There were numerous stories to follow in last week’s primary elections, but the big story was that D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee is now near-certain to leave her post after her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, lost his bid for reelection in the Democratic primary.
Rhee has attracted national attention for her tough reforms and clashes with D.C. teachers, and she became a central and polarizing figure in the mayoral race. But assuming she does leaveand finds another job as schools chief or in the education reform arenashe may take with her a valuable lesson from her experience in D.C. That is, communicationsand the community–matters.
Rhee was grilled about her plans at a D.C. preview of the new “Waiting for Superman” documentary on Sept. 22, taking the spotlight away from other education notables who attended. (Rhee is a central figure in the film, which promotes charter schools and will be discussed in the cover story of ASBJ‘s November issue).
Rhee called the election results “devastating for the schoolchildren of Washington, D.C.,” then later sent a letter to the Post stating that, by the way, she had not meant to imply that Vincent Gray, the presumed winner in November, was devastating.
There were reasons D.C. residents chose not to reelect Fenty that had nothing to do with Rhee. But one has to wonderif Rhee had a more likable personality and better communications skills, if she had dropped the take-no-prisoners attitude and appeared to listen to the community before taking drastic actions, like firing teachers and principals, would that have impacted the election and the future of school reform not only in D.C. but nationally?
Rhee told MSNBC that she and Fenty hurt their cause by not telling their story as effectively as they should have.
“The fact that we didn’t do a good a job as I think we could have in communicating why we were making the decisions that we did that led people to be suspicious of the actions is, I think, unfortunate,” she told MSNBC. Um, right.
Kenneth Wong, the chairman of Brown University’s education department, told MSNBC that he thinks Gray may continue Rhee’s path. But Gray will also create more transparency in the system and host more community forums “to make sure [residents] understand the changes and the benefits they’ll get as a result of the reforms,” he said.
Rhee’s departure may have been imminent regardless of the election results, as she’s engaged to Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson. Let’s hope that wherever she ends up, she’ll have learned the importance of communications and community engagement.
Joetta Sack-Min, Associate Editor