Is Michelle Rhee’s Revolution Over?
By JUDITH WARNER
Rhee, who was appointed by Fenty in 2007 and given unprecedented power to shake up the ailing school system, fired hundreds of teachers and dozens of bureaucrats and principals, even removing the popular head of her daughters’ elementary school in the northwest part of the district. She demanded that the city’s tenure system be replaced with one that would reward teachers for producing measurable performance gains in their students. For her efforts, she became a heroine to some — gracing the cover of Time magazine, earning the praise of the Obama administration and an invitation to appear on “Oprah” — but she also received enormous enmity from teachers, their unions and, surprisingly enough to outside observers, many public-school parents, not a few of whom were profoundly offended when, the night after the mayoral primary, Rhee appeared at the Washington premiere of Davis Guggenheim’s much-talked-about education documentary, “Waiting for Superman,” and told an assemblage of prominent Washingtonians that the election results “were devastating, devastating. Not for me, I’ll be fine . . . but devastating for the school children of Washington, D.C.”
In the local blogs that buzzed with outrage after Rhee’s comment, a theme became clear: people — even people who seemed destined to most benefit from the work of a committed reformer like Rhee — don’t like to get the message that their communities are on the wrong track. That their schools are no good, the teachers in them subpar; that their decision to back a politician who doesn’t share the reformer’s particular style of quasi-missionary zeal would consign their kids to disaster.
It became clear that people don’t much like stern-faced do-gooders telling them how to think and what to do; that they prefer “a reform agenda that’s being done with people, not to people,” as Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, recently put it. They don’t like collective slap-downs — like the one Rhee managed when she referred to the hundreds of fired teachers indiscriminately in an interview with a business magazine as people who “had hit children, who had had sex with children.” They don’t like to see respected members of their community seemingly compared to dirt, as Rhee unthinkingly did by agreeing to pose on the cover of Time wielding a big broom. They like policy makers who at least appear to be taking their concerns to heart, as Rhee pointedly did not, bluntly telling the magazine: “I’m not going to pretend to solicit your advice so you’ll feel involved, because that’s just fake.”
Washington residents, the majority of them African-American, many of them poor, all possessed, to varying degrees, of a sense of disenfranchisement — the city, after all, did not have the power to elect its own government until 1974 and must still submit its budget and laws for approval to Congress, where it lacks voting rights — take particularly poorly to these sorts of put-downs, says Michael Fauntroy, an associate professor of public policy at George Mason University. In fact, the black, often struggling residents of Washington — the vast majority of parents in the public-school system — have a hair-trigger intolerance for anything that smacks of paternalism or disdain by policy makers, particularly when they appear to be telling people how to run their lives and, most potentially offensive of all, how to educate their children. Fenty and Rhee, Fauntroy said, were perceived to have “an elite view of public policy: we know what’s better for your kids than you do, and because our ideas are better, yours are to be ignored, and ours are to be implemented.”
That sentiment is not unique to African-American residents of Washington who voted for Gray. It runs through much of the chorus of opposition to President Obama and his reformist policies — health reform in particular — and it’s easily tapped into by candidates who position themselves as plain-talking “real people,” alternatives to the powers that be. Which explains, perhaps, why so many primary elections this year left some outside observers reeling, as was the conservative Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, at the “reckless and irresponsible” decision of key Republicans to endorse Christine O’Donnell, who was backed by Tea Party members, as the Republican Senate candidate in Delaware. Krauthammer viewed this as a self-defeating choice that would condemn Republicans to failure in the general election. Many Washington residents who favored Fenty — including those in the white, largely upper-middle-class homes of Ward 3 (which voted 80 percent for Fenty) — expressed similar concerns in criticizing their neighbors’ selection of Gray for mayor, given the great improvements in city services and education that they had seen under Fenty.
The Tea Party candidates who surprised national observers and the Republican establishment by winning this month couldn’t be more different than the thoughtful, mild-mannered Gray, his liberal sympathies as deep as his Washington roots. The voters who elected him, it is fair to say, have nothing politically in common with those who brought O’Donnell her upset victory. But it may well be that the sort of rage that fuels the mostly white, middle-class, conservative Tea Party movement has, at least in part, a similar root: a rejection of whip-smart policy makers who believe they know best and who — it seems to those who feel slighted by them — lack the common decency to try not to show it.