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D.C. mayoral primary may be felt far beyond the District

By Kate Bolduan, CNN
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D.C.'s mayoral primary about education
  • Democratic voters will select a mayoral candidate Tuesday in Washington
  • Incumbent Adrian Fenty is in a nail-biter of a race with challenger Vincent Gray
  • Fenty has tried to reform the district's schools with dramatic measures
  • Voters appear split over whether he'll have the chance to continue

Washington (CNN) -- Mayor Adrian Fenty swept into office in 2006 promising to fix the District of Columbia's struggling schools. Now, Fenty is in the fight of his career in part because of how he's tried to reform the district's schools.

Fenty is in a nail-biter of a race in Tuesday's primary, running neck-and-neck with challenger and City Council Chairman Vincent Gray.

"We've got an uphill battle because we made tough decisions," said Fenty while campaigning at a local street fair. "We'll continue to make those tough decisions because they're right for the people. But we're not naive. We know this has cost us a little political popularity that we came into the polls with."

While this is a local election -- the Democratic mayoral primary -- the race is being closely watched far beyond the District because the outcome could carry significant implications for the national debate over education reform.

Early in his term, Fenty brought in a determined reformer, Michelle Rhee, as chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. Rhee has since become famous for her reform efforts, ushering in a wave of controversial changes that has become a model of education reform advocated by the Obama administration.

Video: DC's mayor and your schools

"We need to see radical changes because the outcomes for kids that are happening right now are robbing them of their futures," Rhee told CNN in September 2008.

She is unapologetic for the dramatic and disruptive changes she put in place. She has shut down two dozen schools, fired hundreds of educators -- including more than 100 teachers this summer -- for poor performance, and overhauled the teacher evaluation system to include for the first time student performance as a measure of success. Rhee has also pushed for teacher merit-based pay.

Local and national teachers unions have fought her all along the way. George Parker, president of the Washington Teachers Union, has charged that Rhee can't "fire her way to better schools."

Rhee admits the district's public schools still have a long way to go. Recent tests show elementary and secondary level students are still testing below the national average.

However, test scores have improved during the chancellor's tenure. Math and reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests are up. Rhee has also won what some describe as a national stamp of approval for her reforms, receiving $75 million in federal "Race to the Top" funds.

"Winning this grant is a testament to the extraordinary progress we've made as a city," Rhee wrote in a letter to public school parents. "The U.S. Department of Education clearly recognizes that students in DC are progressing at an unprecedented pace. In large part, this award reflects both belief and investment in the work of (the district's public schools), our plans for the future, and the guidance and support that so many of you give to our children."

Now, as Fenty faces an unexpectedly stiff re-election challenge, some supporters of education reform worry a loss could have a chilling effect on similar aggressive overhauls to education across the country.

"They very deliberately chose fast, aggressive action in order to fix what was a demonstrably broken school system instead of worrying too much about having consensus among all the various adult interests that surround the schools. The price for that is a lot of disruption and you're seeing that now," said Andrew Rotherham, educational policy expert and partner at Bellwether Education Partners. "Nationally how that will play out is, it will reinforce this idea that for politicians, dramatic education reform is mutually exclusive with furthering your political career."

Adding to this debate, polls indicate there is a racial divide over Fenty's leadership. According to a recent Clarus poll, Fenty's challenger, Gray, is leading by a 62 to 17 percent margin among likely African-American voters. Fenty holds a 68 to 22 percent lead among white voters. Both Fenty and Gray are African-Americans.

What will happen with the district's schools if Gray wins is not entirely clear. Gray told CNN he also is committed to aggressive education reform and for having a strong chancellor.

"What's different is that I have a birth-through-24 approach," said Gray, adding he would be more focused on including parents and teachers in the process. "There is no question in my mind that people have been left out."

Gray has avoided answering the question of whether he would keep Michelle Rhee on to run the district's school system if he won.

Fenty has made his reform efforts one of his big campaign issue. "If you ask me if I'd make the decisions we've made around education reform now knowing everything we did, I'd say absolutely yes, one hundred times out of one hundred. I was elected to do what's right for the city, not what's politically popular, and that's what we've done around fixing our schools. And the great thing is our schools are better off for it," said Fenty.

Voters, meanwhile, seem split over whether they're willing to let Fenty stick around long enough to prove that's true. "The old teachers are no longer here. Has the school system changed? We still have an unprecedented number of young people who still can't read, who still can't write, who still aren't able to compete for jobs," said Diane Sims-Moore, a district resident planning to vote for Gray.

"He's a little arrogant but he's done good for the city for the last few years," countered resident Gary West. "All I know is D.C., years ago, was terrible and now they say it's not."

The winner of the Democratic primary will very likely win in November in this heavily Democratic city. No one has even filed to run as a Republican candidate.