The Unlikely School Reformer

These are really hard words for me to write: Washington, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray deserves a lot of credit for improving education in his city.

In 2011 as I was finishing a book about Michelle Rhee's (interrupted) term as D.C. schools chancellor, I predicted that despite Chancellor Kaya Henderson's best efforts the city schools would enter a slow death spiral -- the result of being undermined by Gray.

At the time, there was every reason to assume the worst. When Gray was council chair, he was Rhee's biggest critic. When running for mayor, his biggest supporters were the teachers unions, especially the American Federation of Teachers whose president, Randi Weingarten, so badly wanted to see Rhee get the boot that her union kicked in $1 million to oust former Mayor Adrian Fenty, Rhee's protector. Sure enough, when elected mayor Gray forced Rhee to step down.

Gray, I assumed, would pay back his funders and supporters by returning D.C. schools to the pre-Rhee years when DCPS was a contender for the title of worst school district in the nation.
But after assuming office, Gray did the unexpected. He left the Rhee reforms untouched. Not only did he embrace Henderson, but he lifted not a finger to dismantle the controversial Rhee reforms which included firing low-rated teachers and evaluating teachers partly based on how much their students learned. Why would Gray not do what his key backers most wanted? My cynical take was that the election scandals prevented him from taking on anything controversial.

But then Gray did the unexpected once again. He appointed one of Rhee's top deputies, the talented Abigail Smith, as his deputy mayor for education. Now he had two of Rhee's top aides, Henderson and Smith, holding the top education posts. Then we got the announcement that D.C. charter schools, which had been mostly blocked from taking over closed DCPS schools, suddenly had options for using those buildings. At that point, my "scandals" theory was looking shaky.

And then came the recent good-news test scores. True, the results must be placed in context. With urban school districts, good news one year has a tendency to become bad news the following year. Plus, the assessments that really matter are the federal tests which are both cheat-proof and comparable to other urban districts. We'll see.

Keeping that in mind, however, there was some serious good news this week, especially the boost in academic proficiency rates among low-income black and Latino kids in charter schools -- schools that Gray, unlike some previous mayors, properly sees as giving D.C. parents important academic choices for their children.

So why did Gray stand by the much-reviled Rhee reforms his supporters counted on him to dismantle? I don't pretend to know anything about Gray personally. When researching the Rhee book he refused an interview. But everything I've read about Gray leads me to believe that he is, through and through, a Ward 7 guy. And there in Ward 7 sits Sousa Middle School, a school that for years was properly regarded as a local and national disgrace.

Under the tough love principal Rhee appointed, Sousa transformed itself from an embarrassment to a showcase. You could walk through the quiet hallways of Sousa and see actual learning taking place. Gray may not have been a Rhee fan, but no real Ward 7 guy is going to deny that her reforms made a huge difference for the kids at Sousa. For the first time, they had a shot at life. Something that crazy lady was doing had to be right.
And so, as much as it pains me, I'll say it again: Nicely done mayor.
Richard Whitmire, author of The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation's Worst School District, is finishing a book on Rocketship charter schools which are scheduled to arrive in Washington in 2015.

(A version of this piece appeared in The Washington Post.)