How School Reformer Michelle Rhee May Be a Factor in the D.C. Mayoral Race

Is Washington, D.C., school chancellor Michelle Rhee trying to make the upcoming mayoral primary all about her, as the Washington Post front page implied Thursday?

Rhee insists that's not the case. "I am not trying to frame this as a referendum on me," she said in an interview late Thursday. Instead, she said, people are reading more than they should into public statements she's recently made acknowledging that her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, and his challenger, City Council Chairman Vincent Gray, have "very clear differences in their approach to education reform."

"I think I've been clear from the beginning that I believe that the only way I can do what's best for kids is if I have the full backing and support of the person I'm working for," she said. "You need to be in lock step and have the same philosophy and outlook. You both have to be willing to make hard decisions and take the heat that comes with them." While Gray clearly supports school reforms, she said, he is "very process-oriented and wants less turmoil. That's one way to go about things, but if procedure and harmony are his priorities, I'm not his girl."

D.C.'s reform efforts have attracted national attention because of Rhee's aggressive pace in overhauling what was arguably the worst school system in the country, as well as her outspokenness on the need for dramatic change in urban schools.

Rhee said she has been purposely circumspect about commenting on the September Democratic primary (which, in overwhelmingly Democratic D.C., is the de facto general election), as she is required to be by law. However, she said she wanted to give her boss his due after a press conference Tuesday during which she detailed D.C.'s educational accomplishments (impressive early gains on national tests in reading and math, a halt to declining enrollments, and the passage of a breakthrough labor contract) over the last three years. The Post reported that the remarks indicated that Rhee was "shedding her reluctance to weigh in on the election" and was "signaling that a vote for Fenty would be a vote for her tenure in the district and that a vote for Gray would place her at risk."

While Gray supported Fenty's decision to take over the city's schools, disband the school board, and hire Rhee, a national school reformer who had never run a school district before, he has also sharply criticized the chancellor for not consulting more regularly with the City Council and not being more "respectful" of parents' and teachers' concerns about change. He's also made Rhee's leadership of the schools a prime campaign issue, even though he indicated Thursday that he would keep her reforms in place should he get elected. Unlike Fenty, Gray says he plans to take a much more hands-on approach to working with his chancellor on future school changes.

To date, both Gray and Rhee have publicly dodged direct questions about whether they could work together if Gray wins. Gray's spokesman says the council chairman believes "sustainable reform should not, and cannot, hinge on one person." Meanwhile, Rhee says she plans to stay on if Fenty is reelected.