08/06/2012 09:44 am ET Updated Oct 06, 2012

What if Michelle Rhee Still Ran D.C. Schools?

Thanks to a recent Washington Post poll, we know that Washingtonians would like a do-over of the 2010 mayor's race. This time, Adrian Fenty would beat Vincent Gray and win reelection.

Speculation about how things would be different in the District if Fenty had survived leads directly to his biggest reform: schools. Had Michelle Rhee remained as chancellor, the D.C. Public Schools probably look very different today.

For those needing a quick refresher on recent D.C. history, Gray was one of Rhee's most prominent critics when he was D.C. Council chairman. After he was elected mayor, he forced her to give up her job as head of the D.C. Public Schools.

It wasn't that Gray thought Rhee was all wrong about her reforms; he vowed that reform would continue in his administration. But the new mayor wanted a kinder, gentler approach.

Gray kept his word. Kaya Henderson, the highly capable former top Rhee aide, was appointed chancellor. And DCPS does seem a kinder, gentler place, with Henderson successfully building on the reforms that she helped Rhee to launch (as evidenced by improved test scores released last month).

No longer do you see union-sponsored demonstrations taking over city streets. No longer are angry parents shouting about school closings. And no longer are D.C. Council members protesting about how they were not included in the chancellor's reform plans.

But for a moment, let's pretend that Rhee had remained chancellor. What would be different? Here are three major points:

School closings. Despite the wrenching controversies over school closings during Rhee's reign, we now know that she should have closed even more schools. Today, 45 DCPS schools have enrollments below 300. Henderson acknowledges that schools need to be closed. But the process requires intensive community engagement, she told me in an interview: "We want to make sure we have the best thinking at the table."

Henderson could well be right about that. But it is safe to assume that Rhee would have charged ahead with more closings -- with Fenty's full support. Why? Because the hard numbers would have led her to the inescapable conclusion that at least 15 of those 45 schools could be shuttered and consolidated, saving as much as $25 million a year.

The savings from those closings would be enough to pay teachers more than $6,000 extra per year. Or educators could invest an additional $560 a year for each student. Would Rhee have sacrificed what little personal popularity she had left to achieve those gains? Of course.

Charter schools. As we have learned from cities such as New Orleans, desperate educational shortcomings sometimes demand radical solutions. That city's collection of urban charter schools has produced some startling improvements.

True, the District already has a huge charter school network separate from DCPS. But Henderson badly needs the flexibility that comes with being able to create charters within DCPS. Some persistently failing schools can't be turned around absent a complete culture change, and usually that happens only with charter conversions.

It is safe to say that Rhee would have bludgeoned the D.C. Council into granting charter authority and, by now, would have awarded the first charter contract.

Bringing economic and racial integration. Rhee's reform ship hit the shoals when she attempted to lure more white, middle-class students into DCPS via Georgetown's Hardy Middle School. Long story short: Georgetowners send their kids to DCPS through elementary schools, and then, for the most part, switch to private schools or addresses in Virginia or Maryland.

In theory, those parents should feel welcome at Hardy, but they haven't. Rhee's attempts to change that struck a nerve, big time, among African American families. Henderson backed off on Hardy; Rhee never would have let up.

Was Rhee wrong to risk the wrath of racial politics for the cause of bringing more middle-class white and black families into the school system (and not just at Hardy)? Her actions certainly didn't win Fenty many votes.

Anyone looking at the startling recent demographic changes in the District (visited the Atlas District lately?) knows that the greater risk lies in not pushing hard for greater integration of the city schools.

Under Gray and Henderson, schools are making respectable progress, and the fine-tuning of the IMPACT teacher evaluation system that was announced Friday is more evidence that reform has not come to a halt. But let's keep things in perspective: District schools may no longer rank among the very worst in the nation, but they are not far off the bottom. Kinder and gentler has its virtues. Parents like it, politicians appreciate it, teachers love it and union leaders adore it. But is it the best solution for D.C. students?

Richard Whitmire is author of "The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation's Worst School District."

This commentary first appeared in the Washington Post.