-level administrator. Thus, if Gray believes, as I think he does, in the general direction that school reform is taking in DCPS, but also knows the practical step he must take as soon as he takes office (i.e. purge Rhee), choosing Henderson would make good sense. Such a move would appease his constituents, but would preserve the basic principles of school reform in DC.
You may be asking, “who is Kaya Henderson, really?” Though the media scarcely mentions Henderson’s name, she is a highly-talented educator with experience at many levels of education. She worked with Rhee at the New Teacher Project and was looped into DCPS when Rhee began her tenure. Both times I’ve heard her speak (both TFA events) convince me that she could be a powerful schools leader. The anecdotes she weaved in to her remarks show just how much her corps experience shaped–or, at least, amplified, her commitment to educational equity. Though she sees the issue in just as urgent a lens as Rhee, I suspect Henderson’s approach would fall more in line with what DC residents expect of our next schools leader.
Gray would also be wise to consider that removing Rhee might set off a parade of departures. Such an outcome would be devastating to a school district that needs leadership stability, as he likely knows. If, however, he invited Henderson to stay, many “Rhee-formers” would likely stay too.
In the end, I suspect that school critics take issue more with the (harsh) quirks of Rhee’s character and her (in)ability to communicate with the public than with her vision itself. Though comments in the blogosphere suggest otherwise, I believe that the vitriolic Rhee haters would agree with Rhee’s philosophy if stripped to its core. Rhee’s principles are sound. Her execution is not.
Of course, I may be completely off. Gray may be utterly convinced that he can take DC Public Schools in a new direction, on his own terms, and with his own cadre of loyalists. My people-reading skills might be see “Rhee” where it doesn’t really exist.
I don’t yet know what to make of the recent shifts, in the future of DCPS, in the general public’s attitude towards education, in the recent budget changes that require school cuts. Having watched Waiting For Superman with a dozen educators from my school last weekend, I am still “dazed” by the recent surge in education-related hype. The churn makes seeing the future difficult. But predictions are still fun to make (and, anyways, as a literacy teacher, I know that they help readers succeed, even if they are not correct).