In a Sept. 14 White House press release, press secretary Bill Burton answered questions about Iran and the appointment of Elizabeth Warren to a consumer protection post. The reason the president’s men were aboard Air Force One, however, was not to talk about those things. The purpose of the Air Force One trip to Philly was to garner support for issues that President Obama’s advisors think he can win on.
President Obama Speaks at Masterman School
Education is one of those issues, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was one of those aboard the jet destined for Philadelphia. The president was scheduled to speak at the Julia R. Masterman “Blue Ribbon” school, near center city.
Masterman is indeed a model school, and one of the reasons for its success is that it’s a charter school which takes only the most successful of the crop of Philadelphia’s 167,000 school students. This is well for Masterman students, who had a 100 percent college admission rate in 2009. A charter school is essentially a private school supported by public funds.
Other public schools in Philadelphia have not done so well, with failure patterns common to America’s inner cities. South Philadelphia High School gained national prominence for reasons more bizarre. In December 2009, thirty Asian students were victimized in what was said to be a coordinated attack by largely African-American students. The U.S. Department of Justice determined the attack was racially motivated, and twelve perpetrators were expelled from the school. People are hopeful that the new principal, Otis Hackney, can turn things around at the school.
Washington Schools Improve under Chancellor Michelle Rhee
Beltway insiders know that turning America’s inner-city school around can be a painful process. President Obama has himself touted the successful changes in the schools of his White House back yard, under Mayor Fenty. These changes were not popular with teacher labor unions and the entrenched educational establishment. It’s probably one of the contributing reasons Washington, D. C. Mayor Adrian Fenty lost his bid to be his party’s candidate for reelection in the 2010 primary.
President Bush signed a bill that allowed the District of Columbia to re-structure its educational bureaucracy. Instead of a Superintendent of Schools, Mayor Fenty selected Michelle Rhee as Chancellor of Schools with broad powers to implement change in D.C. school districts.
Change did come to the D.C. school as the hard-charging Harvard educated daughter of Korean immigrant parents fired teachers, removed principals, and carved the educational bureaucracy into a streamlined success-oriented educational army of shock troops. When Michelle Rhee fired hundreds of teachers, she told a Fast Company Magazine interviewer that she had fired teachers who had hit students, were chronically absent from the classroom, and had sex with students. Later, Rhee acknowledged that only one fired teacher had sex with a student.
Teacher’s Revolt against Michelle Rhee
All this did not earn Rhee a great deal of popularity with the teacher’s unions and fired teachers and staff. Some teachers protested Rhee’s actions and statements at the Chancellor’s office in January, vowing not to give up until she quits.
Obama Withholds Support for Fenty and Rhee
Headline writers for a Bloomberg News article posted on MSNBC and titled “Obama Favorite Rhee May Fall to DC Mayor’s Race” may wish to revise the description of Rhee as an “Obama favorite.” On board Air Force One, reporters asked Secretary of Education Arne Duncan why he did not step into the Mayoral race to support Fenty, even when Fenty asked the president for his support.
“Why did he (President Obama) stay on the sideline? Does he want Fenty to win? Is he supportive of Mayor Fenty?”
Burton deflected that question, too, saying President Obama had not involved himself with other primary races either.
“I haven’t talked to him (Obama) about the race specifically,” said Burton.
The winner of the primary for D.C. Mayor, Vincent Gray, makes no secret of his opposition to Michelle Rhee although he said he wouldn’t make a decision about Rhee’s future until the general elections. But Gray’s vocal opposition to Rhee and Fenty’s handling of the failing D.C. schools reflects the ambivalence of many politicians who nod toward reform but resist action. Teacher’s unions have typically offered strong support to Democrat candidates. Gray has no Republican opponent and, even if he did, the District is almost universally Democrat, so it’s likely that Michelle Rhee will be D.C. history.
Would the D.C. schools then regress to the business as usual approach which hasn’t worked? Does anyone care?