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Education Nation

A solutions-focused conversation about the state of education in America

Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

Futures of Rhee and Lanier on the line

By P.J. Orvetti and Kriston Capps
|  Thursday, Sep 16, 2010  |  Updated 7:57 AM EDT
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Fenty's Future After a Day of Defeat

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Mayor Fenty and Schools Chancellor Rhee announcing a $100 million fix for aging schools in October.

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Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee talks about her possible role in Mayor Fenty's loss in the election.

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“I would get down on my knees and beg Michelle Rhee to stay if I thought it would make any difference.”

That’s what one friend said this morning. Sorry, it won't.

It is hard to see any scenario in which the D.C. Public Schools czar will stay on under Mayor-apparent Vincent Gray. Asked by CNN’s John King if he will keep Rhee on, Gray replied, “Well, we’ll see.”

This morning, during a press conference, Gray said that he'd placed a call to Rhee, reiterating what he told King before his victory -- that he would like to “sit down” with Rhee and “walk and talk through it, how we might work together.”

During his victory speech, he sounded less conciliatory. Gray said “school reform will move forward,” but with a chancellor who “works with parents and teachers.” Gray’s supporters in the Washington Teachers╩╝ Union know what that means.

But today, Gray did not dog-whistle to union supporters during his first meeting with the press. He pledged that no personnel decisions would be made until after the general election -- except for D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles, who will not have a place in the Gray administration.

"The attorney general has to recognize that his client is first and foremost the people of the District of Columbia, and I don't think that's been evident in the recent past," he said. About Rhee, though, he had kinder words to spare. "I'm sure she's busy today. She's running schools today," said Gray. "I'm sure she'll get back to me -- as she always does."

But there’s also no real reason why Rhee would want to stay. While Adrian Fenty is down and out, at least for a while, Rhee has a glowing national image. She’s had her Time magazine cover and her network news profiles, and next week she’s going to be on “Oprah.” While Fenty essentially gave her free rein, it’s hard to see why she would want to stay on in a more constricted role.

Certainly Rhee recognizes that she was a liability to the Fenty administration. She said as much to Norah O'Donnell on MSNBC's "Andrea Mitchell Reports" this morning. Asked whether she was a reason the incumbent lost, Rhee responded, "Without a doubt."

Rhee's school reforms, including firing teachers and closing schools, "cost him some political capital over the last three-and-a-half years," she said.

Center for American Progress pundit Matthew Yglesias framed Fenty's loss in terms of Rhee's national pitch on school reform: "Michelle Rhee unquestionably ended up doing this city a disservice with her habit of spending more time courting a nationwide constituency than on painful block-by-block selling of her message in skeptical communities."

Though her national ambition served as a bug for the Fenty campaign, it's bound to be a feature of her future plans. Rhee could go national. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan praised Rhee's performance in DCPS in the runup to the election. And it's rare that Sec. Duncan is ever mentioned in the press without reference also to Rhee and the mold after whom she was modeled, New York City schools czar Joel Klein.

Her national stature has even been cemented by a new documentary on public education in the U.S., Waiting for 'Superman', by David Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth). Rhee figures in prominently enough to appear in the trailer for the movie, which is out now.

Rhee “has strongly signaled that she does not want to work for Gray,” the Washington Post reports. Two Gray supporters on the D.C. Council, Mary Cheh and Tommy Wells, would like her to see out the end of the 2011-12 school year. Asked this morning about the possibility that Rhee's contract will be extended, Gray demurred.

“She could have a proper exit, a professional exit, and [Gray] could have the period of time to do due diligence in finding a replacement,” Cheh said.

Maybe Rhee and her fiancée, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, could just meet up in the middle of the country and become mayor and schools chief of Omaha. This might suit some novel models of governance. Yglesias has said, for example, that successful Chinese mayors are often promoted to other cities with problems they are suited to solve. (Slate columnist David Weigel describes Yglesias's favored program as the Mayoral Transference Property.)

"We were [reforming schools] at a clip that no one had ever done it at before," Rhee told O'Donnell. "If anything, I hope that education reformers across the country can learn from the experiences that we've had here in D.C."

Might she be the reformer to show them?

Rhee could wind up anywhere -- even staying in D.C., and possibly for a higher authority. The fate of Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier is a bit trickier. Unlike the polarizing Rhee, Lanier is almost universally beloved, with an 80 percent citywide approval rating in a recent Clarus Research Group poll. While Gray has been typically noncommittal about Lanier’s future, he did benefit from the endorsement of the 11,000-member D.C. Fraternal Order of Police, which has sparred with Lanier over “All Hands on Deck” weekends and other issues.

That said, Lanier will probably be asked to stay on, at least in the short term. Though Gray’s margin over Fenty was convincing, the incumbent did still get at least 45 percent of the Democratic vote yesterday, and many of those who did not vote – the city’s 73,000 independents and 30,000 Republicans – are fans of Rhee and Lanier. With Rhee all but certain to exit, the incoming mayor won’t want to alienate them by ditching a popular figure too quickly.

Nickles, though, should start clearing out his desk.

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