In 1887, Kelly Miller was the nation’s first African American mathematics graduate student.  Born to freed slaves in South Carolina, he went on to earn a masters degree in mathematics and a law degree from Howard University.

In 2010, the District of Columbia’s Kelly Miller Middle School reported that only 18% of its students meet or exceed the District’s standards in math and only 19% meet or exceed its reading standards.

In the District of Columbia, the results on tests designed to assess what students know are just as abysmal at schools named after Francis Lewis Cardozo, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Harriet Tubman.  This is simply unacceptable.   

One of Tuesday’s loudest electoral explosions occurred in the democratic primary contest in Washington, D.C., where Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray defeated Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.  Gray is the presumptive mayor-elect, facing token Republican opposition in November.

After a contentious primary campaign, Gray won decisively, but the hardest work lies ahead.  He has a responsibility to manage the city government for the benefit of all District citizens, and not just the interest groups that backed him.

Gray has promised not to “turn back the clock” to the years when D.C. government was synonymous with corruption and incompetence.  What he must realize is his biggest test will be dealing with the District’s schools.

Gray was supported by what may be the city’s most reactionary special interest group, the Washington Teachers’ Union.  So the question is, will he support continued education reform and keep Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee on the job?  He won’t say, but reports from the Washington Examiner and Washington Post indicate Rhee is likely out.

This is terrible news for the District’s children.  Before Rhee took office, the District government put children last.  Schools were wretched; costs were among the nation’s highest; students lagged in almost every measure; kids who graduated often could not read their diplomas; children were murdered on school grounds.

The teachers’ union blocked meaningful change.  To be clear, there are many teachers in D.C. who are dedicated to helping kids learn.  But the system impeded student achievement.  No one held even the worst teachers and administrators accountable.

Enter Rhee, who, with brought real change.  Reform came with a high price tag, though.  It’s tough to win a popularity contest by making difficult decisions, such as firing poor teachers and closing failing schools, but Rhee, with strong, public backing from Fenty, did so anyway for the good of the children.

Not surprisingly, when Fenty was up for reelection, the Washington Teachers Union’s parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers, spent a million dollars on Gray’s behalf.  The AFT claimed that it was not targeting Rhee, but it’s hard to believe AFT president Randi Weingarten when she claimed the union acted on issues of interest of all Washingtonians. 

Gray’s decision about whether to keep Rhee will send a critical signal about his plans as mayor, and it will also send a message to other big-city mayors across the country.  Should he oust Rhee, the lesson will be clear – truly gutsy reform will cost you your job. 

How does that help our children?  The answer is simple: It doesn’t.  Rhee herself warned, “the biggest tragedy that could come from [the] election results is if the lesson that people take from this is that we should pull back.”  Instead, she argued, “Now is the time to lean forward, be more aggressive, and be more adamant about what we’re doing.”

Rhee couldn’t be more correct.  Encouragingly, we’ve seen that her efforts have begun to bear fruit.  Since 2007, student proficiency tests show significant improvements for elementary and secondary students in both math and reading.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress found that in 2009, the District lead the nation in improvement among 4th graders, with a five point increase in reading.  The District of Columbia finished first in the country in progress among Hispanics and second for African-Americans.

In no other city did all subgroups improve and did both 4th and 8th graders make significant progress.  The gains have been shared by special education students, who face some of the greatest challenges.

The Rhee reform program included increasing pre-school opportunities, shutting down failing schools, expanding charter schools, modernizing buildings, improving diagnostics for disabilities, dismissing unnecessary administrators, and, most importantly, holding teachers accountable.  The latter does not equate to punishing teachers, rather it recognizes those who do their jobs well and encourages those who do not to find other work. 

Some of these reforms took years to implement.  They will take but minutes to undo should Rhee leave.  Her departure might win applause from the Washington Teachers’ Union, but the cost would be  paid not by Rhee, but by the District’s future Kelly Millers, Harriet Tubmans and Martin Luther Kings.                                

Michelle D. Bernard is president and CEO of the Independent Women’s Forum and an MSNBC political analyst.