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The defeat of Fenty and Rhee in DC - What is the lesson for Philly?

By Ron Whitehorne on Oct 14, 2010 03:17 PM

The defeat of D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and the subsequent resignation of his schools chancellor Michelle Rhee is full of irony.

While Rhee is celebrated on Oprah's show and in the movie theatres as the poster child for fixing public education, the alleged beneficiaries of her reforms, low-income African Americans, repudiated her sponsor Fenty at the polls. A Washington Post poll taken right before the primary indicated that Fenty trailed his opponent among Black Democrats by a 64 to 19 percent margin while leading among Whites by a better than two-to-one ratio.  

The election was widely interpreted as a referendum on the Fenty-Rhee reforms.  Most analysts have focused on the leadership style of the mayor and his schools chancellor.

Even those who generally support the content of the Fenty-Rhee agenda dissent when it comes to the processWriting in The Root, Michael Lomax, CEO of UNCF (the United Negro College Fund), said, “D.C.'s outgoing mayor and his schools chancellor used education reform as something to do to black people instead of with black people. Reform advocates around the country should be taking notes.“

Lack of public engagement and transparency and a contempt for due process for teachers are charges leveled at Rhee by critics. Schools were closed with limited public discussion, and some city council members and the teachers union claimed budget numbers were manipulated to justify firing teachers Rhee regarded as subpar. When asked if she would fight against reinstating the 266 laid-off teachers, Rhee made unsubstantiated charges that unnamed numbers were employing corporal punishment or having sex with children.   

Rhee has drawn a rather different lesson from her tenure as D.C. schools chief.

“The right lesson for this reform movement,” Rhee opined after resigning, “is now is the time to lean forward and be more aggressive and more adamant."

Here in Philadelphia an obvious question is what does Rhee’s departure mean for the troubled Ackerman superintendency? Ackerman shares a top-down, autocratic style of leadership with Rhee and shares her overall reform orientation. She is also associated with a mayor who has been criticized for being more responsive to middle-class Whites than poor Blacks.  

But Ackerman has been much more effective in winning support for her reforms from parents and community leadership. Unlike the cold and arrogant Rhee, Ackerman knows how to work a room of African American parents and understands the need to shore up her political support.  So tea-leaves readers who conclude Rhee’s departure mean Ackerman is not far behind are probably wrong. And, more importantly, the consensus about the content of Rhee’s reforms (and Ackerman) in the media and business and political elites, if not among rank and file educators, remains strong.  

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Comments (12)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 14, 2010 7:47 pm

True, but Ackerman has never stayed long at any district. This is her 3rd year, and she'll get her money either way. I'm willing to bet she's gone after this year, regardless.

Submitted by Glenda the Good (not verified) on October 14, 2010 7:23 pm

"Ding, dong, the .... " Hopefully someone will drop a house on the other one too! A glimmer of hope, Munchkins!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 15, 2010 6:10 am

Michelle Rhee may have been a tyrant like Ackerman, but I don't think she made the plethora of embarrassing mistakes that Ackerman has committed. We all know what mistakes I am talking about. They have come at a clip since Ackerman got here. I did not like Rhee's tactics, but she didn't come off as incompetent like what is on full display in Philly.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on October 15, 2010 9:14 am

 Rhee's image is that of the omnipotent administrator but , in fact, she stuck her foot in her mouth more than once (her testimony before city council being a case in point) and her firings of popular principals, including the one at her daughter's school, seemed like serious tactical blunders.   But I take your point.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 15, 2010 4:27 pm

Speaking of competance, how does Rhee who spent 3 years teaching in the Teach for America program, and with NO administrative expertise or experience, get a job like Chancellor of schools?. If you don't believe it, 'google" it. Something is very wrong with this whole situation.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on October 15, 2010 2:22 pm

 Readers might want to check out Fenty and Rhee's essay in the Washington Post saying goodbye and congratulating themselves for consistently put children before adults (sound familiar?).   

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 15, 2010 2:45 pm

Hi Ron,

You hit the nail on the head!!! Also, I keep reading about Rhee taping the mouths of african-american children while she was a teacher in TFA. Is this true?? And if so, how come no on ementioned this before she became Chancellor of D.C. schools???

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on October 15, 2010 3:38 pm

 Haven't heard that one....what's the source?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 15, 2010 4:15 pm

Here is the source- story and video of Rhee talking to first year teachers:

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on October 15, 2010 9:23 pm

 Thanks for that.  Michelle Rhee's bizarre first year teacher stories.   The audience laughed but the image didn't seem funny to me.   Ok she didn't do it as a punitive thing, but still...

Submitted by Teacher (K.R. Luebbert) (not verified) on October 15, 2010 10:50 pm

She even said the kids' lips were bleeding! Anyone else would have been fired for this, She hates unions, but the union could not even protect you from such egregious (and inherently disrespectful) behavior!

Submitted by Mrs. G (not verified) on October 17, 2010 10:38 am

It's a shame the media won't report anything but Ackerman's press releases. I have a feeling if parents and the community knew what she was really doing to our schools they wouldn't be very supportive.

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