09/22/2010 01:25 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Discouraging Vote on School Reform

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee has a well-deserved reputation for not mincing words. She wasted no time last week in calling D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray's primary victory over Mayor Adrian Fenty a "devastating" blow to children in Washington's traditional public schools.

That pretty much scotched any talk of Rhee staying on as Chancellor under Gray. In truth, however, that was never in the cards because the Democratic primary race was in significant measure a referendum on Fenty's signature initiative: his decision to take over the city's troubled public schools and bring in the hard-charging Rhee to oversee their transformation.

Fenty's defeat has delighted reform skeptics and the American Federation of Teachers, which pumped nearly $1 million into Gray's campaign. The Washington Post's Fred Hiatt opined that the outcome was more a repudiation of Fenty's aloof style than school reform per se. But it's hard for me to disagree with Natalie Hopkinson's gleeful characterization of the vote as a "resounding rejection" of Fenty and Rhee's struggles to dramatically improve D.C. public schools.

The Fenty-Rhee reforms proved deeply polarizing in Washington, with voters splitting along racial lines. According to a pre-election poll by the Post, 68 percent of white voters said Rhee was a reason to support Fenty, while 54 of black Democrats cited her as a reason to oppose the Mayor. What in one community looked like a bold attempt to shake up a deeply dysfunctional education bureaucracy looked like a callous effort to foreclose opportunities for middle class employment in another.

Gray played shrewdly to public discontent over Rhee's firings of hundreds of teachers and many principals for poor performance. And it wasn't just schools: Critics also slammed Fenty for not awarding enough high city posts to blacks, and for building bike paths and dog parks prized by affluent D.C. residents while neglecting poor neighborhoods. In last Tuesday's primary, Gray won more than 80 percent of the vote in predominately black wards 7 and 8, while Fenty did nearly as well in mainly white Ward 3.

But what of Rhee's charge? Will Fenty's loss condemn tens of thousands of D.C. children to substandard public schools?

There's no doubt that Rhee's departure will slow the momentum of school reform in Washington. With unswerving backing from Fenty, the blunt and often impolitic Rhee imposed real accountability on the school system for the first time. She won national acclaim for making student testing more rigorous, closing failing schools, attracting outside talent (like private foundations and the Teach for America volunteers Hopkinson dismisses as "cultural tourists"), and firing incompetent administrators and teachers.

Under Fenty and Rhee, D.C. public schools moved from the cellar of urban education into the vanguard of reform. The schools opened on time, with books and accurate counts of students. And test scores rose: Over the past three years, Washington was the only big city to show double-digit increases in state reading and math scores for the 7th, 8th and 10th grades.

Rhee also negotiated among the most innovative teacher's contracts in the country, which offers teachers the chance to earn extra pay in exchange for loosening tenure rules. There's worry in reform circles that her departure could induce foundations to withdraw $65 million in pledges to fund $25,000 performance bonuses for teachers under the next contract. And since Rhee was a virtual poster child for the kind of education reforms the Obama administration is pushing, there's also speculation that D.C. would lose a $75 million "Race to the Top" grant from the Department of Education if Rhee leaves.

So now the spotlight turns to Gray, whose victory in November is a given in overwhelmingly Democratic Washington. If Fenty and Rhee failed to win support from black voters for their reforms, what will Gray do differently?

It should be noted that he is not uniformly hostile to school reform. As Council Chairman, he has been a strong supporter of D.C.'s robust public charter school sector, which now enrolls about 38 percent of the city's students. (Full disclosure: I'm a member of the board that oversees D.C. charters).

Still, Gray faces a dilemma: continue reform and disappoint key allies, especially the teachers' union, or slow things down and risk abandoning Washington's hard-won progress toward raising school standards. And it's not just Gray's challenge. In fact, this is a moment of truth for the city's black establishment.

Can the city's new leaders really find a kinder, gentler way to fix D.C.'s chronically underperforming schools? Or will they revert to the traditional practice of regarding education as a kind of patronage or public jobs program for adults?

The city's economic vitality, not to mention hopes for raising living standards in its poorest communities, hinge on the answer.

This item is cross-posted at Progressive Fix.