Take a Chance on Rhee? Obama scuttlebutt highlights chancellor's soar to educational superstardom.

Darrow Montgomery

LL has his e-mail set up so that every time someone on the Web writes about certain local public officials, he gets an alert in his inbox. With the possible exception of countless updates he gets on a pro wrestler named Jack Evans, he gets the most alerts for Chancellor Michelle Rhee.

And, in the days and weeks following the third and final presidential debate on Oct. 15—in which Rhee was praised by Sen. Barack Obama for her school-reform efforts—LL started to detect a theme: Rhee as a possible pick for Obama’s first secretary of education. Seriously.

And how does Rhee feel about that?

On the phone from Sacramento, where she’s helping old friend and former Phoenix Suns point guard Kevin Johnson with his transition after winning the mayoralty there, she mutters nervously for a second, “Yeah, well, I don’t think that is going to happen.”

Don’t bother chalking that one up to false modesty. Rhee has less than a year and a half under her belt as an educational administrator. She’s committed to sticking around DCPS for two Fenty terms, a vow she repeated Monday to LL. And more to the point, her rise to becoming the biggest thing in American public education is due in no large part to her antipathy for that arena’s old orthodoxies. And those orthodoxies still hold great sway in the Democratic Party establishment that Obama isn’t likely to piss off early in his presidency.

Look at it this way: There’s a reason that American Federation of Teachers head Randi Weingarten was given a podium-speaking slot at August’s Democratic National Convention in Denver, while Rhee—currently engaged in a protracted contract fight with her local AFT affiliate—only appeared at a panel discussion held prior to the convention’s opening gavel.

And even if Obama wanted to take what would be a politically ill-advised jab at the teachers unions, he’s got a deep bench to choose from: He could give the nod to New York Chancellor (and Rhee mentor) Joel I. Klein, or former Chicago Public Schools head Paul Vallas, or current Chicago schools head and hoops buddy Arne Duncan.

There is no way that Rhee should even be anywhere near this conversation. But the Obama win has put her superstardom—pumped up by national coverage from the likes of Newsweek, Fast Company, Charlie Rose, the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, the Atlantic Monthly, the Wall Street Journal, et al.—in even greater focus.

“She’s on the bleeding edge of change in this business,” says Andrew Rotherham, co-founder of nonprofit Education Sector and a card-carrying member of the ed-reform think-tank crowd. “The eyes are on her in part because she’s new. She’s a new entrant, and people are interested in what she’s trying to do.”

All the national attention has had at least one benefit: In an interview the day after the Oct. 15 debate, Fenty said all the attention had helped get private donors to open their pockets—money that Rhee and Fenty are counting on to help fund their “green-tier” pay-for-performance plan. “It does help these massive fundraising drives for our reform effort,” Rhee said on Monday. “From that standpoint, it’s helpful.”

But what all this will mean in terms of interplay with an Obama administration is not likely to be a whole lot, says Rotherham, who served as an educational policy adviser in the Clinton White House. For one thing, there might not be a whole lot of policymaking harmony between the Prez and the Chance: Rhee, on two occasions where LL was present, said to crowds during campaign season that she preferred Sen. John McCain’s unqualified support for No Child Left Behind and its stringent testing requirements to Obama’s more mealy-mouthed, union-pleasing tack of saying the law needs an overhaul.

And Mary Levy, the longtime DCPS expert, says any Obama involvement in local schools is likely to do “at least as much damage as good,” if prior federal involvement is any guide.

“They really don’t know what’s going on,” she says. “They’re operating on impressions—sometimes simply at the impetus of some political agenda.”

As for Obama himself, Levy says: “I doubt he knows anything about what’s going on here....I just can’t believe that he’s got time with the issues that he’s being confronted with. I doubt he has 20 seconds for the D.C. Public Schools.”

In any case, Rhee says she doesn’t see ed issues being a top-level priority for the new administration: “I definitely don’t think it’s a first-100-days sort of thing.”

For the time being, the hot Obama-related issue Rhee is facing involved the longshot possibility that the president-elect and first lady decide to send their kids to a public school in the District.

