The fight for the Democratic mayoral nominee in Washington DC encapsulates the national struggle for education reform. On one side you have Mayor Adrian Fenty and his appointed School Chancellor Michelle Rhee, true reforms who took on the teachers unions in hopes of improving DC’s schools.

On the other side you have Fenty’s primary opponent, Vincent Gray. Gray is your typical big city politician. He ran a dirty campaign that mischaracterized and demonized Fenty’s term, he’s owned by special interest groups (see teachers unions), and will only pay lip service to reform, something DC desperately needs.

For decades, Washington DC’s public schools were the laughingstock of the country, consistently ranking near the bottom in every education metric. Fed-up with the status quo, Fenty appointed Michelle Rhee as Chancellor of Washington’s schools giving her free rein to battle the self-serving teachers unions and implement reforms she deemed essential.  So, did it work? How does DC’s education system compare to other cities, now?

A new study by AEI’s Rick Hess examines “which of thirty major U.S. cities have cultivated a healthy environment for school reform to flourish.” Hess found that DC’s education environment now ranks second in a study of major US cities, largely due to Mayor Fenty and Michelle Rhee’s reforms.

Reform is painful; Fenty bruised some egos in the process making a lot of powerful enemies. Hess writes, “Survey respondents report that Mayor Adrian Fenty is the only municipal leader willing to expend extensive political capital to advance education reform.”

Gray has capitalized on union antipathy towards Fenty and formed alliances with DC’s biggest labor unions, receiving endorsements from:

AFSCME, AFGE, AFL-CIO Washington Labor Council, Carpenter's Union, Fraternal Order of Police, Fraternal Order of Police-Department of Corrections, Fraternal Order of Police District of Columbia Lodge #1, Firefighters Local 36, Gertrude Stein Club, , National Association of Government Employees, National Association of Social Workers, Nurses Union, Teamsters Local Union 639, Teamsters Local 689.”

No wonder Fenty is trailing in the polls, all of DC’s power players have united against the mayor. Most depressing is that Michelle Rhee announced she would leave if Gray is elected; their views are incompatible–Rhee is focused on giving DC’s poorest students chance to succeed, Gray is concerned with protecting teachers unions.

Carried across the finish line by union money, Gray’s election could well nullify the education gains Fenty and Rhee made over the past three years–the last thing DC needs.