Michelle Rhee and the perils of the national stage
Michelle Rhee is expected to announce her exit from the D.C. Public Schools this morning -- alongside her patron, Mayor Adrian Fenty, and the man she could not come to terms with, Mayor-to-Be Vincent Gray.
She will be remembered for bringing unprecedented national attention to the city schools -- attention that cut both ways. Without the string of national press she garnered and the high-flying company she kept -- Sun Valley, Aspen Institute and such -- there is little chance private foundations would have given the $65 million that made possible the landmark teacher contract that went into effect Oct. 1.
But the national attention, by and large, did not help her at home. Her repeated comments about the sorry state of city schools, her implication that bad teachers more than grinding poverty or any other factor had kept D.C. in the gutter, grated on the minds of residents who saw a more complicated picture. Many will remember her on the cover of Time magazine, broom in hand -- and they will remember seeing a newcomer ready to sweep away careers and neighborhood schools along with the consensus she said was so overrated.
As much as she protested over the past three years that her decisions were made in the best interests of children, not adults, she operated in a world where it's the adults who matter. And she was employed by a politician beholden to the votes of, yes, adults. Fenty did her no favors by offering her unquestioning support, backing her every move on high principle without tending to the gritty concerns of winning the people's support for her decisions. His disdain for the city's political folkways became her own -- and became the downfall of both.
Their failure rang in the comments of folks who attended Gray's town hall meeting Tuesday night in Ward 7 -- people like Mary Benson, a 73-year-old from Deanwood who sent three kids through DCPS. "She did what she could do," Benson said. "But I wish she could have done better. I believe she could have been a little more lenient on teachers. They have rent, bills to pay." Or Cheryl McCrae of Penn Branch, who has two kids in public schools and said Rhee "fired experienced teachers and brought in management and consulting people." For a chancellor, McCrae said, Gray "will get someone qualified and who cares." Or Edith Hancock, from Capitol View, who said Rhee "forced an agenda" on the city. "Whenever you exclude people from the process," she said, "this is the result."
The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder writes in a tweet that Rhee "is headed to another major school district or into the Obama administration, which has promoted her work." Neither makes sense. She certainly not getting an Obama administration job -- not with Obama battening down the hatches politically. Even though Education Secretary Arne Duncan is in the habit of saying nice things about Rhee, he'd be nuts to hire someone the American Federation of Teachers hates as much as it hates Rhee right now.
Nor is Rhee likely to move to another superintendent job, at least not immediately. For one thing, she has said that the D.C. Public Schools would be her only job running a school district. Another point: Rhee has said her work is only possible in school districts with clear lines of command and control -- in other words, no school boards. The constellation of mayorally controlled school systems right now remains limited, and only Chicago and Newark are looking for a new chief right now. And, no, Rhee won't be going to work for lame duck Richard M. Daley.
The potential of Rhee working for Newark's Cory Booker is more intriguing -- Booker's a politician with Fenty's policy instincts but more political savvy. Which means he'd never grant Rhee the degree of autonomy, of unquestioned continuing support, that Rhee came to expect under Fenty.
Instead, Rhee, who founded the New Teacher Project, is likely to return to a post in the rarefied world of education reform policy. Whether she hangs a shingle as a consultant or joins a big-name foundation or think tank, the words she spoke the day after Fenty lost will surely ring true: "I'll be fine."
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| October 13, 2010; 12:32 AM ET
Categories: Adrian Fenty, Michelle Rhee, The District, Vincent Orange
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