Rhee declined to comment on whether she’s had any communication with the Obamas regarding possible public schooling for elementary-age daughters Sasha and Malia. She did, however, knock down one common reasoning proffered by guilty liberal consciences looking to rationalize the First Family’s likely decision to opt for a tony private school along the lines of Sidwell Friends, Maret, or Georgetown Day: that those campuses are somehow “more secure” than a public school’s would be.

“If we needed, we could make sure everything’s safe for them,” Rhee says.

Rhee says the only communication she’s had with Mayor Adrian M. Fenty on the Obama issue has been in connection to the Malia and Sasha issue—“that we’re on the same page,” she says. “It wasn’t something really formal. Lots of news outlets have been calling us for thoughts on it. We just had a quick chat.”

That “same page” would be this guaranteed-not-to-offend approach, in keeping with Rhee’s previous comments on the matter: “I feel very strongly that parents always make the decision that is the best decision for their kids....We’re going to do anything that we can to give the Obamas what they need, and at the end of the day, we’ll fully, fully support the decision they make.”

Rhee says it’s “not our place” to push DCPS on the First Fam. “I don’t think it’s fair to the family. We don’t know these children. We don’t know their history or their educational background.”

Political Muscular


Down-ticket offices like State Board of Education posts and advisory neighborhood commission seats, in and of themselves, might not carry a whole lot of heft in the modern District polity. But LL will say this: When the big hitters get involved in those races, they can provide a handy gauge of said hitters’ political muscle.

On Nov. 4, some of them were more successful than others: Ward 3 Councilmember Mary M. Cheh backed a successful push to toss pingpong kvetch Frank Winstead out of his Chevy Chase ANC seat. And Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham got his fave State Board of Education pick, Dottie Love Wade, into office on the strength of a mailer bearing the politicos’ smiling visages.

Graham, however, also expended energy on Election Day trying to kick a pair of advisory neighborhood commissioners out: Mindy Moretti in Adams Morgan and William Jordan in Columbia Heights. Despite Graham and aides spending hours at the polls, both Jordan and Moretti kept their seats. (Graham, who notes he supported several other, victorious ANC candidates, says, “People are entitled to their victories. That’s what elections are about.”) A Cheh-backed candidate in Cleveland Park, Darcy Buckley, narrowly lost, but she didn’t have her patron stumping for her on Election Day.

In Ward 5, Harry Thomas Jr. backed Robert V. Brannum for the school board seat; he was soundly outpolled by both winner Mark Jones and runner-up Angel Sherri Alston. (In a winning move, Thomas did take the opportunity to remind his ward’s voters of a few of his accomplishments with “Thank You” palm cards.)

But the most mystifying result came in the Ward 7 State Board of Education race, where advisory neighborhood commissioner and former DCPS teacher Dorothy Y. Douglas vanquished Ralph J. Chittums Sr. and Cameron C. Poles, the latter of whom won the endorsement of Ward 7’s twin elected titans—Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray and Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette M. Alexander.

It wasn’t even close: According to preliminary tallies, Douglas took some 2,000 more election-day votes than Poles and Chittums combined.

Late on Election Day, LL stopped at Hillcrest’s St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, the polling place for Precinct 110—which contains the largest number of registered voters in Ward 7. There he found all three school-board candidates standing in a light drizzle scrounging for what few votes were to be found at that hour.

Douglas was handing out a fuzzy, Xeroxed flier that LL will charitably describe as the least polished of all the candidate literature on offer that evening. (It did have one wise addition: obama for president.) Her performance at an October debate that LL moderated in Deanwood was similarly rough-hewn; LL didn’t think Douglas won a whole lot of hearts and minds with her debate performance.

Chittums, meanwhile, is active in the community groups and on neighborhood Listservs, and Poles, though operating with a name-recognition deficit, had his big-time endorsements plastered on palm cards handed out at the ward’s 10 biggest precincts.

So what gives?

“It’s a phenomenon I can’t begin to explain,” Alexander says, but allow her to posit a few possible explanations anyway: “My best theory is that, well, Dorothy has been a longstanding member of Ward 7. It could have been a little bit of name recognition and little bit of going down the ballot not knowing anyone and just picking a name.”

