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What Will Happen to D.C. Schools If Michelle Rhee Leaves? UPDATED

What would public schools in Washington, D.C., be like without Michelle Rhee?

It’s the big question of the day, after incumbent Adrian Fenty lost the Democratic nomination for mayor to city council Chairman Vincent Gray on Tuesday. It was Fenty who appointed the hard-charging, reform-minded Rhee. Before the election, Rhee hinted that she might leave her job if Gray won and became mayor (as he is all but certain to do, since there’s currently no Republican opponent to face in the November general election). While Gray hasn’t said what he will do with Rhee, he has clashed with her in city council meetings, and he ran with the backing of the Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU), which Rhee has been at odds with since she took office in June 2007. Last night, Gray promised his supporters a more collaborative schools' leader—"a strong, empowered chancellor who works with parents and teachers."

If Rhee does leave, the change in D.C. schools could be profound—and disappointing. Rhee’s successes as chancellor are well-known: She’s closed down underperforming schools, revitalized special education, revamped teacher evaluations, pushed for performance pay, fired educators who aren’t up to snuff, supported the expansion of charter schools, garnered large sums of private donor money, and seen students’ test scores rise. She’s also drawn a national spotlight to D.C.’s long struggle with education and become a leading figure in the broader school reform movement, which counts President Obama among its supporters.

Some of the groundwork Rhee has laid is here to stay—for instance, the 2010 teachers’ union contract (at least, until it comes up again for renegotiation or side-agreement discussions) and the push to improve school facilities. If Rhee were to go, however, some D.C. education observers say schools and the city would suffer. “Anyone you talk to in the country about urban school reform will tell you that it takes at least five to ten years,” says Kevin Carey, policy director for Education Sector, a Washington think tank. If Rhee’s tenure is cut short at just over three years, it could diminish the energy Washington has invested in fixing its schools—and which recently led to it being named by the Fordham Institute as the second-most reform-friendly city in the country (just after New Orleans). “The sense of urgency won’t be sustained,” says Sara Mead, a senior associate partner with Bellwether Education Partners and member of the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board.

On the most basic level, if Rhee goes, some of her top staff, who came to D.C. to work with her and have been critical in reorganizing the city’s sclerotic education bureaucracy, could go, too. Similarly, teachers and especially principals who’ve come to Washington to be a part of Rhee’s reform charge could leave—and ones who were thinking of coming to the city might change their minds.

The fate of the city’s IMPACT teacher evaluation system, which Rhee installed and recently began using to make staffing decisions after years of fierce contract negotiations with the WTU, could also hang in the balance. Gray hasn’t said definitively what he thinks about IMPACT, except that he wants to conduct an investigation of the system. (In fact, he’s offered relatively few specifics on education.) But Gray’s union backers have repeatedly challenged IMPACT. And, while the system could perhaps be improved, Gray could go farther, choosing to mollify the WTU by not using the resulting data to fire bad teachers—thereby undoing a major change Rhee made to the way D.C. regulates teacher quality. “An evaluation system is only as good as the will of the people who are using it,” Carey says, pointing out that numerous urban districts across the country have evaluations but rarely use them to dismiss anyone.

Performance pay, which teachers can soon receive based on their IMPACT scores, could also be on the chopping block. Private foundations have pledged money to help finance big bonuses for D.C.’s best teachers, but they’ve made their donations contingent on Michelle Rhee being chancellor. More generally, too, philanthropies that have chosen to give to D.C. schools because they like Rhee’s reforms could withhold further support—especially in tough economic times when there is only so much to give.

Then there are charter schools. The Fordham Institute recently gave the city an “A” grade for its charter environment, which Rhee has supported developing. For his part, Gray has reached out to the charter community for support and promised equitable funding for its schools. But Mead says that, in her experience on the city’s charter board, which authorizes schools and monitors their quality, she’s seen Gray hint that he’d like to more tightly regulate charters. “We have a law that gives a tremendous amount of autonomy to the schools but enables them to implement programs that can be effective. If you try to put more regulation on that, if can dissuade people from opening certain types of schools,” Mead says. On the flip side, though, Kevin Carey says that, if reform efforts in public schools diminish significantly without Rhee, there could be an exodus of students to charters that would leave regular schools more or less defunct.

Admittedly, Rhee’s warrior-like approach to her job has caused some problems—and not just with the slow-to-change WTU. Some D.C. residents, particularly in the city’s poor, high-minority areas, feel alienated by her tough persona, just like they feel alienated by Adrian Fenty’s distant one. But, while Rhee could improve her relationships with key community and education groups, the future of D.C. public education doesn’t rest on personal style. It rests on strong actions and results, both of which Rhee has delivered.

Which is why D.C. without Rhee is, in many ways, a scary thought. Her departure could affect more than the schools; it could influence the entire city. “You can’t have a middle class without a good school system. They will not live in a city with terrible public schools,” Carey says. “To the extent that the vision for the District is a racially and economically diverse one, I think having a school system on an upswing is a big part of that.” Adds Kathy Patterson, a former city council member, “There are a lot of young families that have chosen to stay in the District and put their kids in public schools because they are convinced that they are moving in the right direction. … I would be most concerned with the loss of faith of families with school-age children in the ability of the system to improve itself.”

Granted, Gray could appoint a chancellor who would stick to the Rhee philosophy—one who could lure talent, new initiatives, and money to the city’s schools, while also keeping the WTU happy. But reformers aren’t holding their breath. There is also a chance Gray might keep Rhee on (if she wants to stay). State Board of Education President Lisa Raymond, for one, has said she envisions a Gray-Rhee administration. "I do believe that they care deeply enough about our city's children to put aside possible concerns and consider what is best for those children," Raymond said in a statement in June. But that scenario is a longshot. “[T]here are an awful lot of people who have given Gray very strong support on the assumption that she would be gone,” Patterson says.

It’s more likely that education reform in the nation’s capital is about to take a blow, and a blow it can ill-afford to take, by losing its greatest champion.

UPDATE: The Washington Post reports early Wednesday that, already, two city council members are urging Gray to negotiate an "extended transition" with Rhee to keep her in place until the end of the 2011-2012 school year. But others wonder whether that would just make her a lame duck, and do more harm than good.