A recent Washington Post poll conducted over the summer finds that Democratic voters in the District of Columbia are mixed on their views about D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. The poll serves as an indicator of what is mounting up to be a very caustic race for Mayor between incumbent Adrian Fenty and D.C. City Council Chair Vincent Gray. Most observers count education as the top issue of consideration for many voters preparing for the District’s September 14th Democratic primary, as residents have closely watched for changes in the struggling school system since Mayor Fenty took full control of it and appointed Rhee in 2007.
Only 41% of voters consider her performance as Chancellor as a reason to vote for her boss. In addition, 44% of residents approve of her leadership as schools chancellor while 38% disapprove, offering the impression that Rhee could be somewhat of a polarizing figure as the Mayor’s race wears on.
Many local political analysts often note that this particular Mayor’s race will be a major referendum, not only on Fenty’s personality and management style, but also on his ability to turn around an urban school system that has been plagued by low test scores, graduation rates and crumbling schools. While Fenty is receiving much credit for an aggressive citywide school facility modernization program, there is a growing perception among the District’s majority Black population that school reforms are being implemented largely in favor of the more affluent White population in the city.
“It’s no secret that the Mayor’s base of support is in the Upper Northwest or Upper ‘Caucasia’ portion of D.C.,” one senior District government official tells Politic365.com. Fearing retribution from Fenty Administration officials, the official says that “it’s hard for the Chancellor to shake the image that she is catering more to the city’s Whites, while setting up a system that is alienating the Black residents who need it most. Finally, when there’s a movement to repair the system, we get pushed out.”
That particular official’s fears – expressed by many inside and outside the Fenty Administration who are hesitant to speak publicly about the situation – personifies lingering tensions over the future of D.C. Public Schools.
“It appears DCPS’ leadership is engaged in a real-time experiment to see whether it’s possible to integrate a school system by reaching out to a group that has traditionally rejected it as an option,” writes D.C. politics expert and WPFW-FM radio host Jonetta Rose Barras in a revealing Washington City Paper article on Rhee. “They are achieving some success: Between 2007 and 2010, white enrollment in DCPS increased from 6 percent to 9 percent and Hispanic enrollment increased from 11 percent to 13 percent. During that same period, African-American enrollment dropped from 80 percent to 76 percent, according to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. A lot of people might be uncomfortable with the experiment and its results. But the statistically complicated, politically toxic, and morally vexing question is: should they be?”
In that same poll, only 36% of likely Democratic voters indicated support for Fenty while 53% said they would vote Gray. Forty percent said they would “definitely” vote for Gray, while only 25% said they would “definitely” vote for Fenty.