Douglas, the only woman on the ballot, might have earned some gender loyalty in a part of town veritably swarming with civic-minded old ladies. That alone might have been enough to win Alexander over: “If I didn’t know any of the candidates, I would have voted for Dorothy Douglas. I would go with the woman. Women are more connected to education, and that’s why I was excited about Cameron really being involved, because men in the ward aren’t really that involved with education.”

And then there’s the name factor—having a “Cameron Poles” and “Ralph Chittums” on the ballot, she says, might have had something to do with it. “Her name is one that’s familiar. Her name is one that people may be able to relate to,” Alexander says. “Who doesn’t know a Douglas?”

Makes you wonder how Barack Obama won Ward 7.

Beat This Retreat

Two weeks ago, senior staff at the Office of the Chief Technology Officer got some fresh mountain air at taxpayer expense: 46 agency employees piled into vans and drove the approximately 80 miles to the Skyland Resort in Shenandoah National Park for a “leadership summit” hosted by agency head Vivek Kundra.

The mid-week junket, which included one night’s lodging in the resort’s quaint cabins, cost taxpayers about $23,000.

Now this isn’t quite as galling as the cohort of executives from AIG who spent some $440,000 at the St. Regis Resort in Monarch Beach, Calif., mere days after the feds granted them an $85 billion bailout. And LL doesn’t begrudge an organization—even a government agency—“team-building exercises” and a change of venue. But with a $130 million-and-rising citywide revenue gap, couldn’t the airport Ramada have sufficed? Or perhaps that swank new citywide conference center atop One Judiciary Square—you know, the building where most of OCTO’s staff is housed?

Nearly 50 bureaucrats leave town for a mountain resort to discuss policy—sounds like a retreat, right? Nope, says Kundra; it was a “summit” intended to “make sure we’re thinking strategically in terms of using technology in government operation and to make sure we are able to stay ahead of the curve,” says Kundra.

And it was important to get away from the workaday grind, he adds: “We’ve built a team that is extremely diverse and part of effecting change is being able to move away from its daily working environment...and a change in environment makes a huge difference in terms of affecting how people look at the problems and effect change.”

LL wonders how many buzzwords Kundra & Co. managed to toss around the Blue Ridge in 36 hours.

Kundra argues that in the grand scheme, the trip saved taxpayers money—not only did his troops mull money-saving ideas, but without the meeting, he says, he might have spent 10 times as much on consultants to draw up a strategic plan for his shop.

“What I’m trying to do is try and shift the power of thinking, of analysis into the hands of the government,” he says.

Still, perhaps OCTO should have taken a cue from LL’s employer, which is pumping up the local economy by renting out the lovely Josephine Butler Parks Center in Columbia Heights this week for a daylong seminar on pumping up our Web site traffic. No sylvan vistas for our fiscally challenged enterprise!

Kundra says the federally-owned Skyland Resort is hardly up to Elysian corporate standards. “Oh God,” he says, “it’s far from that. It’s a Motel 6. It’s as low-budget as possible.”

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Our Readers Say

I am still puzzled by Dorothy Douglass' win last Tuesday! Her overall presentation is shoddy at best. Dorothy being a long time community activist and people may be familiar with her should not have translated to her winning a seat on the school board. What were some of the people thinking when they chose her. I cringed when everytime I hear her speak or see her out in the community. Dorothy, if you are reading this message, please see a image consultant and get a total image makeover. I do not want to have to spend the few years in absolute torment having you as our Ward 7 school board representative.
They did not elect someone to office who pronounces recreation like recordation, wow, for sure, they will have a problem on their hands.
And we wonder why the chirrin aint be lernin nothin?
Another waste of Government resources - why did octo have to spend 23 GRAND outside DC. UNBELIEVABLE. DID ANYONE TELL KUNDRA WE HAVE A 120 MILLION DEFICIT?
C'mon now there should have been a meeting of the Michelles' with the ladies of Rhee, Fenty and Obama doing a chit-chat. Let's see they could have called it high-tea with high-heels.

As for DD...she's a grammatical sound-bite every time she opens up her mouth. She's the poster child for everything that DCPS should want to avoid...I am guessing her elementary school teacher is cringing...Why didn't I give Dot...more phonics lessons.

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