Michelle Rhee is no longer field marshal in the school reform battlefield in the nation's capital. Now the real siege begins. Before Adrian Fenty and Rhee marched into town, the word among many civic and business leaders was that D.C. public schools had to be "blown up" before they could be fixed. In many ways, that's what the two accomplished.
Rhee closed 23 schools. Previous school leaders couldn't shutter one. In the process, she faced the wrath of communities and teachers across town, mostly in African-American wards that had lost population and students.
Rhee hammered out a landmark contract with the Washington Teachers' Union. In negotiations for more than two years, she and her team negotiated an agreement that rewarded good teachers and installed a process where she could fire bad ones.
Taken together, closing schools and pushing through the contract amounts to "shock and awe" in the fight for education reform. Then Rhee left the scene and established a nationwide advocacy group.
Now what? Who's going to pick up the pieces from Michelle Rhee's bombing runs? It took five decades to decimate D.C. schools; it will require at least a decade to re-create them. Who's best to lead that battle, which will likely resemble a drawn-out siege campaign? Two words: Kaya Henderson.
Rhee very deliberately left her team in place when she resigned last year after Fenty lost re-election. Henderson, her comrade in arms in the teacher reform movement, had been her second in command; she could soften Rhee's blows. Three top Rhee lieutenants -- Lisa Ruda, Anthony Tata and Jason Kamras -- have stayed and form Henderson's top leadership team.
So even though Rhee left, there is continuity at the top of a system that has suffered from fractured leadership for decades. And that's a good thing.
Henderson, now the acting chancellor, has a job that's much harder than Rhee's. It's easy to start reform; Henderson has to finish it. And she can, I believe, if the politicians will allow her to complete the task.
Can they resist meddling?
Mayor Vincent Gray likes Henderson. Rhee rubbed him the wrong way. He felt Fenty foisted her upon him. He was enraged when Rhee went on the national stage and heaped disrespect on D.C. He took it personally.
Kaya Henderson has no interest in showing up on the cover of Time or Newsweek. But she does want the freedom to attack some basic problems. For instance, D.C. still has no common curriculum. That's right; doesn't exist. She might have to close more schools. She still has to fight a rear guard action against the union. She will have to fire teachers, jettison principals, displease parents.
City Council Chairman Kwame Brown says he supports school reform. Most of the council members are in Kaya's camp.
Gray should make Henderson the chancellor; then he and the rest of the pols should leave the battlefield and let her finish the war Rhee started -- if they have the guts.
Harry Jaffe's column appears on Tuesday and Friday. He can be contacted at email@example.com.