“[Rhee] talked about there was some confusion about the application process,“ says Candy Miles-Crocker, an African-American parent-leader and Ward 5 resident. “All of that was smoke and mirrors. The folks in Palisades didn’t get interested until Hardy had a new facility. When we were at old Hamilton school, no one wanted to come. The timing was suspicious.”
Keller and others at Hardy, including the sprinkling of white students who attend the institution and their parents, mounted an extensive campaign to retain Pope. Some people accused Rhee of catering to whites at their expense.
Those accusations may not have been accurate. But they reflected the growing tension between the chancellor and blacks in the city. A Washington Post poll released earlier this year found only 28 percent of African Americans supported Rhee, while 62 percent were dissatisfied. In 2008, 50 percent of blacks liked while 38 percent disapproved. (The 2010 poll was taken in the middle of a controversy surrounding her firing of 266 teachers, most of whom were black.)
“[Rhee and her staff] are very insensitive to the history of Washington. That doesn’t have any value in their eyes,” says Iris Toyer, a Ward 7 resident and former member of the D.C. Board of Education.
Gray, who was then pondering a run for mayor against Rhee’s boss, hauled her up before the legislature to chew her out about Hardy. The council passed a non-binding resolution condemning her actions. “Hardy was just the tip of the iceberg,” Miles-Crocker says.
Blacks remain concerned about whether Rhee is transforming the DCPS too rapidly and without them in mind. There was talk of “The Plan”—an age-old belief that whites are plotting to take back the city—when news broke DCPS was considering relocating the predominantly black Duke Ellington School of the Arts from Georgetown to a spot near Union Station. Blacks perceived the proposed move as kicking them out of a predominantly white community.
Mark Roy, who has worked to improve Eastern High School, has complained for the past year about changes there. Recently renovated, the facility resembles the best private school. But 9th grade students aren’t being enrolled. Roy says Rhee has attempted to recreate the school, phasing out the existing student population before enrolling any others. The hope is that it will be more attractive to middle-class residents living on Capitol Hill and in the surrounding gentrified neighborhoods. Meanwhile, several nonprofit organizations are vying for space in the school. That disturbs Roy. “I guess that old-adage is coming true: if you move, you lose,” he says in an e-mail.
“[Rhee] has it in her head that she can recreate these schools and they will be filled up with middle-class families,” Toyer scoffs.
Oddly, the people complaining to me are themselves middle class. So surely they can’t object to attracting their own kind, even if they are white. Further, only a few generations ago, activists—black and white—fought to end education apartheid in this country. In the District, Spottswood Bolling and 10 other students and their families took their case to court. While they lost, that suit was later combined with four others, which eventually became known as Brown vs. Board of Education. In its landmark ruling, the Supreme Court mandated desegregation of public schools. Then, as now, integration of the basic service that is public education was perceived as good for everyone—black and white, poor and rich.
Obviously, the issue is less cut-and-dry today. There’s no Orval Faubus in the schoolhouse door to fight against; the kids being brought into the system are comparatively privileged. And yet the logic of integration for its own sake ought to stand. After such a long and arduous fight, it makes little sense to imperil that dream.
The dirty little secret of education politics, though, is that there could be another reason for wanting to lure well-educated parents. For a national figure like Rhee, whose reputation will live or die on testing, it’s the quickest way to goose the scores.
“In the District in Upper Northwest where there are new facilities, residents are going to want to take their kids out of private schools and enroll them into those new facilities,” says Robert Bobb, the former president of the D.C. State Board of Education who is now the emergency financial manager for the Detroit Public Schools. “If you bring those kids from private schools back that will definitely drive up test scores.”
Think of what happens when more affluent residents gentrify a community. Its net-worth changes and suddenly retailers, who didn’t give that neighborhood the time of day, are considering locating stores and building malls. Introduction of better-prepared students could have the same effect in DCPS.